Preview: Metal Slug Tactics

10 Jun 2024

There’s no way to write about Metal Slug as a franchise without acknowledging that it’s a really weird one. You can really forget that the series kicked off in 1996, because its core gameplay – run, jump, and shoot, with one hit killing your character – very much feels like a relic of a longstanding arcade series despite coming in around the time that arcades were very close to their last major hurrah. But the series persists because of its oddly tongue-in-cheek visual humor, its lavish visual style, the sheer simple joy of running and gunning, and the anarchic glee of everything in the title.

It is, in other words, sort of the last game you would think of when it comes to the idea of making a tactical RPG. You have to make a game that feels entirely like a deep tactical experience while also capturing the gameplay of a series that wants you to take no damage, while also including the eponymous tank as a rideable vehicle in there somewhere. And thus we come to Metal Slug Tactics, which improbably not only takes that task on with panache but immediately had me salivating for more. And you all know I have high standards for a tactical RPG.

Iron Snail

If you have ever played a Metal Slug game, you already know the plot for this game. But if you haven’t the plot is always basically the same. General Donald Morden, who is evil, is once again raising an armed force of soldiers, sword-jugglers, and general ne’er-do-wells to fight against the special forces of the Regular Army, which includes both the Peregrine Falcon Unit and the Sparrows Unit. Along the way there are mummies, yeti, mars people, bizarre war machines, and all sorts of nonsense that makes very little sense until you start to accept the basic truth that Metal Slug is a war movie in the vein of a superhero film.

It’s weird and silly and it’s hard not to love it. All of the characters have big over-the-top personalities; the demo only had four characters available to play, regulars Marco, Eri, Fio, and Tarma, but there’s the implication that even more characters will be available in the full release. It’s all very silly as an excuse to get into the gameplay, right down to taking place in entire biomes themed after levels from the classic games. If you’re looking for worldbuilding, look elsewhere, but that is not and has never been the point of Metal Slug.

Tungsten Slime Mold

The reality is that this game is going to come down to two things – its visual charm and its gameplay, two things that have always really been the selling point for Metal Slug as a franchise. And while the game is not anywhere along the lines of that strategy RPG I mention all the dang time (give me a Final, give me a Fantasy, give me some Tictacs… wait), it is trying with determination to chart its own course. And it’s pretty on-point for that.

Every character has two weapons, one main weapon and one secondary with limited ammunition. They also all have 10 HP. No, really, that is universal across all characters. You might think that would mean damage racks up pretty quickly, but the game has a system for dealing with that. The further your move on your turn, the higher your Dodge meter goes, and every point of Dodge reduces all damage you take by that amount. Being in cover also reduces damage by a flat amount. It’s thus very easy to quickly reduce enemy attacks to nothing.

Characters also have special moves fueled by Adrenaline, which charges up as you move, attack, and take part in sync attacks. Sync attacks are also pretty simple – if a character opens fire on an enemy while another allied character has a clear line of fire, that other character will join in the attack and deal damage. They’re important to set up, which makes you think even more about who moves and when. Your special moves are also definitional; Marco and Fio start with the same arsenal, for example, but Marco has both high-damage abilities and party buffs while Fio focuses on character movement, support, and defense.

Some of this is also informed by getting random rewards of weapon mods, abilities upon leveling up, and so forth. These random unlocks are the game’s major roguelike element, and each run it’s going to play a little bit different. Normally this might feel really incompatible with a tactical RPG where you want to have control over your characters, but since you already pick which characters you bring into combat and their starting loadout, it’s actually really fun. I never felt like I was waiting for a character’s abilities to actually come online; instead, I was waiting to see what neat stuff I got and assembling a build that would be maximally useful for how I liked to play. And there was rarely just a not-very-good spread.

In other words, the game focuses on moving quickly, focusing fire between multiple characters, staying dynamic, and picking off enemies as you go. In other words, it’s a tactical game that… feels like Metal Slug in its mechanics. That’s high praise.

Copper Velvet Worm

But a Metal Slug game can’t just have good gameplay, it needs good visuals. And it’s here that Metal Slug Tactics gets up and does a dance. I’ve never seen a tactical RPG that looks this nice. Every single unit has multiple bespoke animations from different angles, ranging from animations for attacking to even reloading their weapons at times. Fields are littered with destructible items from cover to simple obstructions. The UI is astonishingly clean and the tile layout is clear and readable with shocking levels of detail, and the unique animations for skills can be charming; I love Eri’s little pose when she unleashes Grenade Juggles or how satisfied Fio looks whenever she moves another unit around.

The one critique I have is that sometimes it can be a little difficult to see exactly which tiles count as a straight line for larger targets; it’s not an inexcusable sin but it does stand out. Fortunately, you can take back your movement very easily if it turns out you made a mistake, so that’s not really a major problem.

The voice clips are a bit subdued and seem oddly lacking in places, but the ones that are there are great, and the music carries a perfect series energy with it. Not much more to be said in that department, but it’s all good.

Heavy Metal

One of the nice things about this game is that while it is absolutely a tactical RPG with no shame about that status, the game is also spry and playable for people who have little to no experience with tactical RPGs. If you consider yourself a Metal Slug fan first and foremost, you’re going to feel like this is an appropriately series-themed introduction to the subgenre.

But if you just love tactical RPGs? Well, good news – this is shaping up already to be a really fun one. After the first half-hour with the demo I was excited to see more, and no further playtime did anything but make me more excited. I want to see what else is in the finished game, but it’s already well-poised to be a real champ of a tactical experience. Keep your eyes on this one.

Preview copy provided by DotEmu for PC. All screenshots courtesy of DotEmu.