Metal Slug Tactics’ demo is pure nostalgia for better and worse

I’ve always loved the art of the Metal Slug series of side-scrolling shooters, so I’ve been keeping a keen eye on the fetching grid strategy antics of Metal Slug Tactics ever since it was first announced. For as long as I’ve been excited, I’ve also been worried. It’s been a polarising experience, like being alternately fed delicious sandwiches and those inedible rotlogs they sell at Subway. Still, I’ve remained cautious: is all this great pixel-art just a shroud pulled over a ho-hum tactics game to rescue it from naffness? It’s with this in mind I hungrily dove into the Steam Next Fest demo, as one might hungrily dive into a bin to eat literal garbage if their only other option was Subway.

I jump into the first mission as Metal Slug mainstay Marco Rossi, a man who will not take off his bandana under any circumstances. The official fan wiki describes Marco’s appearance as a cross between Sylvester Stallone and David Bowie. I get distracted imagining Stallone singing Space Oddity for a bit, then decide I better play some videogame, much like a Subway worker returning from break and realising they must slap together another horrendous vomit-tube of a sandwich.

Every turn each character gets one move and one action, but if you take the action first, you also lose your move. This feels on the more restrictive end as far as action economies go, but you can use “synchronisation” attacks to stretch that economy out, further than a pack of Subway meat over a thousand anemic dirt-loafs. These are special tag-team actions you trigger for free by setting up orthogonal flanking postions. For now, though, it’s just Marco. I can pick between a pistol and a machine gun, but the latter has limited ammo. It’s here I notice some nice quality-of-life bits. You can undo moves and fast forward enemy turns, though there is a restriction on the undo-ing, which I’ll unfurl below like a yellowing lettuce leaf on a stale roll that costs eighteen pounds, or sixteen pounds with ten years’ worth of Subway loyalty points.

The game soon introduces some welcome slapstick hijinks. I use a switch to drop a hanging bomb-crate on a couple of idiots. This doesn’t cost my action, but, just as promised, prevents me from undoing previous moves. The crate does exactly 1996 damage to the two fools, which is the year the original game released. Cute. What’s a bit less cute is, as much as I still adore the art style, is the enemies I’m fighting are some irksomely lazy middle-eastern stereotypes straight out of, well, the mid-nineties. It’s up to you how you feel about this stuff, of course, but alongside the occasional strain of middle-eastern instrumentation in the soundtrack, and the non-descript Islamic architecture, it’s all a bit unironically “America, fuck yeah” for my tastes. Preservation, eh?

A rousing tactical battle in Metal Slug Tactics
Image credit: Dotemu

Anywhoo. The further you have a character move, the more ‘dodge’ you generate. I’ve seen this in a few tabletop games before – it’s a useful and flavorful way to represent evasiveness in a turn-based ruleset, and I like it a lot. Running also generates a resource called ‘adrenaline’, which is spent on special actions. For Marco, these are an area-of-effect missile strike, and a buff that lets him or an ally shoot twice. The strike is silly fun, and it also destroys an entire tank. Metal Slug’s tank designs are one of my favourite things about it, so I’m a little sad to see it go, much like a beloved local bakery being replaced by a Subway even though there’s already six of them on the same effing street.

Soon, I’m joined by a couple of pals, Eri and Fio. Eri has infinite grenades, which sounds ridiculous, but I can only throw them orthogonally – same with her grenade launcher, albeit with a longer range. It’s the same with many of the weapons and abilities, actually, so you’ll need to think carefully about positioning rather than just vaguely being in range. You can also hit your own dudes if they’re in the same line, which is quite funny if tactically nonoptimal.

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After the tutorial, I’m given the chance to select a mission from an overworld map, each with different primary and secondary objectives. I’m also warned there’ll be an ‘enemy response in four turns’, which sounds like some sort of board game risk-reward aspect to it all. I pick one in a village dotted with buildings, and find out that most weapons can’t target enemies on different elevation levels. This goes against my years of tactics training, but also means my team are safer than I thought they were. So, a restriction for offence, but more to consider for defence? I don’t hate it! Annoyingly, the game only tells me this after I’ve deployed though, like an underpaid Subway worker only letting me know they’re out of honey mustard after they’ve already assembled my disgusting pus-cylinder.

I’m rewarded with some XP after the mission, as well as some mods, which can do things like improve my grenades or give my guns more ammo. Level-ups let you pick between three randomly chosen abilities. Marco gets an explosive punch, for example, while Eri can now create detonating clones of herself. So! As a package, it does indeed seem like there’s some worthwhile tactical depth here, as opposed to the cover n’ flank copy paste coasting on an art style I was afraid it might be. As I said above, it could maybe do with coasting on a little less of the exact same artstyle in certain areas, but I’m just as interested in your take, reader. Is this art objectively dope, or am I just a wistful, nostalgic fool? Either way, this one’s still due for release in the last chunk of 2024 – an already unwieldy, gelatinous chunk, of the type you might discover in a horrible Subway sandwich. Which, as you may have picked up, I’m not especially keen on.

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