As a reviewer, it’s very rare that you come across a game that can almost entirely be summed up in one word, but in the case of Assault Android Cactus, the cliché is true; and that word is “dynamic”. The game’s solid twin stick shooter mechanics are complemented by its stellar level design and emphasis on momentum, all of which keep the player on the move at all times. It makes a few missteps here and there, for sure, but generally it’s a fun and frenetic ride throughout.
The premise of Assault Android Cactus is simple: to destroy robots. Although, as I’ll explain later, you’d be hard-pressed to find out exactly why you’re doing this. You’ll step into the shoes (do Androids have shoes?) of Cactus, the ballsy protagonist from which the game takes its name. Over an assortment of 25 levels, you’ll machine gun, flame throw and missile your way through hordes of mutinous robots, building combos and score meters to a thumping EDM/dubstep-inspired sound track.
Assault Android’s hook is its health system. The game doesn’t end when your Android’s health bar is depleted, rather you have a set amount of battery that slowly drains over time. In theory, this gives the levels a nice sense of pace and urgency, encouraging the game’s pro-active “take the fight to them” approach, and once again advocating the player to keep on the move at all times. In practice, however, you’ll soon start to realise that top-up batteries will conveniently appear from downed enemies every time your power meter starts to flash, which does decrease the game’s sense of tension somewhat.
For the most part, Witch Beam’s take on the popular twin stick shooter genre is more than solid; at its best, the action is frenetic and urgent while still remaining enjoyable, and rarely ever bordering on utter frustration. The wide array of enemy types you’ll come across actively feed into the games emphasis on movement; some will engage you in close combat whereas others will fire from a distance, some can teleport around stages while some can even tether you in place. To tackle these rampant robots, you’ll start initially with access to just a few Androids, but you’ll unlock more as you progress through the game. Each Android has a primary and secondary weapon to help them take on the mutinous machines, which is basically where their individual differences begin and end. Although the new Androids add a touch of novelty, I was disappointed to find that most of them lacked the balance that Cactus did, and actually found myself constantly reverting back to her combination of Assault Rifle and Flamethrower, as other playable characters actually made the game feel harder.
To aid them in their constant barrage of bullets, players can pick up one of three power-ups that drastically change the state of play. ‘Firepower’ gives the player two drones (endearingly referred to as “tiny robots” by one of the other Androids) that triples their rate of fire; ‘Accelerate’ increases the player’s speed, and was by far my favourite; and finally ‘Shut down’ temporarily paralyzes all of the enemies on screen. These power-ups feel like they can actively turn the tide of a fight, which definitely makes them worth wading into the melee of assailants for.
Where Assault Android Cactus truly shines, however, is in its level design, the singular feature of the game that might make it a “must play” in a genre crowded with beloved titles. The game is at its best when it embraces its innovative take on level design – floorplates shift, cover gets destroyed and conveyor belts can help or hinder a tricky situation, one arena even felt like it was procedurally generated as I navigated through it. The best moments I had with Assault Android Cactus were when the game appeared to throw out the level design rulebook, and truly embrace its own crazy ideals – there’s nothing quite like being seemingly overwhelmed by an array of enemies, only for the level design to drastically transform mid-game and afford you a chance to take back the upper hand.
It’s a shame, then, for all its focus on dynamism and changeability, that during the game’s boss battles, Assault Android Cactus seems to largely ignore everything that might potentially make it great. As opposed to the standard levels, most of which benefit from a constantly changing state of play, the boss fights severely lack a sense of dynamism, with bosses dully shifting between one of two or three states, each incrementally more difficult than the last. The game’s boss battles ultimately feel a little formulaic, meaning that rather than coming off as gratifying challenges, they instead felt like frustrating obstacles barring me from the next set of stages.
“Cactus quite literally explodes onto the scene, a brash female hero with a quick trigger finger and even quicker quips…”
The game also distinctly lacks a sense of exposition, or even any real sense of narrative; Cactus quite literally explodes onto the scene, a brash female hero with a quick trigger finger and even quicker quips. Disappointingly, however, following on from the game’s opening cinematic, her personality is limited to a few lines of script with each of the game’s lacklustre bosses, sections that aren’t even voiced over, but rather subtitled.
When some of Assault Android Cactus’s moment-to-moment gameplay is so good, however, its lack of narrative exposition becomes easy to overlook. What isn’t so easy to forgive, though, is a glaringly poor button mapping choice; for some reason that continues to elude me, Witch Beam chose to map “Dodge” and “Switch Weapon” to the same button. This lead to several instances of me trying to dodge incoming projectiles, only to switch to a short range weapon and break my combo, or trying to switch weapons on the fly and having my aim go awry because of the dodge mechanic. It’s a common frustration that wears thin over time, and one that feels all the more confusing given how many buttons aren’t used on the controller.
To Infinity And…
Although unlocking new Androids gives the game a sense of novelty, Assault Android Cactus doesn’t lend itself nicely into the sense of progression that gives other twin stick shooters like Bastion or even Dead Nation a sense of longevity. Its 25 levels will probably take you around 6-8 hours to blast through, if, like me, you’re not that experienced in the genre. The game’s Daily and Infinity Drive features throw narrative out of the window, instead placing gamers against increasingly difficult enemies in a myriad of shifting levels, and in fact massively benefits for it. The emphasis it places on leaderboards, and the number of “Ex Options” (mods like First Person Perspective and more) that can be purchased with in-game currency are sure to keep some players enticed for much longer.
A review code of Assault Android Cactus was provided courtesy of Witch Beam. The game was reviewed on PlayStation 4.
Pins and Needles
When it’s good, Assault Android Cactus is great, and offers a succinct, fun experience that will surely gratify experienced twin stick fans and newcomers alike; its focus on shifting level design and momentum gives it some of the best gameplay moments the genre has to offer. Barring one or two clumsy design choices, and a selection of boss fights that feel more like an endurance test than an adrenaline filled shooting gallery, the main body of the game is gratifying and entertaining. It might not keep you entertained as long as the likes of some of its competitors, but that’s certainly no reason not to enjoy the ride.