Assault Android Cactus is bright and breezy, but can’t hold itself together long enough to be essential.

The twin-stick shooter is all about bullet hell. Infinite ammunition slaying an endless parade of enemies is the bread and butter of the genre and is something that Assault Android Cactus developers Witch Beam take very seriously. To their credit, they get it mostly right. This budget title isn’t going to blow your minds, but it’s safe enough to play for several minutes before you start to get marred by the little things.

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Let’s jump straight to the bad news. Assault Android Cactus HUD is an utter catastrophe. Asking a player to keep track of the health, battery level (something I’ll get onto), upgrades and secondary weapon availability forces you to look away from the action, something you just shouldn’t have to do in a twin-stick shooter when there’s an absolute megaton of bad robots coming your way surrounding you at every turn. The fact I have to dodge bombs and bots launching spiked orbs my way whilst keeping an eye on my battery level whilst being aware of my secondary weapon cooldown whilst ensuring you’re constantly firing at something whilst being on the lookout for power-ups is a persistent, never-ending headache that can only be culled by the sweet release of death to your robot companion. Assault Android Cactus is breathless, and not in a ‘against-the-clock’ Velocity kind of way. More in a, ‘how the hell am I supposed to do this and what exactly am I doing it for’ kind of way.

Procure too much damage and you fall to the floor. Drain the battery…oh, well, just give up.

Your protagonists are a rather lovely bunch of charming badass young androids that sound and look like they’ve been ripped out of a Saturday morning kids TV show. Your robot friends are also really bloody demanding, so much so they need a constant feed of electricity just to stay alive, which enemies will drop as a power-up. So long as you keep your battery in the green (and the low red) then you can keep on fighting the good fight. However if it drains, it’s all over. The battery keeps moving down as you play and the only way to combat it is to pick up the aforementioned power-ups dropped by the enemy. The issue comes in the fact that no matter how many enemies you mow down in a blaze of android hell-fire, there’s no guarantee they’ll drop battery for you, so you just have to keep shooting as your battery depletes with no guarantee you’re going to be able to give yourself a boost. Once it’s out the level is over and you have to start again, and the fact you’re working against this imaginary clock is just straight up frustrating.

There’s no telling where they come from either. Big foes, small? You’ll just have to keep shooting to find out. Ugh.

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They can appear often when you don’t need them, which is annoying (and they can’t be stored, a feature I could have used on many occasion). Before you join the game there is no warning of this in the menus or the tutorials, so as you’re powering through a level you can get very near the end, see your battery level moving lower and lower and there’s just simply nothing you can do about it. You’ll end up retrying each level just in the hope that you’ll end up acquiring enough battery to finish each level but it’s complete luck, with no determined skill generally needed to actually complete each area. So long as you have battery, you’ll power through each level quickly enough. If you don’t, you’ll be doing it over and over again until you can move on and the same cycle restarts itself through every single level and every single mode. Think of it like a timer. But it’s not a timer, it’s an unforgiving pain in the ass that this game could very easily do without. In fact, I’d score this game higher if it simply wasn’t there at all.

Doing nothing consumes energy. Doing nothing consumes energy. Reviving also bites into your androids’ charge. In terms of health, you can survive the odd bullet and melee but explosions will knock you out cold instantly, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it brings to the table again that the battery mechanic just doesn’t need to be there. You’ve got no time to look at your health – which is bizarrely small in the top left hand side of the screen, the place your eye always goes when playing games, you know? – so the only real time you’ll know when you’re actually empty is when you’re knocked out cold on the floor surrounded by those who downed you. Great.

As true of many a twin-stick shooter, bullets are frickin’ everywhere. Your little android buddies are powering through infinite ammunition destroying everything in their path in a split second, their arsenal equally matched by the enemy so it’s just a sea of fast moving  colours and copy and paste enemies bounding together to tear you a new one. There are little robots who have this lovely ability to rain missiles down on your location, a fact you learn as  a bullseye appears on the floor where you’re standing, something you’ll not be able to see once you’re surrounded by the minions that come for you before them, ergo, they become impossible to avoid. A hit of a missile and you’re down, so you need to revive, which takes up battery levels, the cycle never really ends. You’re moving around a small-ish environment and you have to keep an eye on a smorgasbord of information just to stay afloat, whilst of course avoiding platforms that can fall into the infinite abyss never to be seen again. You can’t fall down these, thankfully, but the sheer hailstorm of missiles that you don’t know are coming still never stop until you find out where they’re coming from, and then of course, they get replaced by new bots who can do the exact same thing. This is all really fun whilst you’re tearing it around each area looking for battery.

There are areas of the game I liked, though. Honest!

AAC will simply not reach the heights set by Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved but for what it’s worth, the gunplay fits right at home in the genre. The combat is well balanced (kinda) and visually, the game looks terrific with no hint of slowdown or framerate issues. The shooting mechanics are finely tuned and feels solid, with a general force behind all weaponry. Witch Beam have nailed the ‘kids TV show’ vibe the game gives off with a fun, breezy story and sweet characters.

A police android named Cactus is called to breach a freighter in space that’s holding four rogue AI’s hostage. The androids possess independent cores that aren’t controlled by the ship, Cactus and her team of androids make it their sole missions to tear it through the freighter through ‘a hundred thousand’ robots to reclaim their kitty. It’s a genuinely fun story with a great introduction (which can be seen in all its glory in the above video) that sets the premise up quite well and introduces us to this ragtag team of androids that are taking over the ship. Cactus especially is a doer, a can-do officer of the law who is supportive and determined and fun to spend time with. It’s worth mentioning the dialogue as a whole is perhaps the best aspect of the game overall. The story is well written and presented with its tongue firmly in its cheek. The androids (up to 8) all of distinct personalities and shows off the skill of the studio well. It’s a shame the cut scenes are few and far between as pre-boss scenes are relegated to just text, though it changes in regards to which character you use.

STARCH is my legend. Be like Starch. Starch loves blue circles.

STARCH is my legend. Be like Starch. Starch loves blue circles.

The game can be played in local co-op (no online. No big deal, they’re a small team) with up to four players, although everything I’ve mentioned before this is my experience playing in single player. The carnage of four players when tried was just pandemonium. We recommend playing at the very most two players, as it keeps the screen not going too crazy before your eyes and losing yourself in the chaos. Further obscuring your view of the action is something you simply don’t need to do, and the camera makes it damn near impossible. The isometric view is fine for one player, maybe two but the angle pans in and out of the action in the hopes of keeping everyone in the action, which it doesn’t. One can only hope you can still contribute when you’re simply trying to find yourself. Kinda like life, really.

In terms of the campaign, if you have enough patience you’ll tear through it in an afternoon. Those who enjoy the endless grind of seeing you on top of the public leaderboards will naturally get more out of the game than most. Finishing stages awards credits, unlocking a ton of extras including new perspective, graphics filters and a AI bots, which can really turn the game around, along with a bunch of stuff you’ll never ever find yourself indulging in, like codex entries. Naturally, unlocking enough credits becomes an unmitigated chore as you’re required a metric ton of playthroughs before you can unlock enough credits to get your hand on these goodies. The unlocks can vary from first-person mode (which can quite easily make you ill and defies the whole point of this games genre in the first place) to AI buddies if you want to try out co-op but have no friends. The issue? They keep stealing your damn power-ups. Allies will go for the new batteries immediately, draining the energy shared between the party when they’re downed. Enabling help kills your progress, which is as hilarious as it is bewildering.

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In terms of the characters, they all offer similar attacks, it’s just down to which weapons you prefer, really. My personal favourite, Starch has a great laser which is handy in most situations (including boss battles), her secondary weapon – heat seeking missiles – are helpful to thin out the massing crowds and to attack bosses from afar. Starch isn’t unlocked in early stages though so at first although Cactus seems to the obvious choice, I’d be willing to toss Lemon into the ring. Her shotgun can take care of a few enemies at once – though naturally you’ll need to be closer than perhaps you’d like to be a time, and she has a freakin’ rocket launcher. Accept no substitute. The power-ups available vary from being able to freeze enemies, allowing you to take them down without them shooting back to firepower boosters and wings, which allow you to move around a little faster. All beneficial when you’re in a jam and need a little extra juice. Just keep an eye on the battery levels.

Away from the campaign the extra modes are pretty much standard to what you’d find elsewhere in similar titles. Infinity Drive firstly, is pretty much a Horde mode where you just go for as long you as you can taking down endless waves of robotic foes and see how long you can last. It’s actually pretty good fun and a good place to practise your skills before you head further into the campaign. Here you can compete for places on the leaderboard (at the time of writing I’m #2 in the world. COME AND BEAT ME). The Daily Drive mode is where you can battle for leaderboard positions but you only have one shot to do so each day.

So Assault Android Cactus is a disappointing entry in the twin stick shooter genre. The biggest issues lies with the games mechanics, as it all feels just a little too much all at once with the health bear, battery meter, weapon cooldows etc. The less we have the focus on, the more fun a twin stick shooter is, that’s just a fact. The gunplay is good and the characters are perfectly fine, it all becomes a problem when you start getting overwhelmed by the sheer amount being thrown at you all at once. Not being able to see where you need to be moving to avoid missile strikes is a huge error, and the battery meter makes what should be a fun exciting shooter become infuriating.

Which is a huge shame, because there’s a great game hidden in there. In Assault Android Cactus’ case, less most definitely is more.

five/10


Assault Android Cactus

Developer: Witch Beam
Publisher: Stride PR

Assault Android Cactus is out now on PS4.

Disclaimer: In order to complete this review we were provided a review code from the publisher.