Frenetic doesn’t even begin to describe Assault Android Cactus – an arcade-style, twin-stick shooter from the folks at Witch Beam. Initially released on PC late 2015, the title came to PlayStation 4 on the 8th of March 2016, introducing a whole new audience to the very embodiment of localised, cooperative chaos.
While Assault Android Cactus does have a story it’s not really tied in with the levels and feels designed to give players a sense of progression more than anything else. You play as an assault android trying to save a crippled space freighter from an attack by its own robot workers. The lack of an in-depth story is perfectly fine though, as Assault Android Cactus is all about the action. Most levels begin somewhat calmly – a few small robots appear, all of which are easily dispatched, allowing you to get into your twin-stick groove. Don’t become complacent though, as it’s not long before these smaller robots start appearing at a faster rate and are joined by a plethora of different types, varying in strength and skill. Before long, you’ll be swamped and must master the balance between quick response and effective crowd control if you wish to survive.
This is a fairly common theme in twin stick shooters but none I’ve played have ever given me quite the same sense of chaos. Even once I became familiar with enemy moves, their tells, and how to defeat them, I always felt right on the brink of destruction. I think one way Assault Android Cactus managed to achieve this was through their use of a shared health system. Instead of having a set number of “lives” Assault Android Cactus uses a time based battery system. All players share a common battery which drains over time; if the battery runs out you fail the level. At regular intervals enemies will drop “battery charges” which allow you to refill this charge – however you need to be performing well to have the battery drop in time as they only drop after a certain number of enemies are defeated. Recovering from a knockdown costs the player valuable time and weapon upgrades meaning that their ability to contribute to the kill requirement is impacted. This, coupled with the weapon power system, is well implemented and forces players to adopt a balanced strategy if they wish to succeed.
How to “perform well” is something that’s not immediately clear when you start playing Assault Android Cactus. While a tutorial level is offered it only explains the basics, brushing over many of the game’s mechanics which are essential to understanding the game’s strategy and achieving success. It reminds me of the classic vs fighter problem; where the game tells you all the moves but not how to play the game. For example, the tutorial teaches you how to move with the left stick, aim with the right, shoot with R2, and use L2 for your special, but it doesn’t teach you basic strategy or even when certain skills become available. A decent knowledge of how power-ups work, how weapon damage works, and how to properly control the crowd is important if you want to maximise your productivity and progress through the levels. For example, in a game such as this players might want to “play it safe”, keeping their distance and shooting enemies from afar. In Assault Android Cactus this is a poor strategy as the amount of damage your weapon dispenses is directly proportionate to enemy proximity. This means that, if you keep your distance, you won’t be killing enemies as quickly, which means you’re at a higher risk of the battery timer running out before you can recharge. Ideally, you want to be close enough to deal decent damage while still having time to observe enemy tells and avoid their attacks.
Normally, these are the type of things you would learn by playing with others which, as Assault Android Cactus doesn’t offer online play, is perhaps what the creators envisaged would happen. However, for players new to the game, this lack of information could prove detrimental to the overall experience. This learning curve is further exacerbated by a somewhat confusing HUD. All the information you need is readily available, however it’s never really explained and, in most cases, there’s so much happening on screen, you barely have time to read it – let alone try to “learn on the go”. In fact, it wasn’t until I was reviewing gameplay footage and screenshots that I was able to correctly ascertain what information each part of the HUD was communicating.
Despite all this most of these problems aren’t major in the grand scheme of things. They might prove a barrier to new players wishing to do well but they are nothing a quick internet search won’t resolve. During a hectic battle there’s barely enough time to be looking at a HUD so the most important information (battery level and secondary weapon charge) are featured prominently.
Assault Android Cactus is an amazing looking game. With fantastic variety in level design, the environments and enemy models all look amazing and follow a central theme. Environmental special effects play into the game’s strategy well, using clever camera angles and lighting effects to create unique and enjoyable arenas. This is further accentuated by the game’s use of sound. The soundtrack is perfectly suited with upbeat, energising tunes which enhance the frenetic feel of the action. Sount effects are used well – both for stylistic impact and effective notification of information. Each enemy has aural as well as visual “tells” and androids notify their player of important information via the controller’s inbuilt speaker. This may sound gimmicky but it’s an exceptionally effective way of communicating information and adds to the games overall stylistic appeal.
While not strictly a “bullet hell” experience there are an amazing number of hazards to anticipate and avoid while playing the game. Most enemies have unique attacks with specific tells however, when dealing with them on all sides, it’s often a struggle just to stay alive. Despite feeling hectic this is extremely well balanced and rewards players who develop an effective strategy and play well. If you play poorly things quickly get out of hand and the visual maelstrom that ensues reflects this perfectly.
To mix things up Assault Android Cactus throws a boss fight your way every five or so levels. These are different from normal levels in that you only have to beat the one enemy to win. Bosses are varied and each has their own unique set of moves, meaning you need to adopt a different strategy to defeat each. These levels were the only time when having more people playing locally worked to your advantage. In normal levels the number of players affects the number of enemies that appear during the level. However, during boss fights I noticed no difference whatsoever. For example, I was having a tough time beating the third boss – Security Administrator Justice – however, when I had a few friends to help deal with the peripheral threats, he went down in no time.
Beating these levels not only grants access to new levels in the main game but also a host of extras. Alongside the “usual” extras like a new androids, codex, art gallery, and a jukebox, Assault Android Cactus grants players some game changing elements called EX Options. Once earnt these offer features including a first person camera, AI team mates, screen filters, and more. There’s even an unlockable called Mega Weapons which replaces your secondary weapon with a super powered version of your first. Be careful when opting to use an EX Option though as many of them disable the ability for you to register yours score on the global leaderboards.
Leaderboards are very important in Assault Android Cactus as, once you’ve beaten the fairly short campaign, longevity can be obtained by going for higher rankings and top scores. Getting a top score isn’t as simple as just staying alive until the end of a level. To reach the elusive S-Rank you also need to be a master of chaining kills. Maintaining this multiplier means juggling damage to larger enemies while picking off smaller enemies and timing everything perfectly! Take too long to kill something, or change weapons at the wrong time, and that counter resets to zero – likely blowing your chances for a good score.
If chasing high scores is not your thing you can always play one of the additional two game modes – Infinity Drive or Daily Drive. Infinity Drive pits you against never-ending waves of enemies, challenging you to see how far you can get. Daily Drive is, as the name suggests, something you can attempt only once a day and challenges players to compete for the best score in a 15 level battle culminating in a boss fight. If you’re thinking of chasing some of these top scores, be warned – you’re in for a challenge!
Assault Android Cactus is a lot of fun and should suit many types of players although it could benefit from online co-op for those of us who don’t have local friends (or four $80 controllers) readily available. It has a low price-tag, which feels proportionate to the content, and, perhaps more importantly, is extremely polished and unique. If you try Assault Android Cactus out I recommend spending a few minutes beforehand learning the mechanics – it will make your experience a lot more successful and enjoyable. An enjoyable experience that is well worth your time.