Review: Assault Android Cactus

A slick twin-stick arcade shooter from a fledgling indie studio breaks out of early access and lands as one of the most fun and frustrating new IP of 2015.

Developer: Witch Beam
Publisher: Witch Beam
Reviewed on: PC
Also Available On: OS X, Linux
Release Date: Available Now

BRB-Score-4

Early access is a funny thing. Sometimes games pop up on steam, with barely a premise and a handful of ‘appropriated’ art assets to their name, and then attempt to hoover up as much money as possible before disappearing from the face of the internet forever. And then there are some who manage, to start with an interesting premise, some fun gameplay mechanics and eventually evolve into a fully-fledged release. Assault Android Cactus is one such game.

The debut title from Australian based developers Witch Beam is a slick twin-stick shooter that combines the best of old school arcade shoot’em ups with nerve shredding bullet hell gameplay to produce one of the neatest little games I have played in a while. The story of AAC is pretty basic, but it serves its task perfectly well. The titular Cactus, an assault android working as a rogue cop is sent to investigate the Genki Star, a cargo ship that has broken off contact with the rest of the fleet. On investigating she gets shot down and meets the surviving crew members, a motley collection of android like herself. Teaming up with her fellow robots to take down the ship’s corrupted Section Lords and free the central core, the story manages to fulfil its obligation to contextualise the robotic violence while remaining in the background. There is a humorous edge to the narrative as well, as each of the bosses have a few lines of back and forth dialogue with each of the nine different playable characters.

So with the perfunctory plot out of the way, we can talk about what really makes the game special. AAC utilises mechanics that will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s played a game in this genre before, and with a simple enough control scheme that even total newbies should be eased into the mayhem. The left stick controls movement, the right handles aiming. Each character has a primary and a secondary weapon, which are used with the right and left triggers respectively. The secondary weapon is more powerful than the primary, but there is a few seconds of cool down between each usage. And while that seem like a lot, a few seconds can mean the difference between victory and ignominious failure. All the characters have a design and personality of their own, and their weapons encourage different styles of play and attitudes to win. You can go in all guns blazing with Cactus and her assault rifle, or try and force the oncoming hordes into a bottle neck so you can decimate them with Coral’s shotgun or Shiitake’s rail cannon.  Whatever your plan, you had better put it into action quickly.

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Well that escalated quickly…

At the same time as you’re trying to destroy all the enemies with your weapon of choice, they’ll be trying to destroy you just as hard. Colourful projectiles, missiles, lasers and all manner of robotic carnage fills the screen right from the word go, and you’ll need quick fingers to stand a chance. That’s not to say that it’s difficult for difficulty’s sake. Each of the levels has something different to offer, be it in the thematic design between worlds or the gimmicks that add an extra twist on the format and design of each individual level. It’s fairly likely that you’ll die a few times to each fresh challenge before you find the right tool and strategy for the job, but such is the game’s charm and speed of play that it is difficult to find yourself not drawn in time after time for just one more go. In addition to the standard levels in each world, there are also the aforementioned boss fights against the Section Lords.

These evil A.I represent the game’s greatest challenge, often requiring trial and error to anticipate their attack patterns and multiple attempts with a variety of characters to full get a handle on the best plan of attack. Beating them however, unlocks entries in the game’s codex, which fill in a little information about the characters and their world, as well as another android for use in the next set of levels. The section Lords are designed with just as much attention to detail and obvious affection as the rest of the game’s and I’d rate any one of them as one of the best bosses in any game this year.

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The bigger they are the harder they fall. Eventually.

Make no mistake however, AAC Is not the kind of game that will devour hundreds of hours of your life. I completed the final world after about 4 hours of play, but I’ve put more time into the game since then, purely because of the replay value. Much as you might expect from a game of this type, you get scored at the end of each level, and placed on a global ranking leaderboard. Even if the prospect of competing with total strangers doesn’t interest you, there’s always a sense of satisfaction in going back to the level that frustrated you when you first started playing and getting that coveted S ranking. Add to that the wealth of silly gameplay  tweaks that can be unlocked with in game credits, such as a small head mode, that gives your cartoonishly proportioned androids bodes that might actually belong to a real human being, and you  have got a title that’s packed to the rafters with replay value. Having such a short campaign might seem like a turn off for many, but considering the market place’s saturation with overblown content stuffed open world games recently, something short and sweet it a welcome change of pace.

Tightly wound twin-stick shooting
Plenty of replayability
Epic Boss fights
Occasionally frustrating difficulty

Sweet is the right word to sum up Assault Android Cactus, a brightly coloured mile a minute blast-em up that takes all the best things about kids’ cartoons and bullet hell twitch reflex shooters and makes something absolutely delightful. This is a promising start to Witch Beam and I look forward to whatever they decide next. In the meantime however, I’ve got some high scores to beat.

Review copy provided by Stride PR
Official Game Site

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