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Assault Android Cactus by plucky Australian indie codeshop Witch Beam, seeks to cast us back to a simpler time where all that mattered was the destruction of waves upon waves robot enemies and having the requisite twin-stick skills to achieve it.

There’s just you (and maybe some friends) a crate load of firepower and a great throng of robotic aggressors that need to be put down in the blissful pursuit of that all important leaderboard score.

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As per its genre, the remit that Assault Android Cactus sets for the player is simple; shoot your way through as many stages as you can with the highest score possible.  Its the pitch-perfect balance of these tried and tested elements however, alongside the integration of some meaningful wrinkles to the formula which really set Witch Beam’s shooter aside from the rest of the pack.

Choosing one of four anime styled, female androids you begin the game with each of the quartet boasting unique weapons and secondary special abilities such as rockets or a shield.  Playing as the titular Cactus for example, you begin the game with a straight firing assault weapon and a flamethrower whereas the appropriately red-maned Holly pack a gun that lets off seeker rounds and shoots out cannon balls in its secondary firing state.

Being able to choose from four, quite functionally different characters lends a refreshing aspect of choice to the game that other twin-stick shooters usually fail to provide the player with and other, equally meaningful deviations from the beaten path of the genre occur elsewhere too.

Rather than having a bespoke health bar as has been par for the course on twin-stick shooters, the game instead gives you a battery level (you are an Android after all) which gradually depletes as time marches on.  The only way to replenish said energy reserves are the green orbs which drop and even then only a small amount of precious energy is returned to the player.

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The presence of a battery which can only be depleted by time also presents another way in which Assault Android Cactus differs from the genre norm; enemy attacks do not harm you directly but they do knock you down, forcing you to tap the fire button to get back up.  So there is initial upside that you can’t really be hurt by your enemies, but its tempered by the fact that with each knockdown you waste that little bit more time and lose some more of that precious battery life.

Luckily, Power-ups drop in relatively well balanced quantities and depending on their colour, can speed you up or provide you with a monumental boost in firepower temporarily, with each helping you to stay in the fight that little while longer.

At its heart, Witch Beam’s shooter is an equal parts gleeful/terrifying pressure-cooker of stage rumbling explosions, swarming robots, colorful power-ups, vibrant visuals and pixel-perfect bullet evasion that underpins a careful balancing of all those elements in such away that the player never feels overwrought.

Certainly, in other, less adept hands, such bedlam could be overwhelming and cloying – the screen filling chaos blocking out all of the useful stuff that you need to see such as the location of life-saving power-ups or where additional enemies might be lurking; thankfully that isn’t the case here.  Witch Beam know their craft and deftly mitigate the downside of such widespread anarchy with a UI that helpfully points to where power-ups and health pick-ups have appeared, all the while keeping you up to speed on the foes loitering about on the periphery of your vision with dynamic tracking markers which line the edges of the screen.

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While the progressively more difficult stages provide a substantial challenge in their own right; its not until you encounter one of the bosses that you finally comprehend the level of mastery that the game demands from you.  These antagonistic head-honchos are fiendish beasts; encompassing a dynamic myriad of attack routines, and special abilities all of which ensuring that a perfect first try is about as likely as winning the lottery on consecutive weekends.  Mastery is expected to prevail here, but like the best examples of the genre, the equally reciprocating feeling of satisfaction provides its own reward,

Don’t let its twee, bubblegum anime looks and bright presentation fool you; at the core of Android Assault Cactus beats the black heart of a staunchly challenging shooter that will challenge even the most stalwart of twin-stick shooter veterans, but one that retains sufficient accessibility to entice twin-stick shooter rookies into its fold.

As much as the game appears to be some sort of blissful marriage of 80’s cult arcade hit Escape From The Planet of the Robot Monsters and a twin-stick shooter such as Geometry Wars or Smash TV, Witch Beam’s effort provides sufficient wrinkles to the shooter formula to stand comfortably on its own merits.

While such classic inspiration is telling of the quality of the game, its perhaps a little too easy at this stage to say that Witch Beam’s game is the next Smash TV or the next Geometry Wars, but really the truth is better and more straightforward than that; its simply the first Assault Android Cactus and its only going to get better.

Developed by Witch Beam, Assault Android Cactus is due to release this November on PC.  

You can purchase early access to the game here for £11.99/$14.99.  Wii U, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita versions of the game are also in development and are currently set for release sometime in early 2014.

A Steam Early Access code for PC was provided by the developer for the purpose of this preview.  

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