You never forget your first S+ Rank. It’s true; in spite of the screen flooding with enemies and enough laser death to give Darth Vader some suspicious stirrings in his charred nether regions, nabbing that desirable status is a genuinely memorable achievement. Arguably greater than seeing the coveted pairing of letter and symbol however, is the satisfaction of the effort that preceded it. It’s the sort of satisfaction which, like the rest of Assault Android Cactus, feels fresh and immensely worthwhile because Australian developer Witch Beam have done a magnificent thing with their inaugural title; they’ve fashioned an effort which actually surpasses the classical inspirations that serve as its formative DNA.
A horrendously well-tuned twin stick shooter, like all best examples of the genre Assault Android Cactus is both conceptually and practically easy to pick up. Cast as one of selection of androids (the titular Cactus being your first), your task is to clear increasingly busy stages of their hostile robotic denizens before proceeding onto the next. Straightforward then, yet there is far more to Witch Beam’s frenetic blaster than its remit might outwardly suggest.
For starters, Assault Android Cactus deviates from the norm by introducing a battery indicator which depletes over time (you are a robot after all). Being struck by enemy fire in the traditional sense however is still a concern mind, as rather than directly having a reductive effect on your health; here it knocks you flat on your metal rear end instead – costing you valuable seconds of battery time as a result.
Of course like any measure of ‘health’, battery power can be replenished by hammering your cybernetic foes into a fine paste and hoovering up the subsequent collectibles but like anything else, these pickups often fall in the maelstrom of foes that you’ll be facing and as such, you have to think on the fly what the best route to reach it is without being beaten like a red-headed stepchild with extra red hair.
Switching to topic of offence, the game provides ample opportunities for laying the shooty smackdown on your clanky foes. From an unlimited primary firing mechanism to a rechargeable secondary attack and collectible upgrades which bolster your attack capacity to frankly ridiculous levels, the opportunities for inflicting ass-kickery on the multitudes of machines that get all up in your grill are considerable indeed.
Supplementing the default avenues of laser-pissing aggression which are open to you, is the fact that each of the androids at your disposal (the rest are unlocked as you progress through the game), boasts different primary and secondary attack types which each ingratiate themselves quite neatly to different playstyles. From straight-shooting attacks to a spread-enabling shotgun and everything in between, Witch Beam’s impressive repertoire can ably cater for a great many approaches to robotic genocide without any issue.
In terms of the androids themselves, they are an incandescently endearing lot. A cross between the cast of Pitch Perfect, The Powerpuff Girls and the UFC’s Women’s Division, the warmongering ladies of Assault Android Cactus are a varied and charismatic bunch of posterior kickers. Of particular note is the lovably Scottish Peanut who, voiced by industry figure Cara Ellison, is equal parts cheeky and charming and stands as a highlight of what is an already stellar cast.
Each of the game’s levels you see, are designed as arenas where the player footfall is limited and the screen routinely fills with surging enemies and their gunfire. Because of this and due to the tightly knit nature of each arena, success and achieving high rankings is strongly correlated to how you use the space available to you. Finding your back against the wall for instance, can prove troublesome as it leaves you trapped and taking unnecessary abuse, so grasping how to wheel out of such positions while strafing and focus firing on your enemy proves to be a vital skill indeed.
Certainly then, as much as the game places a premium on swift reflexes and twin-stick shooter skill, so too does a more deceptively tactical imperative also exist – especially where the developer shakes things up in these arenas, introducing a variety of hazards such as darkened areas and pitfalls to keep you on your toes. All this nuance would be for naught however, if Android Assault Cactus fell flat on its colourful face from a responsiveness standpoint. Happily then, I can report Witch Beam have engineered a masterpiece of ultra-responsiveness. Every twitch, every shot fired and every manoeuvre feels like natural extension of yourself as the developer’s insistence on a sixty frames per second update pays dividends in real, tangible gameplay terms.
Elsewhere, Assault Android Cactus is nothing if not a lean and muscular offering. There’s no fat on it at all; nothing feels extraneous. From the charmingly Saturday morning TV show themed campaign which can be enjoyed in single-player and co-operatively in multiplayer through to the boss rush mode and all the individual bosses encompassed within, it’s clear that Witch Beam have a lavished ludicrous level of care and attention to Assault Android Cactus.
Pointedly, nowhere is this better demonstrated than the first person mode that supports up to four players in split-screen – split-screen! Rather than a gimmick, this mode can actually be used as a meaningful, properly legitimate way to play the game, whereas other developers would probably be content to bolt it on as an afterthought, or worse, make you pay for it.
When all is said done though, it’s that struggle to perfect a stage and attain that hard-won S+ rank that serves as the crux to the seemingly evergreen appeal that beats at the heart of Assault Android Cactus. There is simply nothing quite like the satisfaction of replaying a level over and over, sharpening your own skills and figuring out new strategies on the fly as you finally nail that elusive ranking. It’s finely tuned, massively satisfying and perilously entertaining, with the online leaderboard rankings providing an infinite amount of fuel to your prideful fire to forever stay on top of your game.
Equally pertinent perhaps is the fact that with Assault Android Cactus, Witch Beam are the new flag-bearers for the sort of local co-operative shenanigans which have previously been exclusive to the realm of console gamers. This is the sort of stuff that needs to happen more often, not less, so please developer-types; more of this eh?
Aesthetically, Assault Android Cactus makes me feel like I’ve stumbled into some alternate dimension where the Dreamcast didn’t die, with its eye-rendingly colourful and vibrant character models, neon effects and arenas, it fondly recalls memories of Sega’s final lump of console hardware in the way that no other recent game really has (sorry Shenmue 3, you’re too late to the party chum).
With Assault Android Cactus, Witch Beam have achieved so much that it feels like they’re taking the piss. I mean, in this industry of ours which is stuffed to the absolute nines with broken, shitty half-finished games and those efforts which show glimpses of potential but disappointingly and somewhat predictably fall short of them, it’s refreshing to have a game which just oozes excellence from every digital pore. If Witch Beam stopped making games tomorrow (god forbid), they would still be remembered for crafting the most remarkable twin-stick shooter of all time.
A review copy of the game on PC was kindly supplied by the developer for the purposes of this review.
Assault Android Cactus is available right now to buy on PC, Mac and Linux. On Steam, it currently retails at 20% off, selling for £8.79 as a result. The discount period is set to expire on September 30th.
Assault Android Cactus is set to release on PS4 and PS Vita sometime in 2016.