Assault Android Cactus delivers on its promises of bullet-filled screens and personality, but is held back by one of its core game mechanics.
The basic concept of a bullet hell game, or a twin-stick shooter which this title begins as, doesn’t leave much room for interpretation when you grab the controller. You’ll be facing enemies, with bullets. To that end, this game, fresh from early access and Witch Beam Studios, does offer a gameplay mechanic or two that feel slightly fresh, but the concept doesn’t seem as well executed as it could’ve been, ultimately grinding the game to a halt on multiple occasions.
“Assault Android Cactus is fully-charged with personality.”
Gameplay is as simple as either of those mixing genres’ premises. Enemies shoot, you shoot back. There is, however, variety in your character and the arenas in which you engage in constantly moving fire fights. The stages are often opening new passages to spew forth enemies from and handing you a new quirk, such as low light and fighting on a train, to keep your eyes darting to different points. Each of the androids you can control has a unique primary and secondary weapon for players to experiment with as well. Primary weapons all fall in the normal armory choices –Aubergine aside with her twirling robot of death – but special weapons are where a lot of strategy and differentiation between androids comes from. Two examples are Holly, the shy scaredy-droid, possesses a cannonball secondary that fires straight and slow but hits hard while Cactus herself can cover a swathe of enemies with her flamethrower at close range. Switching between primary and secondary weapons is also mapped to the dodge ability, causing you to think critically about how long you lay on the extra damage to hordes and when you should dodge away.
Your character goes through levels with what amounts to a stun bar, dropping your character for a tap-frenzy few seconds, and a life bar represented by a big battery at the top of the screen. As it constantly drains away, you have to fight your way through an untold number of enemies to grab a battery power-up to keep the fight going or you’ll hit a restart. This is a core concept that each encounter revolves around, and it degrades in execution with each stage you progress into the game. You can’t store spare batteries or slow your energy’s decent, and as soon as one hits the ground, you have about ten seconds before it disappears. This turns your careful spin through crowds into a mad dash to the other side of fairly wide arenas, and even then the battery might decide to act like a kite caught in the wind, not slapping itself into place until you’re already dead. Some of the stages can last 10 or 20 minutes with no checkpoints to speak of, so seeing your character hunch over because the battery wanted to play keep-away isn’t the way you’ll want to go out.
Nowhere else is the battery issue more prevalent in Assault Android Cactus than in the boss fights. As you enter the arena, the boss giving new dialogue for each android challenger, you’ll notice the segmented health bar at the bottom of the screen that also serves as your battery drop schedule as you wear down their health. These are also the arenas where the bullet hell gradually becomes highlighted with the last three bosses being prime examples. The issue is that being stunned once or twice basically puts an end to your run with those last three, but almost never in a way that you can actually learn and improve. There are just bullets that rotate the same speed as your character and purposefully set you into the path of the next hail of attacks, and if you don’t have your secondary weapon ready, you can’t dodge. Keeping a lot of balls in the air at once is part of the twin stick/bullet hell love, but there still has to be a manageable window to navigate through that the battery mechanic does not allow. If the battery were contingent on hits taken or something besides the unstoppable tick of game time, perhaps some learning could ensue on a consistent basis. As it stands, most bosses are a dead stop to any momentum you had in the game because you have to worry more about the battery than you do learning the boss’ attack patterns or weaknesses.
This changes slightly in co-op as the extra firepower does cover the battery issue up fairly well. Up to four players can take on any arena with the framerate holding steady and death feeling like less of an inevitability. Having all that extra power does make the game feel trivially easy throughout with the endless climb of online leaderboards being your main incentive for replayability. That co-op is only local though as no other online component is available to players. The two other game modes, Infinity Drive and Daily Drive, are basically the exact same mode with you going as deep into rounds as you can without dying, the latter offering the only difference in a daily change of arena.
With that being said, Assault Android Cactus is fully-charged with personality. The characters all feel distinct and unique in their designs that match their weapons and battle approaches, and the music has a strange taste of Maximum Carnage from the Sega Genesis that somehow fits. Even the game over screen brings you a sad little song about an android that’s lost the fight against energy loss, bringing back some Portal memories along the way. Concept art, characters models, a full jukebox and soundboard, and EX Options that are basically game modifiers all put more into this world than the relatively short campaign would usually allow, and may help you forget about the battery bar for just a little while.
One last note on the control options: there are none. You can choose between keyboard or gamepad but remapping is non-existent in this shooter. As far as which input style you should go with, I’ve always found 3D shooters to feel better with a controller, but neither one should be seen as a hurdle. Just pick whichever controller type that allows you to hit your groove as best you can.
It may seem small in comparison, but it is that injection of personality that makes Assault Android Cactus worth the drain for the most part. The majority of levels are fun with barely-manageable amounts of enemies flooding the screen in waves, and the various droids are each interesting in gameplay and tone. Even when the gameplay is clicking though, there isn’t much new to the twin stick shooter codex added here, and the boss battles – where that darn battery feels like such a nuisance – can really grind your groove to a halt. So, approach this genre-sub-category-straddling shooter with a bit of patience and eyes open for quirky details and you just might find some life in those old cells yet.
Assault Android Cactus has all the personality and variety of a twin-stick classic, but lets the focus fall too heavily on a single, ever-draining battery bar to match that promise.