Assault Android Cactus is one of those few indie games for Windows, Mac, and Linux, with an unforgettable name that makes you curious about what it is every time you hear it. Eventually you might break it down into pieces to try to figure it out.
Assault, so, action game?
Androids are a kind of lifelike robot, yeah?
Cactus. One of these is not like the others.
So, we have androids in an action game and it turns out they’re in the desert with cacti?
Two out of three correct guesses aren’t bad. I didn’t understand the name either until I played Assault Android Cactus and found out that the first android you play as is named Cactus. She is a Junior Constable assault android in the Interplanetary Police who is investigating a civilian freighter called the Genki Star that went silent due to a mutiny lead by the four Section Lord bosses in command of the robot crew.
Cactus shows up just in time to help the rest of the cute cartoony androids out of their predicament, mainly because Cactus hates filing the paperwork for a failed mission. Together, the androids have to fight their way through waves of adorable killer robots in a combat style not too dissimilar from older twin stick shooters and defeat each area’s Section Lord boss.
Each android has a different set of weapons. Cactus has an assault rifle and flamethrower. Holly (the accountant!) has homing bullets and a cannonball that blitzes through her foes. Aubergine excels at crowd control with her spinning helicopter attack and singularity black hole that sucks enemies in to a part of the screen hopefully far away from where she is.
AAC has some flexibility in where those weapon sets can be applied, but when I was dying on a Section Lord boss fight with one, I found that trying another android with might work better. One boss might be more appropriate for ranged attacks, get too close and you’re fried. Other bosses might be more applicable for short-range guns from Coral’s shotgun. There are many more androids to choose from, each with their own gameplay style lending from their weapon selection and you can get up to four together on-screen at once for local co-operative play.
Any way you play it, Assault Android Cactus is extremely punishing if you can’t keep up with the hectic pace. The game fluctuates between traditional twin stick shooter gameplay to full-on bullet hell style shooting where your goal is to dodge and hope to keep the enemies in your peripheral vision so that you can target them. Very quickly you learn that there is a lot going on while you’re fighting through the game’s zones and stages that require you to learn to prioritize your focus. In addition to avoiding enemy bullets you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled for tiny bits of energy that power up your weapons, increasing the damage they do, and other power ups that might stop enemy attacks for a time, speed up your android, or add a set of tiny robots (options) that shoot alongside your android.
There is one other power-up, the most important one. The androids all have batteries just like mobile phones. Also just like your mobile, the battery on these androids is constantly being drained and you must top off with battery power-ups to keep the fight going. Taking damage any other way just causes your android to fall down, they can always get back up unless their battery is fully depleted. Fortunately the game recognizes that this is the most important aspect of the pickup system and your android will call out the recharge when they see it.
I found it incredibly difficult to keep track of which items on the very colorful screen were helpful versus those bullets, rockets, and missiles that were intended only to hurt Cactus and the rest of her android buddies. There is a little bit of magnetic pull on some bonuses that cause them to move towards your android, but I’m not sure what causes that to happen and the range is poor. Oftentimes I’d find that these helpful items would have expired before I reach them or I’d find myself dying just as I would have gotten a life-saving battery fill up. It’s a strategic issue that others might not have a problem with, but it was often what stopped any forward momentum I had during particularly tense moments of bullet hellaciousness.
Adding to the visual overload are stages that constantly change while you play. Walls go up, come down, and background pieces move to overhaul the level, one changes from a small elevator in-motion into a larger arena with different hallways when it reaches its destination. Another feels a bit like Bastion as pieces pick up and move as you get closer and drop off into space as they get further away. These changes aren’t just for looks. You’re going to have to adapt to meet new challenges when the level shrinks or expands or just starts throwing different enemies at you.
There is a problem in that sometimes it doesn’t feel like there is a strategy in Assault Android Cactus that will get you through a level, sometimes it just feels like more persistence is the only way through.
Despite all of the challenge, it is very rewarding when you defeat a section lord and unlock a new way to play through a new android. When I do get a little frustrated with a stage or a section lord I find myself switching to another android to see if their weapons lend themselves to that fight. Or wondering if I could get a higher score on the leaderboards of levels I’ve already completed with a different android’s weapon load out.
In addition to the campaign, AAC also has four-player local-only co-op through the entire game. Co-op can also be played with AI companions after unlocking one of the special EX options that you buy with points earned through playing the game. Those points also unlock concept art and other interesting features like a first-person camera option. There are a few extras like Infinity Drive, it’s a wave-based mode that drops the levels in favor of a more classic arcade game experience like Robotron 2084 where you’re only focused on score and surviving as long as you can. A Daily Drive offers a similar mode that changes every day with a separate leaderboard that you only get to compete in once per day. Boss Rush is your typical run through all of the Section Lords.
That’s Assault Android Cactus, deceptively bright, colorful, and personable to draw you in for the punishment. Very few twin stick shooters put even the tiniest effort into a story or any personality into their characters. Assault Android Cactus doesn’t just stand out through difficult and rewarding gameplay, it has endearingly cute androids backing everything up. After around 7 hours to complete the campaign I’m excited to see my leaderboard scores get destroyed by others.
4 out of 5 Cactodroids for the delightfully challenging Assault Android Cactus. Check out the demo and then get it. It’ll come to Playstation 4, the Vita, and Wii-U early next year and it’s just been released today for Windows, Mac, and Linux.