September 23, 2015 8:05 AM | Lena LeRay
Assault Android Cactus is a funny name. It turns out that Cactus is the name of one of the androids in the game, all of which (whom?) assault the robots that have taken over the space station where the game takes place. Developer Witch Beam's first game is a twin-stick shooter, one rendered in 3D and designed to be as accessible as possible. It's easy to get the hang of, but throws a variety of gradually increasing challenges at the player. It's bright, colorful, and chaotic, but always fair. It feels like a gloriously violent dance.
Like any twin-stick shooter, Assault Android Cactus is designed to be played with a controller. One joystick moves the player character around the stage and the other determines firing direction. Assault Android Cactus is one of the ones that requires a trigger press to actually fire, rather than firing constantly any time a direction is selected. The player can also use the other trigger to switch weapons, though the more powerful sub weapons overheat and must cool down before becoming available again. The main and sub weapons vary depending on the chosen player character, all of whom are cute androids. The goal, of course, is to destroy every enemy that pops up.
It's very easy to pick the game up, especially if you've played other twin-stick shooters. Many things about it are much the same as in other games, but when I talked to Witch Beam's Sanatana Mishra at BitSummit, he said that they'd approached the game's design with the intent of avoiding lives in the traditional sense. He felt that extra lives were a hold over from the days of arcades that aren't really necessary for a game meant to be played at home. So Assault Android Cactus works instead off of a battery meter that drains constantly over time and must be recharged. Letting the android's battery go dead is the only way to fail a level. Damage knocks the character out temporarily, but the player can mash the fire button to get back up and keep going.
This feels a lot more forgiving than a traditional lives system on the surface, and in some ways it is, but the game's systems are designed in such a way that getting knocked down still sets the player back. Dead enemies drop collectables that power up the player's weapon, but it resets back to its starting power on player knock out. Speed power ups and turrets dissipate as well. And of course, it takes time to get back up. Only a few moments, but since battery charges are scripted to drop after waves finish, the player needs to finish the waves at a faster rate than the battery drains... now with reduced power. If the player falls enough times, they just can't recover. On the plus side, the player can get knocked out a lot more times than shooter games typically allow. Enemies are also knocked back when the player rises, giving them some space. It's a neat dynamic that, combined with tight controls, feels really good even when the player is failing.
The level and enemy designs are as tight as the controls. The levels are all pretty small and have something of an arena feel to them, but each arena is very different. Some are circular, some rectangular, some in irregular shapes. Different areas of the floor might be blocked off in the middle. One of the early levels has conveyor belts that impede player movement if they try to move against the belts' movement, but speeds them up to get them out of a tight spot if they move with the belts instead. Another room gets dark periodically and the enemies' positions can only be determined by a few glowing spots on their chassis.
Enemies seem to come in families with similar properties, yet having variations as the game progresses. Some just run up and smack the player while others fire periodically as they advance. Others are stationary and fire bullets in shmup style patterns for the player to dodge until they can destroy it.
The bosses are phase based. A given boss will have a couple of attack patterns that it cycles through, with a given pattern increasing in difficulty via speed or some other form of aggression on subsequent cycles. It's easy to tell when the final phase starts, because it will be a combination of the other phases. This gives the boss fights a feel of progression with a climactic ending.
All of this is combined with great sound and visual design that supports the gameplay really well. One of the design challenges Mishra mentioned when we were talking at BitSummit was how to make it easy for the player to tell where incoming enemy projectiles were in the 3D environment, and I think they covered that very well. Every time I took a bullet to the face in playing the game, it felt like my own fault. In general, though, there is a sound element and a visual element for every gameplay element. Mishra said that this was purposefully done for accessibility reasons, but it benefits the game overall by giving the player multiple ways to make sense of the chaos on screen.
This is the part where I would normally mention the game's flaws, but I can't realy think of any for Assault Android Cactus. The game is stellar. The only people I wouldn't recommend the game to are people who actively hate twin-stick shooters, and even then I would suggest trying the demo to be sure because I'm not normally a huge fan of this genre myself. (I'm terrible at dodging bullets.) Everything about the game just goes together so well and creates a great experience.
Assault Android Cactus has been in early access on Steam for a while now, but officially launches in a couple of hours. It's available for Windows, Mac, and Linux on Steam or directly from the developer (including DRM-free) at the price of $15. If you buy direct, you can get it with the soundtrack and a digital art book bundled for $25. The game is also slated to release on PS4, PS Vita, and Wii U early next year.