Part Smash TV, part bullet-hell, all bastard! Assault Android Cactus is a hectic, arcade-style twin-stick shooter that makes no apologies for its difficulty whatsoever. Which is great, because it’s all the better for it. It stars a small cadre of androids led by the titular Cactus, a rookie space cop that finds herself in way over her head after responding to a distress signal from a freighter in which the robot workforce have developed some serious homicidal tendencies. After deputizing the other cutesy androids on board (who, oddly enough, all pack serious amounts of firepower), they push back the thousands of murderous robots now on board, destroy the four section bosses leading the mob, and destroy the overlord AI, the Nexus Core, who has corrupted the other droids on-board and started the robo-riots in the first place.

With the ship on lockdown and its AI now actively hostile, the assault droids need to fight through four sections, each having their own aesthetic and full of unique traps and hazards.  They’ve been busy putting up barriers, creating new pits and choke-points as increasingly-aggressive waves of demented droids pour in from all sides.

The game has a simple yet well-defined and colorful art style that juxtaposes the bright anime stylings of Cactus and the androids with the industrial hues of the crazed worker bots on the freighter. The whole violent ballet is punctuated with the searing neon glow of bullets and laser fire.

Though not all of the stages make that much sense (considering this is supposed to be set on what is essentially a space truck), the level of diversity on display and unique mechanics introduced in each new section of the ship keep play exciting and fresh throughout the five to six hour campaign.

In action, Assault Android Cactus is best described as a modern version of arcade classic Smash TV.  After the first stages help you out with your opponent robots, giving the player time to get used to the the mechanics and rhythm of the game while trying out each of the starter characters to find the one that suits their play-style (Cactus is the best), the difficulty then swiftly increases, piling on the enemies very quickly.  Levels will rapidly flood with bots, projectiles, and carnage.

Though stray bullets don’t do much damage to the androids (thanks to a regenerating health bar), taking too many hits at once will take them out pretty quickly, while missiles are an instant KO. Rather than being killed when they run out of health, Cactus and co are instead knocked out when their weapons lose power, and they drain a little more of the battery which serves as both a quasi-health bar and a timer. If the battery runs out completely, it’s game over.  However, each wave of enemies you successfully defeat drops a battery power-up that recharges a portion of the battery meter. This creates a real sense of desperate struggle as the androids race against the clock, trying to wipe out all the enemies before their batteries runs dry.

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As the game progresses and the robo-hordes become increasingly more varied and relentless, your tactics swiftly change from the relatively-simple “don’t get hit!” to “how many hits can I take and still get to the battery?.”

If you hadn’t figured it out yet, Assault Android Cactus is a tough game to get through. Between the one-hit kills and the endless waves of enemies, you never feel all that powerful, despite your guns powering up a little with every kill. The steep climb in difficulty results in the final stages of the 25-level campaign being absolutely brutal. The final boss in particular is an absolute nightmare, requiring almost preternatural levels of hand-eye co-ordination.

The five bosses are, likewise, an exercise in both frustration and your controller’s ability to withstand blunt-force trauma from being tossed at the floor. Each subscribes to the old school of boss battles, which states that they must throw everything they have at you when it looks like you’re about to win to ensure they take you out first. Couple the massive health bars with the fact that your battery still slowly drains away and chances are you’re likely to almost beat the buggers dozens of times, with luck seeming to play just as big role in your victory as judgement. You have to start from the beginning every time you lose too, which makes Assault Android Cactus best played in short bursts. For the sake of your sanity and your controller.

However, like Dark Souls, the game’s difficulty (the bosses in particular) is lessened when you bring a friend along. In fact, if you can round up three friends, you’ll find yourselves rocketing along. If you can’t do that, you can always unlock AI partners to help you in the game’s “EX Mode” options. Enabling this turns off the ability to score on leaderboards, but it’s a small price to pay to actually be able to get through the game, and a nice way to ease the difficulty for anyone having difficulties.

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Despite the punishing difficulty, I found it hard not to love Assault Android Cactus. It’s a tight and challenging shooter with a sense of humor, loaded with fun and personality. The story, though ultimately an excuse to blow up a lot of robots, is well-written, and each character has a distinctive personality. Bosses even react differently to each of the nine playable characters (four initial and five unlockable). Even dying is entertaining, as you’re serenaded in the game over screen with a tune about a sad android that’s run out of battery, sung by someone that sounds a lot like the turrets from Portal.  Each of the game’s 25 stages are short, punchy, and a hell of a lot of fun. The five to six hour run-time feels just right, ensuring that Assault Android Cactus doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Beneath the carefree exterior of Assault Android Cactus is a seriously hardcore shooter, which may put some people off. Stick with it though (even if it means using some EX options), and you’ll find a gleeful game with a wonderful sense of reckless abandon that hooks you from start to controller-biting finish.

Assault Android Cactus was reviewed on PS4 with a copy provided by the developer.

Publisher: Witch beam | Developer: Witch Beam | Genre: Twin-Stick Shooter | Platforms: PC, PS4 (Reviewed),WiiU, Xbox One | PEGI/ESRB: 12+/T  | Release Date: February 23, 2015 (PC)/ March 8, 2016 PS4, WiiU & Xbox One TBA

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