Witch Beam Games

Assault Android Cactus is a brilliantly conceived, masterfully designed bullet hell joy pit of fun

Assault Android Cactus is a brilliantly conceived, masterfully designed bullet hell joy pit of fun

Assault Android Cactus has nearly everything working against it. We can start with that name, which gives the player the sense of… absolutely nothing. The Cactus is a robot, and it’s on the rampage? What is it assaulting? Video games tend to have pretty terrible names in general, but Assault Android Cactus reaches new levels of putting off the player before we get a sense of what the game is about.

Then there are the characters themselves: Four female-looking robots who are on the “patootie” side of the cutie spectrum. They’re well designed, and offer a good amount of personality, but when you think of the average player of a top-down, twin-stick shooter with bullet hell tendencies, one rarely imagines that they want to take control of killing machines that look like a Lisa Frank version of a killing machine.

So yeah, this is a hard sell on almost every level. Until you sit down and actually play the damned thing, and then you realize just how fucking good the whole thing feels when you play. Assault Android Cactus is the shooter equivalent of something reaching a cold metal hand into your chest and pumping your heart for you, just in case you didn’t get the message from the rest of the game's design. Every aspect of the game is tuned to get your blood pumping, until you have no choice but to give in, smiling and out of breath.

Addiction as design

I met with designer Sanatan Mishra at PAX Australia, and his strategy of just letting me play the game, first by myself and then with three other players, was sound. “We wanted to create an arcade game in 2013,” he explained. No barrier to entry. Anyone can pick up a controller and get started. The more you play, however, the more you realize just how much work went into making everything feel and play so perfectly.

“We’re doing a lot of things that are more like a traditional shoot ‘em up. There is a lot of organic bullet hell going on with the bosses, and they move in patterns that you have to learn and move through,” Mishra explained.

Most twin-stick shooters force you to fire forward while constantly moving backwards away from the hoards of enemies, but Assault Android Cactus forces you to dodge the waves of enemies while firing, to learn how the enemies move, and to make sure you’re continually picking up energy and items, which allow you to fire more powerful shots or even speed up your character. You’re always half a step from failure, even during your best runs.

The problem with most bullet hell shooters is that they’re nearly impossible to play while you’re building your skills; you simply die when things get too rough. Assault Android Cactus introduces a battery mechanic that alleviates this issue for most players: You have unlimited lives, but a limited battery timer. You charge your battery by killing enemies, and then grabbing the power ups that move away from you.

The charging mechanic was a conscious choice. “We don’t want people just running away and hiding the whole time, you have to be aggressive and really get into the game,” Mishra said. This also allows players of differing skill levels to enjoy the game together; as long as my son can lay down some covering fire, even if he dies often, I can grab those batteries and keep us alive.

The music is based on what Mishra referred to as an “intensity value,” which is based on how much stuff is happening on the screen, and how well you’re doing. Each song written for the game has different levels, so at the beginning you’ll be listening to the song with only a few elements. Level up your attacks, take out a few waves, and then have more powerful enemies drop in? More instruments come into the music, the volume goes up, and everything becomes much more intense. “We took a lot of inspiration from Burnout 2, when you started boosting and everything came in. I miss that in modern games. You need that intense feeling.”

Did I mention that each of the four characters have different weapons, as well as different secondary attacks that have a cool down period after use? Your character has this animation where she flips her gun in the air and catches it to change weapons and, not only does it look cool, but it forces you to stop firing for a few beats, increasing the intensity. Each character forces you to approach each situation differently, and so far I’m a big fan of Lemon, with her spread shot and rocket launcher.

Many of the levels are also dynamic, shifting and moving around the player, forcing you to change your strategy or angle of attack. Everything works together to keep you on edge, from the different characters to the weapons to the battery mechanic to the constantly shifting levels.

All of this may seem overwhelming on paper, but in practice the game is very easy to pick up and play, and it teaches you all the different things you’ll need to juggle to do well, and soon you’ll be experiencing the bliss that comes when the weapons, battery charging mechanic, enemies, attack patterns, and constantly shifting levels come together in a way that’s impossible to describe without handing you a controller.

Assault Android Cactus may be a goofy-ass name, but for shooter fans it’s basically joy on tap. The game is coming to PC, Mac, and Linux this year, and you can vote for it on Steam Greenlight right now.