Assault Android Cactus Preview

Assault Android Cactus is the debut game from Witch Beam, an Australian indie team of AAA game developer veterans. It's a dual stick shooter featuring a cast of anime-styled robot fighters that do battle against legions of out-of-control robots. At SxSW Gaming, we played a bit of co-op and gave it our Best Co-Op award. Sanatana Mishra of Witch Beam was on hand to coach us at the con, and he also gave me a key to check out the single player once we got through. Assault Android Cactus is still in Steam Early Access, so we're going to take a more in-depth look at it in this preview.

Assault Android Cactus is a top-down dual stick shooter featuring a colorful roster of different androids to play as. Each android has her (its?) own unique set of weapons to use. Your android's primary weapon can be fired as much as you want, and it powers up as you collect little white balls that drop out of enemies as they die. The secondary weapon is usually more powerful but situational, and has to cool down between uses.

In addition to weapon power ups, there are a set of other power ups dropped by enemies that you can grab to give you a temporary boost. One increases your firepower by giving you a set of floating guns that shoot in the direction you're facing. Another increases your movement speed considerably. The final power up shuts down enemies for a short time, leaving them vulnerable to attack.

Unlike a lot of shooters, getting hit doesn't end your run in Assault Android Cactus. You have a small amount of health, and even losing this health doesn't immediately trigger a game over. Instead, there is a "battery" meter at the top of the screen. If this runs out, then it's game over. Over time it decreases, and the only way to recharge it is by killing enemies. Thus, it pays to be aggressive and destroy as much as you can as fast as you can, but avoiding damage still has its benefits.

Assault Android Cactus is divided up into a series of levels, and these levels are grouped together and are capped off by a boss fight. At first, I thought the game was pretty easy - I was hitting high scores left and right, and getting good "A" and "S" ranks for my trouble. However, that first boss fight convinced me that this game is not pulling punches. I had to carefully plan my strategy and pick an android that complimented how I wanted to play in order to survive.

Past the first boss fight, the levels started to steadily ramp up the difficulty. New enemies and level elements are introduced at a healthy pace. For instance, some levels dynamically reconfigure themselves on the fly. Another level cycle between light and dark, giving you limited visibility to the robot foes.

The boss fights are similarly varied and interesting. They each have several different attack patterns they cycle through, and each one I've encountered so far is tough without being overly frustrating or twitch-based.

In fact, my favorite part of the game is how strategic it is. I find myself switching tactics to deal with the peculiarities of a particular level or boss. I might take a short-range android into a level with tight corridors, or take someone with extreme long range firepower to give myself more room against a melee-heavy boss.

When I fail, I don't feel frustrated so much as I feel like I could have done better. Every time I lose all my health, I have a second to contemplate my mistakes as I mash the fire button to get back up. What did I do wrong? What hit me? How should my tactics against that enemy or enemy type change? Am I equipped wrong for this level?

The campaign mode is complimented by some survival type challenges, and playing the game earns you credits you can spend on extras. For instance, you can buy extras that change the camera to first person or lock it into an isometric perspective.

On top of the single player options, you can also play co-op locally with up to four people. This is how we experienced it at SxSW Gaming, and Sanatana noted that in co-op play, the enemy counts scale up significantly. This makes it more of a frenetic action game and a bit less strategic, but it's still a heck of a lot of fun.

Assault Android Cactus does not feel like the first effort from a new studio. It's extremely polished and a delight to play, even in its early form. The animations are fluid and slick, the gameplay is tight and varied, and the audio is top notch. If you're a fan of dual-stick shooters, you really should at least give the free demo a try.

Assault Android Cactus is available now on Steam Early Access for $15, and a free demo is available.