With the decline of western arcades, shoot em’ ups and similar titles have become fewer and further between. Fewer still are titles that attempt to innovate within this space, with the majority hearkening back to the arcade roots of a long passed era. With this, titles in this genre can often seem somewhat inaccessible, offering brutally punishing difficulties and a very steep learning curve for newcomers. Assault Android Cactus seeks to change this, offering a more accessible shoot ’em up experience, while retaining the depth, silky smooth controls, explosive visuals, and spectacularly frantic gameplay that fans have came to expect of the genre.
When SNK’s Metal Slug first hit arcades, one of its core hooks was its visual and technical fidelity. Enemies and the environment alike experienced a very significant visual impact of the players actions, as explosions and gunfire rained destruction across the screen. Indeed, in many ways it could be argued that the pure spectacle of these experiences was a core component of their appeal, yet as we’ve moved forward, many of these titles merely attempt to ape the visual aesthetics of these arcade classics, holding a feeling of nostalgia above providing a respectively impactful visual spectacle to the arcade classics they take inspiration from. Assault Android Cactus differentiates itself in this regard, offering detailed, and dynamic 3D environments as the setting for truly spectacular gunfights between numerous playable Android, and the enemy AI.
Bullets whiz across the screen, enemies explode in a flurry of colourful particle effects and the stage shifts dynamically around the player, as more and more enemies are gradually introduced to the arena. Though relatively modest in appearance within still screenshots, Assault Android Cactus comes to life in motion, facilitating a brilliantly chaotic, action packed visual style that compliments its gameplay offering satisfying feedback on each of the games weapons and abilities.
Stages themselves serve as small arena’s, usually not requiring you to move from the screen you spawn into, yet gameplay variety is facilitated by a diverse selection of playable androids, each with their own weapons and abilities as well as dynamic stages, where the arena shifts and moves around you, forcing you to adapt your playstyle from moment to moment. Each arena also presents its own set of challenges, introducing new environmental hazards, enemies, and structural features that can either help or hinder. Characters range from the close quarters shotgun users, to long range homing missile blasters, affording incredible variety from one to another, where tactical adaptation is necessary to maximize the efficacy of each available character.
The core gameplay is largely as you would expect from the genre. Simply point and shoot at the enemies until everything on the screen is dead. You can switch to an alternate ability which also grants you very brief invulnerability, and collect a number powerups that drop from enemies. The twist in Assault Android Cactus however is that instead of having a limited number of lives, your Android possesses a limited battery. This shifts the game away from typical gameplay mechanics as you’re encouraged to kill enemies as fast as possible in order to gain more batteries, and stay alive in order to complete the stage.
While on paper this doesn’t amount to much more than attempting to kill enemies a little faster than you would in the genres contemporaries, this emphasis on speed instead of self preservation has a significant impact on the games accessibility, and this is especially true for the games up to four player local co-operative play. Unlike games like Resogun, where your inexperienced friend will be sat at the ‘waiting to revive’ screen more frequently than they are able to actually play the game, Assault Android Cactus allows players to keep going even after death. Death ultimately wastes time, draining your battery, leading to lower scores and possible stage failure, but never does it prevent you from participating, and that goes a long way when you’re trying to get your less coordinated friends to join in.
Significantly, this accessibility system comes without sacrificing the depth typical of the genre as players seeking a harder challenge are encouraged to go for higher rankings, where continuously chaining of combos is essential for higher scores. Heck, there’s even an S+ mode where the game will auto-restart the stage for you the very moment you make a mistake, either through dropping your chain or taking too much damage. This combination of gameplay mechanics allows the game to be accessible for newcomers, yet affords the depth and challenge that veterans of the genre will have come to expect.
This is also helped by the game being split into multiple 5 minute stages, rather than one endless campaign. For the less invested this allows people to easily jump in and out of the game, while contributing to their overall progress, yet for veterans this enables focused score optimization across very specific stages and enemy distributions, without being punished for a single mistake, 50 minutes in. Ultimately, it’s arguably a much more compelling score chasing game as a result, as you’re not going away with a feeling that you’ve wasted almost an hour of your time with a single mistake. Although, with this said, for those that appreciate lengthier, endurance style arcade gameplay, the game also offers a robust infinite arcade mode.
In terms of replayability, each of the unlockable Android’s possess very unique playstyles, and even personalities, encouraging multiple playthroughs of the main campaign and endless mode to see how far you can get, or how well you can do, with each gameplay style. I’m not typically one to chase high scores but Assault Android Cactus compelled me to give the game a go with each of the various characters, figuring out strategies and techniques that might maximize my points, and best suit how I like to play the game.
There’s a story too, told through an introductory and closing sequence, and various dialogue points throughout the main campaign. I found the main characters surprisingly likeable considering how little each interaction you have with each, yet they manage to ooze personality through these brief intermissions as well as voiced dialogue that’s offered during gameplay. Despite the narratives simplicity I found it surprisingly compelling, almost making me want a sequel just to see what happens next with Cactus and her squad of androids.
The game also features an additional set of unlockable artwork and EX options for those that want to delve deeper. The EX options provide interesting quirks with settings like a static isometric camera, a first person shooter camera, various visual filters and other modifiers. Personally I found most of these options to be a little underwhelming, offering little merit to the core gameplay, and some of the filters were almost headache inducing, but it was fun to give them a whirl, before switching back to the already near perfect, default settings that the game has to offer.
Ultimately the core experience on offer here is an absolutely phenomenal one. Assault Android Cactus is an absolute blast for its campaigns duration. Through addictive gameplay, numerous modes, dynamic stages, character diversity and newcomer accessibility, Assault Android Cactus will keep you coming back for more for many hours to come. This is one of the most compelling arcade shoot ’em up packages we’ve ever played, an absolute must have on the Playstation 4 or PC.