A fun, colorful, and fresh take on twin-stick shooters and bullet hell bosses.
It needs to be said upfront that I'm not normally a big fan of the "bullet hell" style of games. Even back during the height of Geometry Wars' popularity, I only managed to earn just four achievements before I hit a brick wall and ultimately never touched the game again for the better part of a decade. It's not that I hate that particular genre of games, it's more so that they hate me and my poor reaction times. You're probably wondering then just how it is I wound up volunteering to review Assault Android Cactus, a game that unapologetically combines bullet hell bosses with "less hectic" wave-based levels that are more common to twin-stick shooters. Well, I'll tell you how I ended up here: I thought the game looked fun and I was right, it is fun.

Assault Android Cactus is a rather splendid hybrid of a twin-stick shooter and a traditional "bullet hell" style of game. The main campaign begins by selecting from one of five colorful and different characters, each with their own unique weapons and abilities. You go through each level taking down wave after wave of robots that shoot at you, chase you, and generally just want to stop you from living. After a few of these wave based levels you will come to one of a handful of big, bad bosses that were controlling those evil robots. This is where the bullet hell style of game kicks in. While the rest of the game is more of a "traditional" twin-stick shooter, the boss battles amp things up a few notches with these more difficult encounters. If you like having a screen full of bullets, you will love these boss fights. They are incredibly challenging encounters but never reach the point of feeling unfair. For the novice players out there, like myself, you can realistically expect to take a few tries before taking those bosses down for good.

There is a bit of story sprinkled throughout the game's main campaign. A few cutscenes play throughout the main campaign that sets the stage and keeps things moving along. Each boss encounter includes a brief exchange of somewhat amusing dialogue that seems to differ slightly based on which character you fight the boss as. The story never really goes much further than that, however. I will give credit where credit is due and say I appreciate that Witch Beam even bothered to include any sort of story in the game as story is largely absent from these genres.

Each character utilizes just two weapons. They each have a main weapon that you will spend most of your time using and they have a "special" weapon that is a bit more powerful but has a cooldown period. This prevents you from simply utilizing the special weapon at every opportunity. As an example, the title character, Cactus, mains an energy blaster and a flamethrower special weapon. My favorite character, Coral, instead uses a shotgun with a Plasma Field for her secondary attack. While you cannot swap out characters (and subsequently weapon types) during a match, you can power your weapons up to add some additional firepower. This is done simply by stringing together kill combos and gathering the pickups the enemies leave behind. As each character has their own weapon loadout, it is very easy to find a favorite and stick with them for many levels at a time. Sadly, not every level or game type will work well with your favorite class and you may find yourself having to change characters in order to more easily progress through the game.

No matter which character you select, there are some common gameplay threads that they all share. Each time you take out an enemy, there is a chance that they will drop a power-up. This power-up cycles through three potential bonuses including a speed boost, additional firepower, and the ability to stop all on screen enemies where they stand. Each of these effects is temporary but each are insanely useful and can help you turn a battle in your favor. Another common element is the big green battery icon present throughout every level. Not only are you up against countless robot baddies, but you are also in a race against time thanks to the always-discharging battery. Once the battery runs out, it's curtains for you. This means that you can die as often as you like in a level provided you still have some juice left in your battery. Once that runs out, you need to restart the level again. Fortunately, this can be recharged via a pickup dropped by enemies. These recharges are invaluable and you will often find that you are diving head first into a pack of robots just to grab it. This mechanic forces the player out of their comfort zone, ensuring that they do not simply take their time and kite the enemies around like in many other twin-stick shooters.

Completion of levels nets you some credits that you can spend at your leisure on a number of different in-game unlocks. Some of these unlocks include things like concept art and background information, but that's not all. Some of these unlocks serve as modifiers for the game. A lot of these modifiers are akin to some of the old-school cheat codes you used to find in games. A few of these unlocks include different sized heads for your characters and a first-person mode. That's right, an unlock allows you to turn a twin-stick/bullet hell game into a first-person shooter. It's honestly pretty damn cool. If the main campaign doesn't strike your fancy, perhaps you would instead like to try out and infinite mode or the daily challenges. You have just one shot to score as many points as you can in these special daily scenarios. Leaderboards allow you to challenge your friends or all of those strangers playing around the world and are present through all of the game's modes.

Speaking of friends, Assault Android Cactus allows you and up to three friends to play locally together. Sadly, there is no online multiplayer outside of the leaderboards. I will say up front that I did try two-player co-op and the game seemed to perform just fine. I cannot comment about how well the game would perform with four players but I can't imagine there would be much, if any, impact on the game's performance or quality.

Despite being a very solid game in almost every aspect, I do have a few minor issues I need to mention. First off is the fact that it was often difficult for me to see the incoming bullets and projectiles against the ever changing and colorful environments. Of course, this could have been by design as a means to add a certain degree of difficulty to the game. I was also a bit disappointed that there weren't new or additional weapon pickups to be found during the course of a level. Those weapons you start a level with are all you will have until you switch characters between levels. Yes, they get more powerful with some added abilities as you take out enemies, but they still aren't different weapons. This is obviously just a personal preference and not a reflection of the quality of the game itself.

Bottom Line
If you are looking for a fresh, colorful, fun twin-stick shooter with a dash of personality, then you should look no further than Assault Android Cactus. With a number of levels, daily challenges, and game altering unlocks, you and up to three friends will have an absolute blast with this game. Yes, it can and will be difficult for many players but what fun would a twin-stick or bullet hell game be without a good challenge.
+ Challenging without being unfair.
+ An excellent blend of traditional twin-stick shooter levels with bullet hell style bosses.
+ Lots of fun, game altering unlocks.
+ Levels are never static, which is both a blessing and a curse (see negatives).
+ Great local co-op experience for up to four players.
+ Perfect game to pick up and play for a few minutes or a few hours as most levels last just a few (intense) minutes each.
+ Numerous game modes include a main story campaign, daily challenges, a Boss Rush mode, an infinite mode, and more.
- The story, while I'm glad there was one at all, felt a little flat at times.
- Sometimes difficult to see the bullets against the colorful, changing environments.
Related Information
Title: Assault Android Cactus (Developed by Witch Beam)
Platforms: Reviewed on PlayStation 4 (Also available on PC via Steam or Humble)
Website: http://www.assaultandroidcactus.com/p/landing.html
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (Fantasy Violence, Mild Language)
Assault Android Cactus was provided to Total Gaming Network for review purposes.