The PS4 version of Assault Android Cactus was primarily tested for the purpose of this review.
Releasing initially through Early Access on Steam for PC, the cult arcade twin stick shooter comes to Playstation 4 this Tuesday 8th of March 2016 after a brief dalliance with potential PS+ glory. The game will also eventually release on Vita and will be crossbuy for those who own the PS4 version.
Simple story. You start out as Cactus, a space cop. Investigating a freighter in distress it quickly becomes evident that the robot defence system has gone haywire and Cactus must get the freighter back under control with the help of other androids she meets along the way.
This basic plot is established very quickly with minimal development over the story campaign, allowing the gameplay progression to inform the player of the headway Cactus makes towards her goal rather than interrupt constantly. This focus on showing rather than telling suits the fast paced gameplay, being first and foremost a twin stick shooter Witchbeam know their strengths and avoid bogging the experience down. The few twists in the story centering around the zone bosses, which are very effectively crafted in service of the gameplay tactics required to best them, unique screens for each android is a nice personalised touch too.
Recent Unity engine titles on consoles have shown quite erratic performance and thankfully here Witchbeam nail the port in fantastic fashion. Framerate (to my untrained eyes) is very solid even with a lot of action happening on screen. Effects seem to have come across from the PC version mostly intact and the game looks delightful in motion, screenshots don’t do it justice. The focus is firmly on performance so the cartoon style works to meet a high framerate while still looking appealing to the eye, the opening cutscene shows the limitations of the models though and is the only real glaring section of the game that might have benefited from some more detailed models. Leaderboards are implemented on every level and help give you scores to target on the way to perfecting your runs.
The PS4 port utilises the speaker in the Dualshock 4, with powerups and other notifications being announced through it which is a nice touch. Unlockables are available in several forms, some of which require credits earnt in game to unlock. This allows some interesting customisation, including small head mode, filters and AI allies. Also unlockable are over 200 sound bites and around 20 music tracks available to play from the main menu, the option to customise these on the fly in-game would be fantastic though as quitting out to the main menu to fiddle with the filters can be annoying.
Alongside the arcade mode is a straight up boss run mode, survival mode and a daily challenge mode. The daily drive to the top of the leaderboard offers a reason to come back every day and challenge your PSN friends. There are also a number of accessibility options, such as colour filters and inversions, available to make sure people are comfortable with the onscreen action. Languages available for the AU version include English, French, Italian, German, Spanish and Japanese.
Onto the meat and potatoes, for an arcade twin stick shooter the gameplay is make or break. The hook for AAC is a constantly draining battery for your android, which is replenished by battery drops once a certain amount of enemies are dispatched. Initially fans of the twin stick shooter will be thrown off by this major shift in style, effectively working against a countdown to instant fail. The shift is similar to a veteran Souls player starting up Bloodborne for the first time. The motto here is ‘be aggressive, be fast, be efficient’. This mechanic is woven into every morsel of the game, with every character, every enemy and every stage designed as mini puzzles to solve in order to maintain survival speed. Witchbeam have excelled in carefully balancing all the elements involved to make the game frantic yet viable at all times, each set of tactics fitting together like a quality jigsaw puzzle.
Each character has 2 unique weapons on hand which allow for wildly different playstyles, each capable of completing the game while remaining balanced with enemies. Enemies themselves have obvious strengths and weaknesses to plan around, through multiple types of enemies down into combat therefore requires plans of attack to also evolve as one bot can quite easily cancel out the others weakness. The final established factor is the levels themselves which can constantly shift and unfold throughout the course of your progress, usually in ways to keep you on your toes to avoid even the brief possibility of complacency never entering the players head. The wildcard in the mix are the various powerups that range from super speed to increased firepower or freezing bots in their place, dropped powerups cycle through the possible effects too so you can again weave it into your tactical approach to the current situation.
Bosses are a staple of twin stick shooters, offering a decidedly different challenge compared to the rank and file thrown in front of your android. Here elements of bullet hell intermingle with many phase strategies. Each boss offers up a variety of methods to destroy, showing just enough of their hand to give the player an edge in a situation where time is even more of the essence than usual with battery drops only happening at the end of a boss phase. The level of care taken in designing these encounters means that thankfully none of the bosses are unfair, effective tactics must be made and executed though to avoid ending up with a dead battery.
Each level progressively adds more unique enemies that require specific tactics in order to dispatch efficiently, finding ways to clear the combination of different types adds a chance for constant improvement second to second and can mean the difference between a high score and failure. They are generally introduced early in a level to avoid frustration and the enemy drop rates through the game are scheduled perfectly. At no point does the game feel unfair, which is critical in arcade games, leaving you wanting to play ‘just one more run’ and improve your score each and every time. The sheer amount of detail you can feel under the surface almost makes this feel like a top level fighting game, with hundreds of damage values being executed each second on screen, with multiple unique ‘fighters’ to perfect in order to get every ounce of score out of. The balance is perfect and leaves a huge smile on your face every time you push a score into a new personal best.
In addition to all the above, you also have up to 4 player local co-op, which turns a tight arcade game into a hilariously frantic shooting gallery. The increase in players brings an increase in enemies to blast which makes for a flashy show onscreen, due to the variety in androids this again allows a lot of fun ways to clear the levels as a team. The only drawback is no online co-op, which I expect would’ve resulted in a number of performance issues to design around so the decision is understandable if unfortunate.
Witchbeam have managed to make their debut title an instant classic, up there with the best in the genre and alongside veterans Housemarque on the platform. If you enjoy addictive arcade shooters Assault Android Cactus is a must have. The port across to Playstation 4 is very impressive and easy to recommend alongside the PC version.