I really like Witch Beam Games' Assault Android Cactus, as will probably be abundantly clear if you read my preview from EGX last year.
But the game's been in development for a while, and missed the intended release date of November that I was told last year. What's changed? Has anything changed? And is the game worth picking up, even in its present Early Access form?
Well, the latter question is a simple one to answer: yes, absolutely. The game was already in a highly polished but content-incomplete state when I saw it last year, and it's only continued to improve over time. The team at Witch Beam is open and clear about which of the game's levels are done and dusted in their final form and which are still awaiting dressing -- "complete" levels are highlighted in green on the level select screen, while those still waiting for textures and tweaks appear as yellow -- and new content is being added at a good rate.
Some of the most significant new content that has been added since the EGX build of the game comes in the form of two new characters: Aubergine and Shiitake. Like the characters that were already in the game, both Aubergine and Shiitake are strongly distinguished from one another by the weaponry that they use; the dev team's intention was always to draw inspiration from Cave's bullet hell shooters and incorporate characters that each had their own unique weaponry and play style rather than simply being straight skin-swaps.
And my goodness, how differently these characters play, both from each other and from the rest of the playable ensemble. Of the two, Aubergine is by far the most unconventional, since she lacks a traditional gun at all and instead makes use of a small floating companion robot who, with a squeeze of the right trigger, becomes a whirling death machine that can be controlled independently of its mistress. Fighting as Aubergine then becomes something akin to that Animal Crossing game in Nintendoland, where you're desperately trying to keep tabs on two characters at once without running embarrassingly into a wall -- or, in this case, into electric robot death. If the worst comes to the worst, she can just summon a singularity and suck everything into oblivion, which is probably useful for tidying up as well as destroying berserk robotic minions.
Shiitake, meanwhile, is the newest addition to the cast, and sports a railgun, a side-order of "propeller mines" and some impressive bangs. Her gameplay is a markedly different experience once again: her railgun takes a while to charge, but when it does fire, it blasts straight through enemies for heavy damage, allowing you to cut paths through large groups of enemies with relative ease.
What's interesting about these different characters is that they make the game feel like... well, a completely different game. For those who simply want a fairly conventional twin-stick shooter, default character Cactus has a standard machine gun and more powerful short-range flamethrower. Other characters sport spread shots, shotguns and all manner of other little tricks, and mastery of all of them is key to attaining the elusive "S+" ranking on the game's challenging levels -- a task that requires you to successfully chain all your kills together into one unbroken combo without dying as well as scoring enough points to rocket up the leaderboards.
Chasing those elite ratings and high scores is an addictive experience, though, and Witch Beam has been paying close attention to feedback from the streamer and YouTuber communities in particular to make the game as frictionless as possible. Now, an icon on screen simply displays whether or not it's still possible for you to attain an S+ rank by the end of the stage -- it shatters dramatically when you lose your combo or get knocked down -- and restarting a stage is nothing more than tapping the "Back" button on the controller rather than having to click through a couple of menus. The ease with which you can try again calls to mind earlier games that really nailed this aspect of game flow -- titles like Trials and Super Meat Boy -- and will doubtless be of particular appeal to highly competitive players who consider themselves more towards the "pro" end of the spectrum. There's even a self-styled "Pro Mode" that automatically restarts a level any time you lock yourself out of an S+ rank, though you can thankfully turn this off for when you just want to survive, or when you're learning the attack patterns of a particular stage.
The "pro" thing is a particularly interesting facet of the game. When I spoke to developer Sanatana Mishra from Witch Beam back at EGX last year, he noted that the whole experience had been heavily inspired by both Eastern and Western approaches to shoot 'em up game design, and this is particularly apparent in the varying degrees of seriousness you can take your play sessions. From the Western angle, you can simply pick up and play the game without having to learn complicated scoring systems or mechanics -- Aubergine notwithstanding -- whereas the Eastern influence will be abundantly clear to anyone who has ever played a danmaku shooter: the levels' heavily pattern-based nature encourages you to learn the best routes through them until you can flawlessly pull off a non-stop combo without even thinking about it. And that might take you a while.
In answer to the question in the headline, then: Assault Android Cactus is shaping up very nicely indeed, and its updates are coming at a good rate. That said, I must confess that I am starting to get a bit antsy for the final version now; the game's been a long time in development and I'm keen to see a complete package with all the proposed game modes and the exciting-sounding "EX Options" touched on in our last preview. I'm also keen to see how the game plays on other platforms, too, particularly Vita; the game's quick-fire levels make it eminently suitable for handheld play.
My own impatience aside, Assault Android Cactus' PC version is well worth buying even now in its Early Access incarnation. There's plenty of content to enjoy, and its active, well-populated leaderboards make for a fun, competitive experience on every level. The current content is polished and plays well, and the promise of new levels and features as time goes on means that it's only going to get better as time goes on. Because, frankly, even with the game in its presently unfinished state, it's going to be difficult for Witch Beam to mess things up now.