Flippin Kaktus is a marmitey platformer. To use a cactus analogy, it’s either going to have you covered in prickles, or supping from its tasty goodness, depending on how you approach it. We ended up enjoying its charms, but we got scratches and scrapes on the way.
It is an action-platformer with plenty of ideas. You play the titular cactus, who has survived a hit from the Calaveras Cartel. Unfortunately, your family wasn’t so lucky. It’s left you seething and on the hunt for revenge, and that hunt will take you from the deserts of Mexico to spider-infested caves and scientific laboratories.
Being a vehicle of vengeance, Flippin Kaktus has the ability to switch between two states: a calm, cute little cactus who has the ability to don a sombrero or crate to stealth past enemies, or a RAGE-filled cactus, mohican and all, charging through enemies like a rhino on fire. The rage-state can be triggered manually, and at any time, thanks to chili, tequila and – we think – crystal meth collectibles (Breaking Bad’s Walter White turns up at one point, so we believe the allusion is intentional). Or you can stand by the hind-quarters of a donkey, as they buck and fire you into a rage state. Yes, really. This last one creates a rage state at the cost of several health bars, making you something of a glass cannon.
This dual approach to a level, completely optional and with roughly equal amounts of difficulty, is Flippin Kaktus’s greatest achievement. Dishonored-like, you can adopt the play style that best suits you. Stealth and bloody-vengeance are both equally viable, and they each have their appeal. Almost every enemy encounter has a stealthy method of disposing of them: whether that’s activating a nearby turret, or leading them into a spiky deathtrap. Working this out makes Flippin Kaktus more of an action-puzzler, and it’s fun to watch the genre-shift.
Equally, a brainless action approach is also absolutely fine. Kaktus has a gun, but the dash is the real winner, as you can slam through ranks of enemies without them stopping you in your tracks. More and more abilities and items get unlocked, making you more of a spiky Schwarzenegger as the levels go on.
The dual approach also helps when the levels get more difficult, and they absolutely will. If you’re having a tough time of a sequence, you can switch approach, and suddenly it might be a touch more achievable. We found ourselves leaning towards all-out-attack, but would absolutely switch to subterfuge if things weren’t going our way.
And things didn’t always go our way. This is where our complicated relationship with Flippin Kaktus came in. It is incredibly, almost insufferably hard, and you have to prepare for that relationship with it. There is a lower ‘greenhorne’ difficulty, but even that has its challenges. Enemies are constant, and checkpoints are reasonably sparse. It has an extremely positive habit of introducing new enemies and new obstacles regularly, but that has the associated negative of dying more frequently, as you try to figure out what these new hazards are all about. Higher difficulties unlock after the game is completed, but we can’t imagine the person who would attempt those.
We weren’t sold on the controls, either. The jump is stumpy, and the projectile attacks – particularly in stealth mode – are stubby and barely do any damage at all. Latter abilities, like a mid-air dash, are clumsy, and Flippin Kaktus is determined that you be able to chain abilities together, when the controls can’t support that level of flow. We found ourselves dashing off cliffs and ropes when we didn’t intend to, simply because the game didn’t register what we were trying to achieve.
High difficulty, dodgy controls and rare checkpoints are a deadly cocktail, and a lesser game would have been tossed in the bin. But we found ourselves pulled through the harder, stickier sections of the game, simply because we knew that something new and interesting would be around the corner. There are no complaints around the variety or repetition of levels in Flippin Kaktus. It keeps throwing new enemies at you, and there will always be an eccentric eagle, cat or Breaking Bad character to chat to at the end of it.
We haven’t mentioned the visual stylings, which are equally endearing. Someone has clearly decided that the ‘80s was the height of fashion, delivering CRT-style jumps and screen-shakes, as well as chromatic aberration when they can possibly fit it in. The cutscenes are straight out of an overblown ‘80s action movie, and the game as a whole has the timbre of a SEGA Mega Drive game. There’s a bit of Kid Chameleon here, Bonanza Bros there, even if it doesn’t directly lift from any singular game.
We can’t defend Flippin Kaktus’s spikier bits. The controls are leaden, making you feel dumpy when you want to be a cartwheeling death machine. And the difficulty is sky high, even on easier settings. But tame the controls and difficulty and you will be rewarded. Flippin Kaktus is a generous, imaginative action-platformer that has a cunning rage-mechanic at its core. If you have the gaming chops, this is well worth the challenge.
You can buy Flippin Kaktus from the Xbox Store