I’ve been playing Pokemon games since all the way back at the beginning of the series with Pokemon Blue. While I’ve missed certain entries or generations, for most of my life I have regularly revisited the world of Pokemon to see what new things the series is bringing to the table. When I was a kid it always felt like the series was improving in leaps and bounds. As an adult, the incremental adjustments from gens six to eight have been a lot less impressive. The Pokemon Company is famously conservative when it comes to taking risks with the core series, playing it safe with their gameplay mechanics and creature designs to guarantee that as many as possible come back each generation. While it’s great for a number of fans there are those of us who want to see the series grow not just in financial success but also in game mechanics or the types of stories it can tell. I’ve found myself saying many a time that I wish there was strong competition out there pushing Pokemon to have to rise to the occasion, or offering an alternative that plays in the same space but makes strong choices about how to change the core formula into something that feels unique.
I learned about Cassette Beasts a while back, possibly as much as a year ago. It has been on my “games on my radar” list for a long time. I didn’t know a lot about it outside of the fact that it was a Pokemon-like game that seemed to be taking some unique approaches to the system. It had the potential to be the kind of experience I’ve been looking for. But could it succeed where other games had failed, at least in my eyes? Recently I got the opportunity to form some early impressions of the game courtesy of Steam Next Fest, where a number of titles make demos available on Steam and livestream information about their game. It’s a great opportunity to check in on promising indie titles, and once I realized Cassette Beasts had a demo for the Fest it was the very first one I downloaded to check out.
The premise of Cassette Beasts is that your character wakes up on the beach on an island called New Wirral. They’re not sure how they got there, but according to the local townsfolk people from a number of different worlds have ended up on New Wirral over the course of the last century and trapped there with no way home. The community has made the best of it, building up homes and shops forming a crew of rangers to protect the town from the local wildlife. New Wirral, you see, is covered in monsters, and the only way to defeat those monsters is to give them a taste of their own medicine. When a monster is recorded onto a cassette tape, a person listening to that tape can become the monster, using its abilities to fight back against other monsters out in the world. When you are ambushed on your way into town, a helpful girl named Kayleigh gives you your first tape and teaches you the ropes of how to survive in New Wirral.
One notable feature off the bat in this game is character customization. You make your character at the beginning of the game but can change their hair style, clothing, colors, and pronouns all for free by visiting the dresser in your home. The customization options are relatively robust given the pixel art style of the game; different lengths of hair colored and accessorized in different ways as well as the ability to have afros and locs helps you to form a character with a unique look. You can also pick from a number of face accessories or facial hair as well as changing up the type of clothes you wear and deciding their colors. I gave my character long hair tied back in a ponytail as well as a beard and glasses, going with a look that somewhat resembled my real self rather than going wild with bright colors or anime hairstyles. As you make changes, you’ll see how they impact both your in battle sprite as well as your overworld sprite.
Graphically the game definitely has a visual style reminiscent of GBA-era Pokemon, but with some unique visual flairs of its own. As one might expect from a game where the central game mechanic revolves around cassette tapes, there’s a retro style to the characters and locations that helps to give the game a unique spirit. The monster designs you get to see in the early game try to show off a decent variety of ideas; rather than mice and birds you have traffic cone crabs, plant versions of the Japanese stone lions, superhero moths, and a few other monsters you can battle and try to record. Some designs are more memorable than others but most of them have a consistent aesthetic that I found enjoyable. Notably, there are monster types intentionally designed to be different from the bulk of the creatures you can meet, powerful entities who break the game world around them and have visages and manners of speaking that border on unsettling. I was really surprised to see this sort of thing in the game and it piqued my curiosity in terms of what the overarching story might entail.
I also want to talk about the soundtrack we hear in the demo, as a game built around cassette tapes naturally seems like one where the music will be important. I enjoyed many of the tunes I got to hear in the demo and there’s a solid variety in terms of mood of the tracks. Some tracks are vocalized, such as the track that plays in the background of more reflective scenes of dialogue or the one that plays when battling the aforementioned world-shattering boss. These songs were the standouts for me but I also enjoyed the standard battle theme and found it catchy enough to serve its purpose as a song you’ll have to hear over and over again. If the rest of the music trends in this direction, I can see this being the sort of game where a dedicated soundtrack release would do well.
Now let’s discuss the real meat of the demo: the gameplay. The demo lets you play what I would say feels like the prologue of the game: you appear on the island, get your first tape, explore a bit and learn to record, and then face off against a boss that then sends you forward on a quest that will likely make up the main story campaign. It’s just enough to give you an idea of what to expect from the full experience. Like most RPGs, Cassette Beast can be divided pretty cleanly into overworld exploration and turn based battles. On the overworld map you can walk around and jump to navigate areas. Enemies appear on the overworld map and if you touch them or press the interact button when next to them and facing them, you’ll get into a battle. You can restore your party by resting at campsites at various points in the overworld and spending some resources; resources are earned in battle by defeating opponents. There are also small puzzles like looking for switches or using movement abilities to cross terrain. During the demo you record a monster that allows you to glide, and the glide technique can be used to cross horizontal gaps that are too large for your character to jump over. It’s nice to have overworld mechanics be a bit more active and I’m curious to see how many the game ends up with.
Battles are turn-based affairs where you and your allies work together to fight a party of monsters. At the beginning of battle, your characters will turn into monster forms based on whatever tape they have equipped. On your turn you choose an action like using a move, switching tapes, using an item, running away, or recording an enemy monster onto a blank tape. Moves in Cassette Beasts use an energy point system that’s distinct from the power points in Pokemon. Each turn you accrue two points. Each move has a different point cost, and if you spend less than you made then you’ll have extra points the next turn to spend on more expensive moves. This system means that you don’t have to worry about running out of attacking moves or conserving your best moves only for bosses, but it also means that you can’t clear out regular battles by just spamming your most powerful ability – you have to build up the energy to unleash hell on your enemies.
Notably, Cassette Beasts has a difficulty system that allows you to adjust both level scaling as well as move selection for the opponents. The default setting causes weaker enemies to scale slightly towards your level while stronger enemies are not adjusted, and intelligent foes will pick the optimal moves against you while wild monsters will take actions at random. You can adjust this to make it easier, making high-level foes get scaled down and pick random moves, or up the ante by making the level scaling work against you as well as making even wild enemies expert tacticians with their move selection. As someone who regularly plays challenge runs of Pokemon games, I really appreciate the incorporation of an in-game tool for adjusting difficulty to taste.
Cassette Beasts wouldn’t be a monster battling game without the ability to get more monsters, and the way you handle it in this game is by recording. Recording enemies works differently than capturing in Pokemon in a couple of key ways. While recording, the recording character’s human form will be stuck holding a tape player and can’t attack. They’ll have a base recording percentage depending on how much health the monster has remaining and how rare it is. If the monster takes damage while being recorded, the chance to record it successfully will go up; however, if the recorder takes damage, the chance to record successfully decreases. You see the chance adjustments happening in real time so at the end of the turn, you know exactly how likely it is that you will successfully make the recording and you know how much it was impacted by the factors that played out during the turn. This means if you fail, you can take precautions to help the next attempt be more successful like weakening the foe more before attempting to record, setting up statuses that divert aggro away from the person recording, and dealing bigger damage while the recording it taking place. An enemy being recorded can’t run away and can’t be knocked out by an attack, which I rather appreciated.
Finally, there’s one mechanic I didn’t really get to see more than once during the demo but which I am sure some folks will be intrigued by: monster fusion. Two characters fighting side by side can build up a fusion meter based on the number of relationship ranks they have together. Once they fuse, the two monsters they have transformed into become one and they fight together as a single unit. Fused monsters have all the abilities of both and have their stats added together, making the fused form a hard-hitting and versatile force to be reckoned with. The demo only includes a tease of this ability so there’s no telling how far this goes in terms of specific monsters having bonuses when they fuse or how unique the fusion abilities of specific party members might be. But for those enthusiastic about the idea of combining monsters, that mechanic is alive and well in Cassette Beasts.
So we come to the million-dollar question: is Cassette Beasts the game I’ve been looking for? The indie title that finally takes the core premise of Pokemon and revolutionizes it, like what Into the Breach did for tactics or Slay the Spire for deckbuilders? That I’m not sure about. Cassette Beasts definitely has some quality of life touches that I wish Pokemon would implement in terms of character customization, difficulty scaling, and the way the capture/recording mechanics function. But when it comes to the essential task of battling other monsters – the thing you do the most often in these games! – Cassette Beasts isn’t doing anything that I haven’t seen other RPGs do before. The action point system has existed in other games that have executed it just as well if not better, and because the reward system in this game is still a simple “grind XP to level up and gain both stats and moves” you still end up spending a lot of time in needless fights just so your team can remain competitive throughout the campaign. If the battles required more brainpower than “use the free attack until you have enough AP for your best move” then I think Cassette Beasts would have the potential to stand out. But the simple battle system really holds back a game that otherwise appears to be doing a lot of interesting things.
I’ll still be keeping an eye on Cassette Beasts moving forward as I am curious to see how the game grows and changes as it gets closer to release. I’m not holding my breath for any large-scale battle system changes, but even a little something that makes the battles more thoughtful than just spamming the attack button would go a long way towards impressing me. Cassette Beasts has potential, and even in its current state I think there are features within it that are notable and that I wish others in its genre would emulate. But when the core of the experience is the part with the least innovation, it’s hard for me to get excited about what the game is doing. I’m open to having my mind changed, though, and look forward to seeing more next year closer to when the game releases.
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