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Thursday, July 6, 2023

Cassette Beasts, Side A: So Many Things That I Want To Say


Editor’s Note (please ignore that the editor and writer are the same person):
As you might be able to tell from the article below, I really like this game, and have a lot to say about it. So, in order to prevent the sort of schedule slippage that can happen when I try and sort out more complicated thoughts, I’m going to be trying something new: running two, shorter articles. This one will serve as a basically spoiler-free recommendation, and the second piece that follows (schedule very much TBD) will have a more in-depth commentary, and include more spoiler-y details. Maybe the shorter length will make them both a little more readable too, we’ll see.

In the meantime, if you’d like, you could pick up Cassette Beasts now (it’s on sale as part of the Steam Summer Sale!) and maybe you’ll have thoughts of your own by the time part 2 arrives! And of course, as always, feel free to sign up for my email list if you'd like to be notified when that article goes live; I promise that I'll only send things when there's new writings to read!

Back in December, I wrote about the greatness that was Neon White, and mentioned the excitement that comes when something that you’ve greatly anticipated lives up to high expectations. Well, I’m excited to announce that yet again*, another indie video game has pulled it off, with Bytten Studio delivering an absolute masterpiece in Cassette Beasts.

*I originally said “for the second year in a row” here, but 2021 had Chicory and Demon Turf, so I suppose it’s a little more frequent than that. We’re just in a good time for indie games!

I first became aware of the game while writing about the two-person studio’s previous game, Lenna’s Inception, which was my favorite game that I played in 2020. In fact, my memory might be wrong, but I think the announcement came out while I was doing research for that article? Either way, from the moment I saw that first trailer, I have been pumped, and I’m glad it’s lived up to all of my anticipation.

But let’s rewind for a minute, before getting too far into the game’s backstory: Cassette Beasts is a monster collecting turn-based RPG. You play as a customizable player character who has somehow fallen through a portal and washed up on a monster-filled island. Thankfully, you’re quickly rescued by a woman from a nearby town, who explains that dozens of other people over the years have fallen through space and time to this island just like you, and that they’ve banded together into a small community in this strange world. And the way they defend themselves against these monsters is with cassette players.

Specifically, something about these creatures allows them to be recorded onto blank cassette tapes, and playing those tapes back over headphones allows you to transform into copies of the monsters and fight back. So, you get your standard choice of two different starter monsters (the impish Candevil or the ghostly Bansheep, both of which I love; the starters and their evolutions really help set this game stand out in the genre!), a quick rundown of the battle systems, and you’re off!

Look at these little guys!

Look at these little guys!

So, yes, it’s a creature collecting game, and Pokémon kind of looms large over the entire genre. However, there’s a good deal here setting Cassette Beasts apart from them (and most of the field). Every battle is by default two-on-two, with you getting a partner to accompany you. Each of them transforms just like you, and they all have their own storylines that you’ll help them through over the course of the story, in any order and at any pace you like. The world is fairly wide open here, and I didn’t really test the limits too hard, but I get the sense that if you really want to, you can blast through the main story with most quests uncompleted. (And maybe even most partners un-discovered? But again, I didn’t really test this.)

In a different approach for a Pokémon-inspired creature collector, your character (fully customizable!) and the partners are the important things here. They’re the things gaining levels with experience points, not the creatures you copy. Which in turn allows you a lot more freedom in picking your monsters; they’ll learn more moves and improve their stats a little bit with usage, but their growth is separate and has a pretty low ceiling. The character levels matter much more, so you can try out every creature in the bestiary without worrying too much about them being too weak for your current level.

I’ll also add that, just as characters, all of the partners are really cool! Each gets a storyline that lets you get to know them better, complete with a big climactic moment where they overcome their challenges. And spending more time with each will get you more backstory and emotions, culminating with the option to date one of them (it doesn’t change anything mechanically, but it is a fun touch!). It’s nothing super groundbreaking story-wise, but it’s nice that they’re all competently written (and much like with the monsters, I’m sure anyone who plays will find a favorite or two).

The monsters here also carry some differences from Pokémon. There are over 120 species*, and they are not only a wide variety of fun designs (always a must in this genre!), but also probably the tightest thematic set of any monster collecting game I can think of. Everything ties heavily into some aspect of human creation, either something physical (e.g. crabs using traffic cones as shells), something from folklore or myth (e.g. a winged jackalope), or something with bits of both (e.g. an imp made of candy corn). And it’ll lay all of that out for you, if you use them enough; much like in Pokémon Legends Arceus, there are separate achievements for catching every monster to enter their basic data and using them enough in-game to reveal more info like their inspirations. It’s a nice twist that adds to the game’s surprisingly deep world.

*The first major free update has already been released and upped the base game’s count, so I won’t be giving the exact number because I’m sure that will change even more going forward

Pokémon’s type chart also gets a bit of a remix. You of course have your stock base types: Fire, Water, Plant, and so on. There are some other types that overlap, like Metal and Poison, although they generally feel fairly distinct from Pokemon in how they play here. And then there are the very unique ones, like Beast or Plastic or Glass. Every creature only gets one type, but a variety of other moves that give them coverage, and a lot of ways to temporarily change their type for extra battle strategies. And to keep any type from feeling like it doesn’t have enough tools in its toolbox, there are also a number of neutral moves, which will take on the type of the monster they’re attached to.

The strengths and weaknesses work very differently as well: in addition to doing slightly more or less damage, types will have unique extra interactions, like water attacks also weakening fire types’ offense, or poison types being automatically burned by fire moves, or earth types becoming glass types when they’re hit by electric moves. It feels like a lot, but most of them are intuitive and will stick with you as you play (plus the game’s UI will give you reminders), so it mostly winds up being another fun changeup.

Those little guys from earlier, now combined into one bigger guy.

And then there’s the last big trick up their sleeve, fusions. They’re exactly what they sound like: once your fusion meter is full, your character and your partner can combine to form a bigger, stronger monster with more resources, including a special semi-custom super move. I don’t know that it’s strategically much deeper than it sounds, but it is really cool, bringing a exciting, climactic element to the battle much in the same way that, say, Dynamaxing or Mega Evolution does in Pokémon. It helps you match up to the big bosses, tough enemy trainers will break it out and dare you to match, every fusion (several thousand of them!) has a custom sprite… It’s a lot of effort to make something basic feel even more interesting, and it’s much appreciated in-game!

Of course, all of those gameplay elements help distinguish Cassette Beasts significantly, but they also still feel like it’s selling it short. Because even outside of all of those base mechanics, more than every other indie game in this field that I’ve tried, Cassette Beasts pushes against the conventions that Pokémon has set for the field, bringing in a wide array of other influences that it’s happy to display, and it results in an extremely unique and interesting experience. There’s some Digimon and Shin Megami Tensei in how it feels and plays as well*, but it goes even deeper than that.

*Which is honestly shockingly rare for these games, despite the fact that those two are maybe the distant second and third biggest players in the Creature Collecting subgenre? Like, it’s not even that Bytten Studio is pulling heavily from either, just small elements here and there, but it’s still enough to stand out from a lot of the competition.

There’s just a love of music that’s palpable all throughout the game. There’s the cassettes and tape players that serve as the central mechanic, of course, and those carry through for everything: the tape player serves as the battle UI, move sets are represented by stickers on the tape arranged like a playlist, you heal with pencils and keys that rewind and re-spool them, even the rare variants are called “bootlegs”.* Having a very clear, very distinct vibe like that also goes a long way in setting any game apart (and again, even more so in a space where many other games are content to just cheekily recolor different shapes to look like Pokéballs and borrow terminology wholesale).

*I didn’t even mention this earlier, since they are relatively rare in the main story, but bootlegs are also a super fun twist on shiny Pokémon. Not only do your monsters get a neat recolor, they also get an entirely different type (in fact, there’s one recolor for every type in game!) and special, rarer moves. They open up so many new and fun avenues to play with, from bootleg hunting to building specialty teams in the postgame, to the ability to start a new file after your first one with randomly re-rolled types for every monster in-game for extra variety. 

Hey wait, those little guys from earlier look different now...

But there’s also a whole host of the smaller, non-mechanical things, too. Every mission pulls its name from pop songs, with the major ones all leaning on famous ‘80s new wave and synthpop for nice thematic cohesion.* About half of the partner characters have music as a part of their individual storylines. Even the soundtrack fits; it’s a fun set of songs that stylistically borrows from those same ‘80s hits, and they’ll even add in a vocal track when you activate your fusion. Reaching the climactic part of a battle and having lyrics kick in (because of your choices, no less) just makes the experience so much more exciting and memorable; you really feel that extra adrenaline when it hits!

*Which is also why I gave this piece its title.

There’s also a lot of 2D Zelda kicking around in here, too, although that’s probably not a surprise given this team’s last project. I’ve argued several times that Pokémon and Zelda have a lot of overlapping gameplay elements, so it’s nice to see that other people get it. Really, it makes Cassette Beasts an even more interesting comparison with Lenna’s Inception, as a Monster Tamer with Zelda touches; I argued last time that Lenna was a Top Down A-A game with a bunch of Pokémon weaved in, making this sort of an inverse.

It works on a whole bunch of levels, really. There’s the general premise of just getting plopped down into a fantastical, almost dream-like world full of monsters with a main town at the core; New Wirral measures up to Koholint, Holodrum, Labrynna, and early Hyrule as much as it follows them. You’re given large amounts of freedom to explore, although there are a few key funnel points to pass through. Never fear though, new abilities (from Monsters you copy, rather than dungeon items) will open those right up! There’s a sense of the ancient and magical permeating New Wirral, and it gives this game such a fun vibe of exploration.

And while there are no Zelda-like dungeons proper, there are a few things close. And these spots just nail that ominous dread, the kind that earlier games might have conveyed largely through implication to young imaginative minds, which can here be realized with detailed pixel graphics, dark music lurking at the edges, and things going… just a bit wrong at the edges of the game. And of course, there are the boss fights, Archangels*, which just pushes this further. Every one of them is a showstopper, jarring you uncomfortably in a fun way every time you meet one, and giving you a good excuse to kick on that triumphant vocal track for your big fight!

*Again linking this to Lenna’s Inception through the reuse of that term/concept, although they’re a bit different here. There’s still a playful sense of tapping on the fourth wall, though; they don’t go as far with the more meta elements this time, but it’s definitely interesting to see them toying with some of those same tools to different effect here.

And while we’re discussing the world… there are just so many small touches that help deepen it. I went on at length in my Lenna’s Inception review talking about all the ways it referenced the weirdness and hoaxes and glitches of early games (Pokémon Red and Blue, especially). That’s here as well, and if you know enough about those games and the lore around them, you might even see some of the specific viral rumors if you squint enough.

It’s a great way to encourage and reward players to explore your full map thoroughly, in an otherwise open game. It often adds some mystery, too, since the devs know how to give rewarding answers to those questions while raising more. Why is there a boarded-up church in the corner of the map? What does this shadow over the ocean mean? What was that strange monster that I found and can’t seem to re-discover? I could gush for hours about all of this!

And I still might! There’s no sense in half-assing that here, though; just come back and check out Side B when I post it here. For now, just know that Cassette Beasts more than lives up to the hype I’ve been feeling for it the last few years; it may well wind up my favorite game of the year! And perhaps even more excitingly, there’s still much more in store; their recent developer showcase demonstrated that they’re hard at work on plenty of updates and new content, including a full DLC expansion centered around an entirely new location (release date still TBA). I’d really recommend it to just about anyone, but if you’re also a big fan of Creature Collector or Top-Down Adventure games, it really does feel like a must-play: a refreshing shot right through for both genres, like a bolt of blue.

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