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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Cassette Beasts, Side B: Steam in the Subway, Earth Is Afire

I’m finally back with my promised second article on
Cassette Beasts! If you missed the first one, you can read it here; that one serves as my mostly spoiler-free general recommendation of the game. However, I also wanted to do some deeper looks into the game, its systems, its themes, and so on, which necessitates some spoilers. I’ll give a general warning when I start getting into mild things (like discussing specific monsters or the game’s mechanics), and then give a warning at the midpoint when I start moving into more serious story-related spoilers (as well as a few mentions about the story of Bytten Studio’s first game, Lenna’s Inception, which I covered here). Generally, I think this game is strong enough that being spoiled wouldn’t ruin it for you, but if you are sensitive to those, feel free to take advantage of those warnings as jumping off points, or even bookmark this for later, and come back later after you’ve played it some .

In the first part of my Cassette Beasts review, I mentioned that the game lived up to all of the expectations I had for it after loving Bytten Studio’s first game, Lenna’s Inception. And I want to look at that a little more; I’ve already said that they make for an interesting comparison, but there was something specific that stood out to me when I was looking at what I wanted to cover in a spoilered review. See, while it lived up to Lenna in quality, it was actually kind of funny how much expecting Cassette Beasts to be like its predecessor ended up surprising me, particularly in its world building.

Not to spoil it too much, but Lenna’s Inception breaks the fourth wall several times over the course of a playthrough, culminating in a few big reveals during the final dungeon that recontextualize everything you’ve seen to that point, in a way that directly calls attention to the fact that it is a video game. It’s a really big and fun twist, the kind of thing that makes you go back and think “Oh, why didn’t I notice that earlier!”, and I kept expecting something like that in Cassette Beasts. Maybe it’s not fair to expect some huge surprise like that twice, but I can also see why I thought that; there are a few moments where you can see some similar ideas popping up, so it’s maybe not too big of a stretch to think that Cassette Beasts might at least have similar ideas on its mind.

But it does something different instead, blazes its own trail in discussing the metatextual. And so even though that big and shocking reveal never really comes… I never found myself disappointed. Lenna relished in making ostensible glitches into story elements and mechanics. In contrast, Cassette Beasts uses some of those elements again, but in a much more limited way, making it feel like Bytten Studio reapplying what they learned to different effect.

The game still looks like it’s “breaking down” at times, but at very specific moments and ways to instill specific feelings in the player, rather than as a story element or gameplay mechanic. Things like television static effects or screen shake (both of course calling on the game’s tape motif) or wall-breaking art shifts happen during things like boss fights or dungeons, where the characters comment on their unease or the sense of something being wrong with the space somehow. It’s a clever way to convey that unease to the player, really; after all, you’re just playing a fantastical video game about waking up on a strange, otherworldly island, few things can really seem that unnatural or out of place. But seeing a full 3D model that distorts the fabric of the pixelated world and breaks the game’s soundtrack when it appears? Yeah, I directly get what’s making my characters feel uneasy, that’s a fun trick!

Recognizing that the developers were still chewing on these themes got me thinking about how the game played with and thought about its status as a video game, and sort of shaped a lot of my other thoughts about it. And one of the threads that I kept pulling at was that I think it helps Bytten Studio to do an extremely interesting job with their worldbuilding.

I’ve talked about games with particularly interesting settings before; see, for example, my review of Ikenfell, where I talked about all of the care that went into making the titular school feel like a real place. New Wirral doesn’t do that at all; in fact, it seems to revel in its off-kilter un-realness at times. And yet… I kept coming back to Ikenfell as a point of comparison. I think a big part of it was that both games know that their settings carry with them a feeling, a sense of history that permeates the location, something more than just the sum of the people and things you see. Ikenfell feels like an ancient magic school still in use in the modern day. Meanwhile, New Wirral feels like…

Well, what is New Wirral, exactly? (This is probably where the mild Cassette Beasts spoilers will start to flow more freely, although nothing too earth-shattering just yet.) In my first piece, I compared it to Koholint Island from Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (among other things), with you washing up on the beach of an island full of monsters that appears to defy logic in many ways. But New Wirral isn’t a dream, per se; instead, it’s a sort of negative space outside of the universe, a spot for the many people and things that somehow slip through the cracks of different realities to accumulate.

That’s sort of the element tying everything together in New Wirral. The inhabitants are all people out of place and time, building a new world together out of the things that follow them to New Wirral. There’s an entire division of the town’s work force dedicated to picking through the cargo crates and other things that wash up on the shores or fall out of the skies, and there are small elements all over that remind you of that.

Outside of town, the landscape is dotted with things that have fallen through space-time as well, from shipwrecks or construction equipment to entire buildings. It’s an interesting mix of untamed, monster-filled wilderness and clear signs of human development stripped of all of its normal context.

And of course, all of the monsters take this angle, too, which provides a nice sense of cohesion all around. I mentioned in my first piece that this is the clearest and tightest monster theming of any indie Pokémon-like game that I’ve seen, in that every creature takes some inspiration from human creation, whether that’s a creature from folklore or an actual human product.

It’s a nice, broad approach that provides an obvious commonality while still leaving a lot of potential approaches for your designs. There’s something freeing in how anything can be a Pokémon, but it also makes it harder to stand out if you’re a new property trying to enter the field. Trying to take that same approach can mean you’re offering an easy direct comparison against both the series and its many talented fan artists. Conversely, deciding to base your monsters only on mythology, or “animal + element” is an easy way to give yourself an identity apart from Pokémon, but can become kind of restricting.

So instead, Cassette Beasts kind of limits itself, but in a way that leaves plenty of room for clever interpretations and easy work-arounds. So maybe you can’t make your standard fire lizard monster, but slap that chameleon in mage robes and specifically tie it to pyromancy? That’s actually pretty cool! Really, having those minimal self-imposed limitations can get you new, fun ideas, or interesting interpretations of otherwise common monster concepts. Sure, everyone might have an idea for a big walrus monster, so why not instead focus your walrus monster design around old-time diving gear?

While I’m on the subject of the game’s creatures, I’d like to give a special shout-out to the starters, Candevil and Bansheep. I mentioned them in my original article, but a lot of what I wanted to say had to be saved for the spoiler piece. Really, they just work so well on so many different levels at helping Cassette Beasts establish its universe and distinguish itself from the field. So, to start with, the game doesn’t actually show you them before letting you pick; instead, it asks you a personality question, whether you prefer “Spooky or Sweet” vibes, gifting you the appropriate starter based on your answer. That’s actually a big deal for the tone, I think; you aren’t getting a lifelong partner like when you pick a starter Pokémon, you’re just you, and this is almost just another way of expressing yourself. This actually happens again once you level them up enough, the game will prompt you with another this-or-that question. Each answer corresponds to one of two evolutionary paths for each ‘mon.

So there’s of course the narrative hook there, getting you into the game’s mindset early. But also, there are just a lot of cool mechanical things tied in. There’s of course the unique evolutionary trees, something the game loves doing, almost like it’s going out of its way to design evolution trees that Pokémon has so far avoided. Both starters are, in their first form, Beast type, introducing you to one of Cassette Beasts’ new elements. And the evolutions change type from there, which is not only something else that the game loves doing for fun twists, but they work to demonstrate the weirder types of the game. Gone is the Fire-Water-Grass that Pokémon and others love to use. Instead, you wind up with either a Poison, Metal, Astral, or Earth type monster, which is a really fun showcase for the game’s unique type chart. I think Poison and Metal play very differently from the similarly-named Pokémon types, and Astral is something else entirely. And of course, it gives you a big open spot in the Bestiary that you can work towards clearing up.

Actually, that makes for a nice transition into the next part that I want to talk about; Bytten Studio has a great sense of how to motivate players in their design, and their methods include using the more meta elements of the game’s design. Like I said, there are those gaps in the Bestiary that will show up as you play, showing you which monsters you need to train to find evolutions, and roughly corresponding to which parts of the map you need to investigate.

Even more fun, they enjoy using unusual branching evolution methods, and placing evidence around the world for the player to find and remember. In fact, there were multiple times I battled a trainer who used something rare that corresponded to a hole in my findings, at which point I remembered some book or character in the world I had stumbled upon earlier directly hinting at a unique evolution method, at which point I had a good set of dots to connect that I felt like I had found myself (even though it was really a neatly-arranged trail of breadcrumbs). Again, it’s a nice middle point between some of Pokémon’s increasingly obscure new evolution methods (many of which lack any clues in-game, and need to just be looked up), and a lot of Pokémon competitors that just cut that element all together.

There are other elements though, too. For example, the devs have specifically geared every gameplay loop they can into pushing players to explore and try new monsters out. I feel like I kind of glossed over this a little in my first article, so to home in on it a little more here: each monster that you transform into gets a level between 0 and 5 stars on its tape, which is totally unrelated to the game’s main leveling mechanic (that being the one for the player character and their partner, which is I believe uncapped? I got mine over 120 during the postgame). With each star up to 5, the tape will get a little stronger and gain a new move (which are semi-random; they can have a variety of side effects added on, which is a nice tie into the idea of infinite randomness across the universes that the game also gestures towards). If the tape can evolve into a new monster, you’ll get the option to “remaster” it once it reaches five stars (and then start over at 0 stars in its new form); otherwise, it will stay on five stars, and give you another new move with an increased chance of having those special effects added (although your monster will generally stop seeing its slots for usable moves expand by star 5, so you’ll have to swap out a current move to try those new ones).

So, as you can kind of see… there’s not really a reason to stick to a set party for the whole game; the benefits level off pretty hard past a certain point. However, Bytten piled incentives in the other direction. You get an expanded Bestiary entry upon reaching 5 stars on a monster. So why not try a new one in your party to replace that 5 star? Besides, since most of the strength comes from your level rather than the tape’s star rating, you won’t be too disadvantaged if you just try them out. You’re already exploring and filling out a map, why not turn your exploration into another way to fill out more of the game world?

Or another decision: there are plenty of movement options to expand your ability to explore the overworld, similar to items in Legend of Zelda or HMs in Pokémon, but they’re tied to catching specific new monsters. Which ones? Well, you won’t know until you catch them… so why not record every monster that you see? Each new one might be the one that opens up new sections of the map! Also, every fight shows up in the overworld, which (in addition to making it easier to dodge battles when you’re in a hurry) gives you a chance to scope out new monsters when you see them. And special bootlegs will even get a special effect in their overworld sprite!

Maybe it’s kind of cheating to include smart game design decisions like these as metatextual, but it does show that Bytten has paid attention to what other games are doing, given real thought to how those systems function, and how they can be used to incentivize player decisions. So there is a conversation of sorts going on here.

And it’s nice seeing a monster collecting game that understands that a lot of the fun in this genre is finding and seeing and trying all of these monsters; they made over 100 of them, and you’re going to try them, gosh darn it! Pokémon has squared that circle by making it very easy to just train dozens of things. That’s why they’ve shifted hard into items that help with Experience lately; you can easily make it to the end rotating through two or three dozen Pokémon without the game getting too long. Of course, that makes it easy to overlevel things and blaze through the game if you dump your focus into just six creatures.

Conversely, if you’re an indie game trying to make a more challenging experience, upping the levels and difficulty can solve that, but it can also become a harsh penalty on experimenting with your team too much; you’re just wasting time if you branch out from your core team too much. I loved Nexomon Extinction, and it was great that they could fully populate their world with nearly 400 monsters… but I also repeatedly found myself thinking during my playthrough that it was a little silly how there were so many options, but training up more than the nine needed to cover the game’s types made everything into a slog (and even nine probably slowed my progress at least somewhat). So good on Bytten for figuring out how to solve this issue through their game’s design and systems!

I really like pulling apart the cool ways these systems interlock and how it can tie into the world building, but that feels sort of indirect too. Let’s pull things back into the realm of narrative, so as a warning, the larger, story-related spoilers will follow.

So, let’s just start with a big one; it isn’t just the monsters that directly draw on the fusion of the fantastical dream and the mundane real-world. Like I said, the setting is a mysterious, unreal island that’s still somehow dotted with recognizable structures, and the most notable ones are probably the dungeons.* Most of them are themed around deserted subway stations.

*I say “dungeons” because they fill that role narratively and in setting, but they’re not really like Zelda dungeons. Usually they have a few puzzles based around a specific idea, ending in a big boss fight. So they wind up a little shorter overall, but really, that’s probably better overall than just turning them into a big enemy gauntlet or something, which I’ve seen some other games do. This way, they still get to feel like ominous, impactful moments, even if they usually don’t top a dozen rooms.

And just conceptually, empty subway stations are pretty great ideas for this! “Abandoned human-built structures” and “dark underground places” are both classic creepy settings, even if “haunted subway station” itself isn’t the most used example of this. They obviously feel very ominous, accentuated by the game’s art and sound design; Joel Baylis, composer for both of Bytten Studio’s fantastic soundtracks, gives them a separate theme from other caves, something less melodic and more droning, pulsating. And these are the spots where the game loves to pull out those glitches and other fourth-wall effects that I described earlier, building the sense of unease.

But they are still subway lines, too! They conveniently get to double as fast-travel points (which I think is another cool game design thing), so you are going to be regularly going through them and using them as transit, talking to the station’s attendant (one of two talking monster in-game, and the first one you’ll see, making it another fun small reveal) as he rambles mysteriously about the will of the Mer-line (the apparently alive train system supposedly undergirding the island?). And of course, just about every station grows out of the ground when you finally open it, another fun example of “real world fused with fantasy”; it’s such a great idea that adds to the game’s central worldbuilding philosophy, the kind of idea where just seeing it so naturally makes me surprised that it wasn’t some big, running genre trope.

But it’s not just subway stations; they throw in a few other not-dungeons like that. The largest (and my favorite) being a literally dead mall that fell into this world at some point, filled with broken storefronts and bottomless pits and actual ghosts, all while what sounds like a lost ‘80s hit plays over the distorted mall speakers. And yet, it’s just treated like another feature of the terrain, with town residents talking about making trips over to scavenge for clothes and tapes and other goods. There are a variety of other, simpler dungeon-like areas that all get similar treatments (a sunken ship, boarded-up office buildings, a graveyard…), all of it playing on this theme and working so smoothly with the monsters.

And what good are interesting, thematic little dungeons if their finales disappoint? Thankfully, these are some of the best moments of Cassette Beasts. I talked a lot in the first article about how the game does a great job building up these fights thematically, what with the ominous atmosphere of the dungeons as a prelude, and then by giving them a surreal setting and a unique musical theme, which adds a kickass vocal track if you use your Fusion power. But now, I can go more into the things I only hinted at in that one, the spoiler-y stuff.

As you approach the actual train platform, the visual glitches that poke at the fourth wall pick up in intensity and frequency, the ominous droning music curdles into something harsher and more frantic, a train approaches the deserted station, and… out steps something wrong. These are the Archangels, the bosses of Cassette Beasts.

The game works hard to establish a detailed, 2D-pixel-graphic-in-a-3D-world style across the entire world that looks really good, which makes it even better that none of the major bosses do that. Every one of them is some kind of drastic art shift, from 3D modeled characters, to hand-drawn cartoons, to photographed real-life objects, to collages of faces stuck together. Honestly, getting to see just what I would be fighting next and the anticipation preceding the reveal were all incredible fun.

But the Archangels themselves are also clearly something more than jarringly-animated bosses in creepy subway stations. It’s hinted at in your first encounter, though the boss itself is rambling and unable to explain what’s going on. Each one that you run into from there (especially if you follow the order the game nudges you towards) adds to it. You meet the Station Attendant in your second one, who can tell you a little more about what’s going on, but is also clearly under some sort of gag order from a higher power. The third boss is in a subway station buried under a cult headquarters, with the cult clearly believing that their dig towards it is in some way important. The next one is in the basement of the aforementioned mall, declaring itself the ruler of the haunted building. And of course, there’s the shady figure who has been appearing to whisk the bosses away after you beat them. There’s clearly something bigger than you occurring here.

Eventually, around the halfway point, you get the big reveal that shifts your perception on the events that have transpired so far: the Archangels are also runoff from the human realm. But rather than being the products or monsters that they’ve created, they’re the ideals of humanity, given form and consciousness. There are things like logic, devotion, greed, ego, conquest, et cetera.

Around this time, the bosses themselves start becoming more explicit in their designs. The early monsters feel like vague allusions to something, but they’re also transformed enough that it can be harder to trigger a real connection in your mind; things like a name that might allude to notable mythological characters, or a design that borrows from several gods of ancient religions, or being represented through pure geometric shapes. In the back-half, things get more explicit; characters claim to be historical figures, or are directly taken from literary canon (some know it, some do not), or share their names with Biblical figures. One postgame Archangel looks like a scientific model of an atom. It makes sense that they’re representing these big ideals, they feel almost like fundamental forces in a way.

There are a few interesting variations, too. For example, there’s one titled the Tower of Ignorance, and named Babelith; it looks like a crude child’s drawing trying to interpret the Tower of Babel. And notably, not every one of these references is a boss. You find a Viola at one point who joins your party, and may or may not be the character from William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. She’s unaware of her background, and is taunted by the boss of her sidequest about it, Robin Goodfellow (a creature of folklore who is, in contrast, completely aware of his adaptation in Shakespeare’s writing). The game winks, making it unclear what the “real” explanation is here, whether she was some sort of accidental inter-cosmic inspiration for the play, or if her universe was directly created by the story itself, or if it was just some inevitable outcome of a multiverse with infinite possibilities and random chance, with the character herself eventually deciding the answer is immaterial to her goals.

And then, there’s Kuneko, an ally and regular monster (albeit one who’s maybe closer to Cassette Beasts’ version of the legendary or pseudo-legendary tier?) who gets imbued with the power of the Archangels. Kuneko is the ode to the amateur creator, rather than “The Canon”; she began life as the embarrassing Original Character that your partner Felix created as a middle schooler (complete with a full spate of “special” traits and cliched backstory), and was brought to life when he landed in New Wirral. Felix’s story ends up being him coming to peace with his earlier, rougher creations, and appreciating what she meant to him as a growing artist (via fighting her to save her from Archangel control, because this is turn-based JRPG).

It’s a nice story, and I think really helps demonstrate the full scope of what Bytten Studio is going for. Everything human-created can appear here, from the small rumors and local legends and pop music (I touched on that one a lot in my first article, particularly how everything from the game’s world is themed around music, from the central Cassette conceit to naming everything after ‘80s pop songs) and everyday products, and without special consideration given to “The Classics”.

And there’s also some love shown to the infinite world of possibility contained within variations and reworkings and remixes, both within the game mechanics (the large degree of customization within the game’s ruleset, between 120+ monsters, bootlegs, large movepools with added effects, fusions for every monster combination…) and story (the residents of New Wirral are all acknowledged to come from different universes and love discussing differences between their homes; one partner’s storyline involves her looking for a cherished record from her home, only finding variations from across the multiverse, and going from disappointment at not finding her favorite to learning to love these unique artifacts for what they are).

Personally, I love it when these types of discussions take a wide lens like this, giving consideration to the titans, but also acknowledging the importance of more mundane innovations, or discussing amateur creation and growth, or praising the many small touches in a large canvas that can make art unique and personal, and just generally looking at the full range of ways people can be creative. And to vaguely spoil a minor plot point from the end of the game, the importance of all of these items ends up being what the things mean to us/the characters, rather than any sort of innate magical quality of the things themselves, which I think helps drive home the idea that this is a celebration of creativity in all forms.

Also, all of this makes it extra fun when Lenna shows up in the postgame. And she appears as a full-fledged boss Archangel too, one of the ones on par with the big ideals of humanity, rather than a powered-up creature to copy. Sure, her status is partly an in-joke: the way Archangel was used in Lenna’s Inception was still fairly different from how it’s used here (it is one of several elements that recur, though). But ultimately… isn’t Lenna kind of a kind of fundamental force to the game’s world, in a way not too dissimilar from the others? Like, without that first game, New Wirral doesn’t exist, right? And I don’t think the Bytten team views Lenna the way that Felix does Kuneko, but their first game was a big learning experience too (if you like behind-the-scenes stuff, their One-Year Retrospective on Lenna’s Inception’s Release is very interesting!)

And once we start thinking that way, it’s not difficult to begin extending it to the rest of the setting, and seeing the bits of inspiration from other games as another sort of folklore helping to build the world. Like, I’ve compared New Wirral to Koholint from Link’s Awakening in both of my articles so far, but if we can have monsters based on other human creations or have pop music as a building block of the world, why couldn’t we just apply that to video games? They do share a lot of similarities, as dream-like islands full of monsters and dungeons where travelers keep washing up on a beach near the lone town. And The Legend of Zelda as a series and Link’s Awakening as a game are certainly some of the more heavily-mythologized works of the medium, so it doesn’t feel like that big of a stretch to me.

There are some direct video game references in the monsters, too, from the arcade-inspired Arkidd, to space creature Galagor, to Pinbolt. And you can of course find a whole bunch of other, vaguer things too. Some monsters borrow from fantasy character archetypes, and those may overlap with some other notable characters (not to mention other non-video games being referenced, like Chess or Tabletop RPGs). There are plenty of common video game tropes in the world design, things like floating islands and caves behind waterfalls. I’m sure you could turn up plenty of others, especially if you’re looking in a more general “games as a folklore” sense.

However, a lot of the big, specific examples that I want to look at are Pokémon-related, but less in the way that other Monster Collecting games are, and more in the way that I covered back in my Lenna’s Inception review: that is, as a sort of shared culture of lore and rumor and ideas. And yes, some of that is the community that has sprung up around the game; but even within the game itself, there’s plenty of nods to this. Rumors among the townfolk in the square are a good way to find updates on rare monster sightings, Fusion Battle pop-ups, and other things. And battles with other members of the Ranger Guild are a good way to get clued in as to the existence of rare evolutions that you probably missed, as I mentioned earlier.

Another one of my favorite examples is also something of a shout-out to the glitch-hunting in early Pokémon games; the main quest of the game doles out instructions to find and open the final dungeon, delivered in a poem line-by-line. However, the actual actions that trigger it are seemingly nonsensical; for example, mine had me walk to a specific spot on the island and open my map three times in a row. It’s highly reminiscent of strange set of actions you had to execute to pull off the Mew Glitch or the Missingno Glitch; even more fun, it led to its own set of online discussions, as fans learned that the clues were randomized by playthrough, and searched for ways to trigger them earlier for things like speedrunning the game.

I think that my favorite example of the game’s lore and world might be the Legendary monsters (or whatever this game’s equivalent is called; I’ve seen some debate). I don’t think it’s necessarily exceptional in that regard; really, I’d probably say that Legends and their role in a story are regularly one of the more defining elements of a Monster Collecting game. Instead, it’s Cassette Beasts’ approach here; it lets them remain legends, lurking in the edges of the game while leaving a lot of narrative blank space to let you fill in.

And some of the biggest things they do are pushing the legendaries far out of the way. In fact, the game doesn’t ever use that term, and fans are split over which monsters actually qualify, which is already kind of interesting as an approach. There’s not really a bunch of story-important monsters you face off with, and then tame later; instead, the bosses of the game are something else entirely, completely uncatchable.

Meanwhile, several legendaries won’t show up until you’ve faced the final boss, and it’s possible to make it to the end of the game while only ever seeing one or two legendary monsters, maybe. Even that’s not clear, really; two possibly-legendary monsters will show up during quests for your partner characters, but one of them’s legendary status is debatable, and the less-debatable one can only be fought prior to the final boss, not caught. And of course, even in those two cases, you can finish the game easily while completely skipping those quests anyway.

Really, this “Legendary Monster” framework might not even be the right way to be looking at this! It kind of gets back to my point in the first article, that Cassette Beasts is completely willing to ignore Pokémon’s systems and do its own thing when they feel like it, and that’s part of what makes it cool.

But that being said, it still feels like it’s borrowing a little from the early Generations of Pokémon, mostly in spirit, to add to its own distinctive feel. Pokémon itself has shifted away from this, but in the earlier games (particularly Gens I and II), the Legendary ‘mons were also generally kept out of the way, often in special, optional environments built specifically for them. Around Generation III, there was a shift towards tying them into the main story, which can be fun in its own way, but there’s a special kind of feeling to stumbling into the secret basement of a cave and finding some powerful, unexplained monster, or being told to come back to a place once your strong enough to handle what’s inside.

Cassette Beasts mixes all of these together. My favorite is the mysterious locked abbey, inexplicably built in a sparsely-populated corner of the map, locked and spoken of in confused whispers. Returning later and finding your way in, you find a lone, angelic figure made of stained glass, the game’s only natural Glass type monster, which gets no further explanation before a battle starts. It’s just such a classic moment, walking into this quiet place to find something totally unique and almost alien, even by this game’s standards.*

*Granted, the developers have made things a little more user-friendly than early Pokémon games; if you defeat Glaistain or the other legends in your first fight, you’ll get chances for them to pop up later.

You’ll find the large bird Averevoir during one partner’s side quest, but you’re only able to fight it off. Returning to town, New Wirral residents will begin telling you about it, a rare creature that few in town have seen and none of mastered, and it will begin popping up around your map; you’ll wander into a new screen, only to see a large bird perched on something. Again, it’s a fun and surprising moment to stumble into.

In contrast, there’s Khepri*, a fire-powered scarab who town residents will also whisper about. Like Averevoir, it’s a random encounter, but unlike the bird, Khepri will only randomly appear as the second monster in battles. In fact, I believe it’s the only monster in the game (other than starters, maybe) that doesn’t have an overworld sprite? It has a wildly low encounter rate (you’re almost certainly going to first learn about it as a town rumor), so actually finding one is another big surprise moment, and on top of that, it only appears in two locations (one of which is only unlocked in the post-game), so it really feels like it earns that “unfounded town legend” status, even in a world full of cryptid-like creatures.

*Khepri is also one of the monsters where the legendary status is most debated among fans, in my experience? It’s at the end of the bestiary with the others here, so I include it.

I don't trust it

And then we have the post-game options. Miss Mimic is another otherwise unexplained monster, one that looks like the game’s treasure chests, designed to pull you in by replacing a chest in the overworld that you’ve already opened. Otherwise, it works a lot like Averevoir, appearing randomly all around the island. And lastly, there’s Anathema, a scientific-experiment gone wrong that drives most of the post-game storyline, complete with a sealed-off cave area it calls home (the Mewtwo in Red/Blue comparisons abound).*

*There’s also Picksie, who was added in the first big post-game update, so I’m not positive if it’s fully available before the last boss, although it’s once again off the path of the game’s main story. You find it in a cave, causing it to flee and become another roaming legendary; if we’re looking for another early Pokémon comparison, it feels like the nearest match for the Legendary Beasts of Generation II.

Except… that’s not all. It’s not a legendary, but there’s also a #000 entry in your Bestiary, an alternate evolution of common monster Traffikrab that can only be obtained in very specific circumstances (albeit circumstances that the game hints at). It definitely calls to mind the “secret evolution” rumors that swirled around early Pokémon games, about how you could find new evolutions to existing monsters (I remember Dragonair evolving into Yoshi being a common one) by following highly-specific nonsense instructions. In a similar vein, there’s also a secret garden in Cassette Beasts where you can find wild versions of each of your partner’s starting monsters, although it too is fairly well hidden.

Which… kind of just adds to the idea that the entire game world is in part shaped by the folklore and myths of gaming, including the chatter around these older games, right? Like, it’s directly borrowing from these classic Game Boy games that influenced so many people who played them, but it’s also pulling from the community and discussion that sprung up around them and ran in their own directions, sketching out a wider world based on the in-game legends but also creating its own totally new ones. When you think about it that way, it’s a surprisingly level of metacommentary to achieve, but also pretty in-line with Bytten’s other work.

The closest thing I have to a gripe with the game is probably the ending. I think the general last dungeon is fine, and the final boss is generally what I want out of a turn-based RPG (specifically, a challenging fight, followed by a second fight that’s easier but also much bigger and cinematic and focused on tying up the actual story). At that point, you and your partners are presented with a one-way trip to get back to your homes, which you can access at any point during the post-game.

Thankfully, triggering the ending scene doesn’t even lock you out of going back to do post-game content, which is great. The post-game stuff can definitely wear a little long if you do all of it
(which is probably my other notable gripe with the game). But it’s not like you need to do all of that to see the ending, nor is there a true ending you get for clearing out those quests. You just get the conclusion of the main story and the credits, and then you can return to clearing out missions from the Ranger Mission Board.

That might seem anticlimactic, but the “main story ending” itself is also kind of like that. You and your party are presented with the option to go your own ways, back to your original worlds, and… you do. You say your tearful goodbyes and go home, changed by your experiences on New Wirral. Granted, this has been the thing you’re building up to the entire game, so it’s not unexpected; it’s a fulfillment of the goal laid out at the ending. And some of your partners have very clear motivations to leave New Wirral, plus there are hints that many other minor characters around the island will also return to their home worlds, inspired by your example to dramatically change things.

However, the game also makes sure to point out that a lot of this community can’t go home. In the years the other residents have spent here, they’ve built lives, met partners, started families; some of the people on New Wirral were even born there, and haven’t known anywhere else. And even those edge cases aside, they also make sure to show that people will continue to wind up New Wirral, just as you did back in the start. There will probably always be at least a few people here, even with you finding the magic ticket back.

And really, while some of your partners have a very clear desire to return home, a lot of them seem like they might also be happier here, having lost loved ones back home or found a community that they love. There’s kind of a spectrum to each of their stories, and it makes sense that they might go their separate ways at the ending, even if some of them do stay together here. And since your character is very explicitly a cypher for you, specifically,* you can kind of read what makes the most sense to you into the ending. It doesn’t really come up in-game at all (outside of maybe influencing your decision to date a specific character, which doesn’t affect many things in-game), so this really is just “letting you interpret the story you decide to tell”.

*Like, this explicitly comes up in the game; one of the Archangels can “see” you, the player, piloting your character.

With all of that out of the way as a disclaimer… Honestly, it kind of makes me more inclined to say the real ending is: “You and your new friends remain on New Wirral, continuing to serve as Rangers”.* Goodness knows there’s a lot of stuff to do, as far as these kinds of games go. You of course get the option to re-fight the Ranger captains (under the premise of testing them as a fellow member) and the Archangels (as someone who has shown you can keep them in check, should they get too rowdy). You’re also of course given quests that encourage you to fill out the bestiary and hunt for legendaries and explore mechanics like bootlegs more deeply, all of which also feel normal for monster collecting games.

*It also certainly helps that the dropping of new post-release updates and the promise of more DLC coming adds to the idea of there being even more tasks to complete and places to discover. Not to mention that it also adds a sort of “Wanting vs. Needing” dynamic that’s popular in the conclusion of so many stories: the idea that your character wanted a way home, but got what they needed instead, friends and purpose and adventures and whatever else.

The most interesting ones are the ones that essentially continue the story: you’re given the ability to investigate more of the island’s cosmology, and you become the mentor for new recruits for the Rangers. The former is obvious in its appeal; you get to continue working with the team that you’ve built, protecting your new home. You get a deeper look into the world, finding more major Archangels, discovering potential mysteries, learning that the Archangels that you already fought will eventually return as humanity continues to tap into their primal emotions over time; all of which slot the story into a much larger, cultural mythology of the island. It explicitly ties into all the same themes of the normal story while expanding the scope even more, showing that there’s plenty of other things that can exist offscreen. And I personally always appreciate stories that use the idea there’s no ending that solves everything forever, even if your main story came to a conclusion.

And then, there’s the mentoring storylines; there are actually two of them! One of them deliberately mirrors your story, complete with gifting your newly-arrived mentee her first monster tape on the same beach you arrived on back at the start. Maybe I’m also just a sucker for that kind of thing, but I think it’s a sweet moment! The other mentee storyline is less parallel, and involves winning over a skeptical New Wirral resident into joining the Ranger Corps through a series of battles.

None of them are huge; they’re shorter than the main story quests, and it’s not like they introduce some new mechanic to see how well you can teach people. But they’re conceptually neat, and I really think they work well with the themes I’ve been discussing. You get to see cycles continue, see yourself enter part of the world’s story as you pass down local knowledge, and become a sort of folklore hero of your own. It’s just a whole bunch of nice touches like that, which pushed me to appreciate the sort of open-ended, almost “non-ending” feeling of the post-game even more.

In all, I think that Cassette Beasts makes for a fascinating continuation of the ideas Bytten Studio tackled in Lenna’s Inception, but the way they are introduced and discussed makes the ideas stand out even without the context of their first game. Plenty of video games have taken a sort of meta approach to the story in the past, but the best ones can contextualize it in a way that says a little more than just commenting on the tropes of the medium, and in that area, I think Cassette Beasts can stand with the best in the field. And in that sense, it’s also interesting to watch how they do it in a manner that doesn’t necessarily call attention to itself. So yeah, I think Cassette Beasts is an indie game worth playing, but I think if you’re the type of person that also really likes the deeper layers of commentary on games in things like Undertale or Chicory: A Colorful Tale, then you should definitely take a look here as well!

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