Cassette Beasts harks back to a bygone era of 2D Pokémon games for a creative monster-capturing RPG. Here’s our review:
Are the entries getting worse or are Pokémon games just no longer for me? That’s the question I ask myself every time one of Game Freak’s mainline instalments rolls around. Especially during the Nintendo Switch generation, where what should have been an exciting transition to 3D somehow consistently fails to impress with its drab art assets, stiff character animations, and a general lack of charm. If only a more faithful tribute to the golden era of Pokémon existed… Fortunately, that’s exactly what Cassette Beasts is, and it largely succeeds thanks to its chibi populace, oddly mature story, and pun-tastic creature designs.
The first thing to mention about Cassettes Beasts is that you don’t actually catch the titular critters; you record them. Not only does this smartly avoid the potential for accusations of animal cruelty, but basing the game around the bygone audio tape allows developer Bytten Studio to have fun with the retro concept. I knew I was in for a good time as soon as I encountered a melting hourglass called Sanzatime and a genie butler named Djinn Entonic.
Once a beast is recorded, they’re added to your roster of six party members and can be transformed into at any time. That may sound like a lot, but even when you consider that your player-created character is always accompanied by one of a handful of companions, it only takes wandering into the wrong zone before you’re quickly wiped out. In terms of the overworld, levelling up your party, and the idea of capturing, there’s a lot about Pokémon that Cassette Beasts unabashedly apes, but luckily the various tweaks to this well-worn formula are where it shines most.
The story, for instance, is far from linear. The mysterious island of New Wirral is rather quaint when compared to the likes of Kanto and Johto, but what it lacks in breadth it makes up for with its sense of freedom: you can go anywhere and complete almost every task in any order. There’s the basic bones of a narrative – your character is trying to find a way off this curious plane of existence – yet when it comes to Cassette Beasts’ tasks, it’s rather freeing to just bump into random scenarios that progress the main objective.
If you’re ever unsure about how to progress, Cassette Beasts offers an effective solution in the Rumours system. Essentially, you can return to the main harbourside town at any point and talk to its residents to uncover clues about what you could do next. These rumours were a frequent help when I reached a dead end. Sometimes I was stumped because a pathway completely passed me by, but more often than not it was a case of failing to record the right critter when I needed to. The latter is yet another cool riff on the creature collection template, whereby a handful of the 120 beasts unlock a traversal ability like flight or magnetism for you to use in the overworld.
When it comes to the battle system Cassette Beasts (mostly) opts for the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach, making beasts of specific types weak or strong against others. Here, though, you have weird categories like Plastic or Glitter to contend with. Encounters with bosses are where strategy is most heavily required, because it’s here you’ll want to fuse you and your companion’s beasts into one. Not only does this make each one’s move set far more formidable, but every beast being fusable means you’re always treated to a cool monster combination.
I’d be remiss not to mention just how unique Cassette Beasts looks, too, even when compared with other recent titles that mix 2D and 3D elements like, say, Octopath Traveller. Bytten Studio doesn’t quite reach the high level of detail seen there, but its mixture of 8-bit sprites and 3D backdrops is an effective way to pay tribute to the past while proudly standing out on its own. Plus, being a modern creature collecting game means Cassette Beasts isn’t afraid to mix up certain styles. Let’s just say pixelated beasts aren’t all you’ll be battling…
While the battle system isn’t as revolutionary as it could be, Cassette Beasts remixes just enough established beats to make it a worthwhile look for a relapsed Pokémon fan like me. There’s a sense of wit, style and self-awareness you’d never find in GameFreak’s behemoth franchise, and it’s precisely because of this roguishness – coupled with a clear affection for the genre’s good old days – that Cassette Beasts is able to riff on the past, and subvert expectations without losing sight of what makes creatures fun to catch (or in this case, record) and do battle with.
The more time you spend with one particular companion, the better both your beasts’ abilities will become when you fuse. Your relationship with each can be built up five times, which occurs naturally whenever you share coffee or rest at a campfire.
An affectionate analogue spin on an otherwise tired type of RPG. It’s bursting with creativity, but not without a few shortcomings.