Cassette Beasts rises above an ocean of Pokémon clones through unique mechanics and a rollercoaster of a narrative.
Pokémon clones have grown in popularity in recent years, because of both the growing popularity of the series and the resentment building with some of the series' older fans. Many of these games focus so hard on trying to match the king of monster collecting games, that they forget to have their own personality. The same can't be said for Cassette Beasts, which has the structure of a Pokémon clone, but far more depth and individuality than the word clone would suggest.
Cassette Beasts takes place in New Wirral, a remote island where people from different worlds wash ashore, supposedly stuck in this place between worlds. Here, monsters roam free, but people have learned to transform into them using cassette players and tapes. You can use cassettes to record different monsters, adding them to your roster. You and a buddy must explore the land, defeating different Ranger Captains and Archangels, in an effort to improve life in New Wirral and possibly find a new way home.
Immediately, Cassette Beasts sticks out with its unique, semi-apocalyptic setting. Random buildings and people have found their way here, forced to survive and live together, adding to the other-worldly feeling of the game. An abandoned shopping mall and miscellaneous buildings are strewn about, providing a distinct setting. The world isn't particularly big, but it provides a non-linear method of exploration and many secrets hiding in it. The art-style harkens back to Game Boy Advance style graphics, with a bit of a modern flair.
These aren't just NPCs meant to guide you through quests, they are people, who have baggage and faults they have to deal with.
The battle system is unique, with the entire game fought in double battles. The reason for this quickly becomes clear in the Fusion mechanic, which allows you and your partner to become one, creating a new monster out of whatever two you have on the field. This new beast has all of the moves and both types of the combined monsters, allowing for experimentation and creativity. Cassette Beasts also handles its typing and effective moves differently. Instead of a good type match up doing more damage and vice versa, effective attacks apply different buffs and debuffs. This system adds another strategic level to combat, encouraging strong type matchups without letting you one-shot enemies with ease.
Catching new monsters has its own interesting twist too. While they are easier to catch when lower on health, this action takes an entire turn. One of your characters returns to human form, making them vulnerable. Every attack dealt to the target and dealt by the target affects the percentage chance you have to capture their recording. Monsters also can't be knocked out while you are trying to capture them, so instead of trying to get them as low as possible without emptying the health bar, you can go all out.
You can also experiment with different move combos and strategies, letting you make adjustments fight to fight, keeping the battles fresh long after you have seen every monster the game has to offer.
While the battle system helps carry this excellent indie title, the story is where it truly shines. You still have a quest to take down the equivalent of Gym Leaders, but you are also tasked early on by an Archangel to take down the rest of the Archangels. Doing this will give you and everyone else a way back home, but these battles are tough. The Archangels are manifestations of human feelings, adding a layer of static and fuzz to the screen when near them. Characters comment on how just looking at these abominations hurts and that's relayed to you through their obtuse and other-worldly designs. It's quickly clear that something else is going on in New Wirral and uncovering the mystery is exciting. The monsters of Cassette Beasts all feel like plausible animals, but the Archangels are clearly something ethereal.
An important aspect of this melancholy world is the music. The tunes can vary from the type of up-beat battle-theme you might expect, to more sad pop music. Cassette Beasts also occasionally adds vocals to its soundtrack, which adds to the mysterious--but still sad and a bit lonely--vibe, matching the feel of its world almost perfectly. Voice acting is pretty minimal in Cassette Beasts, but many of the partners you can explore with have a few vocal cues, giving them even more personality.
There are six different companions who can serve as your partner in both battle and exploration, each setup with their own unique beast to use in combat. These partners are more than just options in battle though, each have their own storyline to chase in New Wirral, which typically lead to some sort of revelation about their own shortcomings. These aren't just NPCs meant to guide you through quests, they are people, who have baggage and faults they have to deal with. You can advance your relationship through spending time together, increasing your fusion abilities and deepening your bond, giving you a reason to spend time with the whole cast.
"Cassette Beasts is a fresh take on the monster collecting genre, featuring both whimsical creatures and actual floating nightmares in its surreal world."
Gameplay is split into three parts; battling, exploring, and puzzle solving. Battling is easily the most enjoyable of the three, enhanced by the sticker system. Stickers function as the moves a monster can use, once stuck to their cassette. These moves can come in rare forms, providing either passive buffs or chances of additional attacks. Stickers can be added and removed from monsters freely, so long as the type matches, giving you a ton of flexibility. You don't need to worry if a new move is going to be worse than the move it replaces, because you can always swap back. You can also experiment with different move combos and strategies, letting you make adjustments fight to fight, keeping the battles fresh long after you have seen every monster the game has to offer.
Exploration starts strong in Cassette Beasts, setting you loose into the open world, free to explore in any direction you please. Things start to fall apart when the movement abilities are introduced. You get the ability to glide, dash, swim, and more, but many of these abilities don't control particularly well. You are often tasked with platforming puzzles to reach new areas, which never feel particularly satisfying to complete due to the jank. Making a jump after a few missed attempts doesn't feel good because you aren't sure exactly why you missed the first few times.
Puzzles come into play inside a few key locations and in the train stations, which are the lairs of the Archangels. Many of the game's puzzles are relatively simple, with the solution obvious the second you enter the room. This makes the process of completing the puzzle feel tedious, even if it's pretty short. Other puzzles are far more obtuse, with the answer not exactly feeling satisfying due to its bizarre mechanics. Luckily, you will spend far more time battling than solving puzzles in Cassette Beasts.
Another place the obtuseness of Cassette Beasts comes through is the quest system. Once a quest is given, a marker is placed on the map for you. Many of these come from getting rumors from townsfolk, something that seems interesting at first. The idea that you can find something new and engaging from talking to NPCs in town sounds great. But in reality, this system just becomes a task of finding which NPCs in town have a green question mark above their head, which is refreshed whenever you rest to heal your party.
Cassette Beasts is a fresh take on the monster collecting genre, featuring both whimsical creatures and actual floating nightmares in its surreal world. A double battle system with dozens of different buffs and debuffs creates a need to be more strategic and its story goes far beyond a desire to become champion or to just catch 'em all, but you can still do that too if you want to. A few shortcomings in the quest systems and platforming hold it back, but only slightly. Cassette Beasts proves itself as far more than just a knockoff, and is instead a brilliant game in its own right.
The double battle system has great depth
Story is full of unique twists and turns
Excellent soundtrack and world design
Endearing cast of characters
Either uninteresting or obtuse puzzles
Tedious quest system
Bad open-world platforming
Cassette Beasts is available now on Nintendo Switch, PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S. Reviewer played on Xbox Series X via Game Pass.