Review: Cassette Beasts

1 August, 2023

I didn't get the opportunity in this review to write about it, but the game also features a cool cassette-based battle UI.

For a long time, I've been following the open-source Godot Engine with keen interest. Although I've never released any games myself, I agree with their vision of an open software-based game creation toolkit and am keen to see it succeed. So when two-person indie team Bytten Studio released Cassette Beasts using it I decided to check it out.1 I had some experience with their previous game Lenna's Inception - which I liked, but ultimately couldn't finish due to bugs in its Java-based runtime and procedural generation system. Thankfully, they ditched both of those for Cassette Beasts, allowing me to play it to completion.

Most indie monster-catching games tend to be quite similar aesthetically to Pokémon - not that it's their fault. The billion-dollar franchise casts a long shadow over any potential competitors, and any customers will always have their nostalgia as a nigh-intractable benchmark. Cassette Beasts makes great pains judiciously distinguishing itself to alleviate this. Unlike many of its cohorts, its setting is pretty unique: adults (as opposed to children) are plucked out of multifarious timelines and universes and brought to the mysterious island of New Wirral. Although there are the requisite 128 different monsters to collect, they aesthetically take a rather different direction from Pokémon; many being a melding of man-made and biological artifices almost reminiscent of the fauna of Mother 3. Players are supposed to "record" these using cassettes, and transform into them in battle to do direct combat. This is a very cool thematic choice, albeit it is a bit weird at times; thankfully the game nicely handwaves it away rather than trying to make unsatisfying excuses.

Still, it leaves a lot of questions. What if a player character transforms outside of battle? How long is a transformation maintained? Can they get stuck? Do the Traffikrabs and Salamaguses (Salamagi?) in the wild ever encounter a transformed human and get confused? Perhaps I am overthinking this, but there is still a whole lot of story potential left unexplored.2 The same can't be said of New Wirral: the game gives a satisfying and interesting, if a bit clichéd on a certain level, response to the mysteries of the island's existence. And as a whole, it contains a whole lot of narrative meat and mature heft which doesn't exist in many monster-catching titles.

The gameplay also contains a number of welcome innovations. Types are similar to the classic Pokémon formula, but different attacks apply status effects based on you and your opponent's types. This results in satisfying strategic ploys: if you choose the wrong combination, many available moves will end up giving your opponent a positive effect, so you'll either need to discard a turn switching to another monster, or factor the buff your enemy receives into your planning. Moves can also be swapped and changed, creating even more tactical variations, at the cost of making overpowered builds a tad too easy. Each member of your two-person team also has an AP meter: they accumulate a certain amount of AP per turn, and can either use it all immediately, or use a less expensive move and save the remaining AP for later moves. This creates immensely rewarding dynamics, and is honestly one of the best battle systems I've seen in an RPG; combined with the aforementioned type-based attacks, it lends a large amount of depth to the game. A really neat mechanic that also enhances this is the "fusion meter"; when filled, you can combine your monster with your partner's for the duration of the battle.3 This fills up your AP really fast, letting you use really powerful moves each turn, and doubles your statistics. However, it leaves you more vulnerable as well, as enemies can all focus on a singular target and you are limited to one move a turn to fight back.

Unfortunately, all these mechanics become more of a burden when traversing areas with under-levelled beasts, which is a frustrating experience: they still try to approach you, yet are very easily beatable, their battle animations are long and repetitive, but the only item that lets you avoid battles is a consumable (there is a level scaling option, but it affects the rest of the game as well). And while the game is harder than the unconfronting easiness of Pokémon, it still feels a bit unchallenging at times, and I ended up wishing I had chosen a more difficult AI setting from the get-go.

Your party is (usually) made up of a customisable player character and a partner. Different partners are encountered throughout the game, and each has a unique quest associated with them, in addition to a few independent quests that spawn in the overworld. Compared to some RPGs, the quantity of non-story quests can sometimes be a bit threadbare, but the game was made by a small team, so it's understandable. As you fight alongside your partner and rest at campfires with them, you increase a relationship meter,4 progressing the narrative and granting additional gameplay powers, eventually even having the option of forming a romantic relationship.

This adds a necessary element of narrative dimensionality that helps give purpose to the whole conceit of capturing hundreds of disparate creatures, and all the partners are well-written and distinct. My only qualm with them is that there could be a bit more late-game dialogue - again which is the side effect of an indie team. This all factors into the overarching plot, centered around the player attempting to leave New Wirral (albeit they still have the option of beating Gym Leaders Rangers as a side quest). Unsurprisingly, it doesn't end up being a cakewalk, and many diversions and entertaining scenarios play out along the way, as is requisite for a good RPG story. I don't want to spoil too much, but there are some really interesting and unique monsters and setpieces that you encounter.

New Wirral is a rather small island; its meagre size is successfully compensated for by a tightly packed environment. There are no wide open expanses here: instead, every corner is packed with multiple chests, buildings, or points of interest, and the game's environments are punctuated with a large array of biomes to explore. Of course, these include monsters to capture, alongside "rogue fusions" of several different varieties for more challenging fights. The overworld also has full physics simulation, which is a rather odd decision by the developers. This choice has both upsides and downsides: it produces some neat puzzles and makes walking and jumping around that little bit more fun, but occasionally doing a task that would be straightforward in a more traditional RPG overworld environment requires a bit of finagling or guessing to arrive at the intended solution.

As the player makes their away across the island, they utilise their fancy physics by unlocking different abilities (e.g. swimming or electromagnetism), which allow them to reach previously inaccessible locales. Some are optional, while others are required to progress; unfortunately a few of the latter are difficult to obtain naturally until coming across the right rumour from a townsperson. Overall though, it grants a nice sense of progression usually only obtained in other titles by levelling up: flying halfway across the island in the late game with previously impossible obstacles beneath really reminds me of how far I've came.

The visuals of the overworld employ an interesting style - although the characters and monsters are two-dimensional, they inhabit a three-dimensional world. For the most part this works very well and is excellently done; however, the limited size of its pixel art means that its character sprites can often lack the instant appeal of those seen in more recent Pokémon games. For non-player characters, the game successfully compensates for this by featuring portraiture by Sami Briggs which excellently fleshes out their vibe and personality. This is obviously not possible for the player character - I had a bit of trouble coming up with an appealing one at first, and it took me quite a few tries before I found something I liked.

Conversely, the ambient soundtrack, by Joel Baylis, the brother of one of the developers, hits all the right notes. It's further enhanced by vocals by singer Shelly Bailey, which play when you've in important fights or inside buildings. There's only one other title that I've played which uses this technique: magical school RPG Ikenfell,5 but I find it to be immensely entertaining (and a welcome reprieve from the blandness of many video game soundtracks) and wish many more games would have it. It does result in minor fights being sonically repetitive; a few more in the mix would help liven things up, but it can always be disabled and it's still better than not having it.

All these physics simulations and pretty visuals have an impact on the performance however, which can be a bit suboptimal at times, though it's never so bad that it impairs enjoying the game. As the player sees more of New Wirral, they experience a noticeable (yet again, hardly game-breaking) slowdown. And once they have explored all of the map,6 a journey across it will inevitably be obstructed by a short intermission in the form of a loading screen. Fortunately, this can be alleviated by turning down the graphical settings, but I feel a computer with my specs should be more than powerful enough to run a game of this intensity without doing so, so it's still a little disappointing.

Console players might be in for a more difficult time, though: the game had showstopping slowdowns, bugs, and glitches on Nintendo Switch on launch, and while this has been improved upon in the 1.2 patch, it still isn't perfect. Apparently, it runs on the 3.0 branch of Godot, and while this may initially seem like a bad omen for the engine's console potential, both general performance optimisations and console-specific improvements are supposed to be present in 4.0.7

Inevitably, the Rangers have a variety of post-game busywork that needs doing, and much of it is doled out as quests that devolve into needless grinding. While some players have found this fun, needless to say I am not one of them. This is a rather disappointing design decision, since there are a number of bosses and encounters only accessible after doing a whole lot of it. Another post-game disappointment that I imagine many players will be put off by is the lack of player-vs-player combat, even if it's not something I personally care about. The developers have promised this will be added in an update though, and their track record has so far been great: a free patch has already added eight new monsters and a minor new location. In the meantime, I still recommend anyone interested in monster-catching games checks this out. It's a great showcase for Godot's capabilities, and although there's no chance it'll dethrone Pokémon in people's hearts and minds, the developers make no pretences of doing so - there's plenty of room for both in the world.

4.6/5 Novov Affirmation Points
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