Cassette Beasts is not what it looks like on the surface. The premise of the game is simple: Pokemon, but you catch creatures using cassette tapes instead of Poke Balls, there are party members, and you can fuse with them Digimon style. That in itself sounds solid enough, but there is much more to it than just a neat creature collector RPG. Add to the mix a bit of the exploration in 2D Zelda style (particularly Link’s Awakening), a lot of Persona, a good serving of lo-fi 1980s music and personality, some cosmic horror, and you have Cassette Beasts.
The setting of Cassette Beasts is New Wirral, a strange island full of whimsical creatures. The player character awakens there one day, without knowing how they arrived. People in New Wirral record these creatures on tapes, and then use them to transform into them, to protect themselves and explore the island to survive. After pressing start, you create your avatar from a selection of hairstyles, clothes, and accessories. The game also lets you choose between masculine, feminine, and neutral pronouns, which was a very nice touch. If you wish to change anything about your character, the game lets you do so on your house after the tutorial.
Shortly after meeting Kayleigh, your first party member, you will be thrown into the main gameplay loop. Combat in Cassette Beasts starts very straightforward. It’s a turn-based RPG with your standard fare of damaging moves, buffs, debuffs, support, ailments, and passive abilities. You always fight alongside a party member, and normally face between one to three enemies at once. You can hold up to six monsters at any time. Shortly after unlocking fusion with a party member, you can create any combination of monster available. The game doesn’t have traditional difficulty settings, instead letting the player choose how smart the AI acts, and how level scaling works.
Cassette Beasts gradually introduces you to creature types. Similar to Pokemon, each creature has its own type, which ranges from your typical elements like fire, water, air, or earth to stranger and more varied properties like plastic, glass, astral, or glitter. The relationship within each type not only serves to deal more damage or guard yourself from certain types of beasts. Within this system lies a complex and interesting set of rules, in which each type will create a particular chemical reaction on each other, some beneficial and some detrimental. For example, hitting a plastic type with a fire attack will deal extra damage, but it will also change the plastic type creature to poison for a few rounds, changing the dynamic of the battle and expanding the possibilities of the damaged creature.
At first, creatures are limited to a few moves available. As they level up and when you “remaster” your tapes (the game’s term for evolving them), your creatures will gain more slots to put stickers on. These are their moves. The game really wants you to know they are cassette tapes, and it rules. Most moves don’t have an innate type to them and will instead adapt to the creature’s type. To use your moves, you will have to expend Action Points (AP). Each turn your character will gain 2 AP, and by using basic moves that use no AP you can quickly amass a large number of it to deal devastating damage to your enemy. If you have ever played a monster collecting game, you will very quickly learn how types interact and which moves you like best. One of my favorite additions to Cassette Beasts is passive moves that let you start battle by immediately using a set or random move for free. Building your cassettes so that you plan around this is super fun and adds an extra layer of strategy.
Traversing through New Wirral starts slow, but as you explore each location for the main quest and unlock traversal skills, you’ll be zooming across the map. Some of these skills include a fire sprint, a vine climbing ability, a magnetic ability to push and pull objects, and a swimming ability, among others. Almost all of the traversal skills have a store upgrade that lets you start battle with some advantage, such as burning your foes, or creating a plant shield. The way you acquire these skills is by capturing a particular type of beast, and you can find them early on in each area that requires the use of this ability, such as the sea monsters being near the coast of a lake. The world is not huge, but it is connected in a really fun way. Acquiring each traversal skill felt almost like getting a new dungeon weapon in 2D Zelda games.
But what really makes Cassette Beasts is its overarching story, and the different sets of interpersonal narratives from the inhabitants of Harbourtown, the main human settlement in New Wirral. Knowing near to nothing about it when playing the game only made me appreciate the quality of the writing, as I was not expecting it. The narrative is not too complex nor ambitious, instead it explores self-contained and relatable experiences from the Rangers of Harbourtown and your party, which is comprised of Kayleigh, Eugene, Meredith, Felix, Viola, and even Barkley the dog. These stories are some of the sincerest and most earnest I have experienced in a game recently.
All of the humans in New Wirral are stranded there, and some even come from different years, or from totally different realities, where things are not quite what you remember from your own. Your shared goal is to find a way out of the island, and most of your party sees themselves entangled with Archangels, reality-bending creatures whose overarching mystery holds the key to find a way back home.
In the process, you will get to deepen your bonds with your party, which allows you to fuse with them, use a special fusion move, and strengthen the fusion form with each level of affinity, up to a maximum of five. If I have a complain about the affinity system, is that you can accidentally unlock it with some characters very late into the game, if you do things in a particular order. For most of the early game, I was stuck with Kayleigh as the only party member I could fuse with. Fortunately, it doesn’t take too long until you eventually unlock it with other party members. On that topic, all of them are great, and by the end of the game I was very attached to them. Special mention goes to Eugene, Felix, and Meredith, whose personal stories of struggle with identity and capitalism will resonate with a lot of people in their early to late 20s.
Naturally, a vert important aspect of Cassette Beasts is its music. The soundtrack has some really catchy tunes, but the biggest standout has to be its vocal themes. Especially the songs that play inside the locales of Harbourtown, and during fusion in battle. Some of these songs are really evocative and longing, and its lyrics will get you pumped during the fights. Especial mention goes to some of the songs in the endgame and final dungeon. Additionally, the main quests in the game are named after some very popular 80s and 90s hits, to add that extra flair of personality to the game.
The art and graphics in Cassette Beasts are beautiful, and perfectly match the whimsical, and at times terrifying nature of New Wirral. Without spoiling anything, the design for each boss battle is spectacular. Likewise, character portraits are beautiful and full of personality. In contrast, the game world is simple and not filled with too much detail, which helps with navigation and clarity. Because of this simplicity, the pixel art pops-up and the art style benefits a lot from it.
Cassette Beasts is available on PC via Steam and PC Game Pass. It will release for Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch on May 25, 2023.