When I sit down to preview Cassette Beasts, the dev starts to list ever-popular turn-based RPGs that prove there’s still life in the genre. Among the many titles, Pokemon is conspicuous by its absence. It makes sense to not invite the comparison (though less sense when the same dev tells me later that he doesn’t feel it has much in common at all, which it clearly does). Pokemon, for all its flaws, remains universally beloved. It’s untouchable, as many catch ‘em ups have found. Cassette Beasts has not come for the crown, but it still hasn’t missed by much. This is the most inventive catch ‘em up I’ve ever played, and it’s now amongst my most anticipated games in a stacked 2023.
Cassette Beasts’ unique gimmick is that it uses cassette tapes. The fact some of our younger readers might not know what they are makes me want to scoop their hearts out with a melon baller, but for those of us who remember when music came in plastic boxes, there are lots of loving references. Healing, for example, is done via pencil. If you don’t get it, ask your parents. Your player character starts off with one cassette beast, who they are able to transform into when they listen to a cassette. When they encounter other beasts in the wild, they catch them by recording them on a blank cassette, though it’s not like a Poke Ball. Instead, during the two or three turns you’re recording them, the more damage you do the more likely you ‘catch’ them.
Describing the mechanics isn’t really the selling point of Cassette Beasts though. The game just has the right vibe. For all the preview itself avoided the P word, the game is intelligent in its tropes and inversions. It’s set in New Wirral, a fictional Englishesque town, and has a rural British charm to it in a way that many video games, too glossy in their presentation, too forced in their humour, lack. It’s authentic, and that feels like a rare quality these days.
The biggest part of this vibe is the soundtrack itself. At one point, a conversation ended and I just let the last line float on the screen. The dev, knowing that games journalists inherently suck at video games, told me to push X. I told him I wanted to wait until the song was over. The whole game features an original soundtrack of fresh tracks designed to mimic the smooth sensation of the 1980s. There’s a modern touch in places – the song I was chilling to had a decidedly Snail Mail feel – but it’s very Duran Duran, very Stevie Nicks. I hate video game music and I want to drown in this soundtrack.
While it all feels very cosy, the preview ended with a sudden injection of horror. It reminded me of Chicory, whose cute colouring mechanics were occasionally interrupted by eccentric and chaotic boss battles against manifestations of depression. In Cassette Beasts, we fight a powerful Archangel and the twee pixel art suddenly becomes VHS horror. It’s a design choice that speaks to me specifically, and while I was already on board with the game, this had me dropping the sails and taking the ship’s wheel. Baby, I’m all in. These Archangels are supposed to feel not of this world, so each one shakes up the aesthetic in a fresh way, but I only know of the first one right now.
When you fight this Archangel, you fuse with your partner, with the beasts mixing into a mega beast. These creatures are procedurally generated, so even the devs haven’t seen them all yet, but I’m not sure if I like that idea or not. It will lead to some interesting combinations but it feels like creatures in these sorts of games benefit from a bespoke touch. The jury remains out. As well as these combinations, you will occasionally find beasts with a different type to their default one. These are similar to Pokemon’s (that word again) shinies, known in the game as ‘bootlegs’, which is another special touch.
Though you will unfuse when the battle ends, its influence remains. Fusing is treated as a highly intimate moment, and is followed by a cutscene and a potential change in the relationships with your characters. Much like Persona – a P word Cassette Beasts is not afraid of – these social links deepen your connection to each character and can lead to romance. I only met one character in the preview (Irish rogue Kayleigh), who the dev says is “the Ryuji” if we think of Cassette Beasts gang as Phantom Thieves. Another comparison the dev stressed was Zelda, as new modes of traversal unlock as you play, allowing you to glide, climb, and swim to add extra texture to the map.
I mentioned before that New Wirral was ‘Englishesque’ and you might think this an odd turn of phrase, but fear not dear reader. All is as it should be. You begin the game by washing up on a beach, no longer on Earth, apparently. But here’s the kicker – you’re nothing special. You have not been magically transported to a new realm, everyone has. They have been there longer than you, but all of them arrived in the same way, and just like you, none of them know why. It’s a great twist on the chosen one trope, although Cassette Beasts later lets itself down.
The Archangel disappears into you once you defeat it, sending you on a quest to free all the Archangels and lead everyone home. This makes you a chosen one, meaning while the concept of New Wirral is interesting, I fear it may be slightly wasted. Time will tell, but if I’m buying into the exciting parts of the game from a short preview, I need to brace for the less compelling elements to appear again too.
It’s easy to get swept away by Gamescom. You see a lot of games, so the great ones stand out more, and it’s generally a bit more buoyant than a dreary Discord call where someone’s mic doesn’t work and a load of influencers are spamming emojis in the chat. But I’m not sure that’s a factor here. Cassette Beasts hits so many of my buttons that I can’t be sure of its universal appeal, but I don’t care about you cretins. I might just have found my favourite game of 2023, and that’s good enough for me.
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