Cassette Beasts remixes Pokémon but falls short of revolutionizing it
I fell off Pokémon after 2016’s Pokémon Sun. It was fun! But somewhere along the line, even the most die-hard monster collector experiences ’mon fatigue, unable to remember what happens when you put a fairy-type up against a bug-type without Googling, or what in Arceus’ name is the difference between the ground-types and the rock-types. The dozens of hours required to climb from that moment of picking a starter Pokémon to beating the Elite Four can make one wonder: Do I have this in me anymore? In short, one begins to age.
Cassette Beasts is an indie Pokémon-like with lapsed Pokémaniacs in mind. Instead of capturing monsters with two-toned balls, here you record them on cassette tapes through a process the game winkingly tells you not to think too hard about. Visually, the game looks like an Octopath-ed Pokémon Black/White, with colorful and wonderfully animated sprites battling across three-dimensional backgrounds. The monster designs are creative and varied, like Traffikrab, a hermit crab with a traffic cone for a shell, and Bulletino, who is a very serious little bullet dude. The beasts come in one of 14 types, each with strengths and weaknesses. At first glance, it’s Pokémon all the way down.
Well… except that the game opens with a quote from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and a sequence in which you fall through a wormhole of sorts into a world of cassette tapes and monsters, where a powerful Ranger tasks you with finding and fighting 12 Ranger Captains (think Gym Leaders, but usually without a building to their name), alongside a separate quest given to you by your starting companion Kayleigh to defeat eight Archangels — mysterious enemies that cause the screen to warp like a rewinding VHS tape, each rendered in different art styles from the game itself — in order to get back to your home dimension.
Make sense? I can’t speak to whatever is going on with the unintentionally eldritch visuals of Scarlet and Violet, but you don’t fight an evil claymation angel in those games. Which is all to say that Cassette Beasts is weirder than it lets on, in the best way.
I was initially enamored with the ways Cassette Beasts remixed the Pokémon formula, starting with how the designers at Bytten Studio transform simple strengths and weaknesses into a complex set of chain reactions. For example, if you attack a plastic-type with a fire-type attack, the plastic melts, changing the enemy’s type to poison, which is then flammable if you attack it again with a fire-type. If, however, the plastic-type attacked a lightning-type, it would insulate them, causing any attacks that would normally hit multiple enemies to only hit one. At first the mechanic is simplistic, but soon you’ll try to remember things like “what shatters glass now that I’ve hit a mountain with lightning?” and “will poison make my astral creature go grr when I want it to go purr?”
These complications are complicated further by the fact that the game is largely fought two-on-two. At nearly all times, you are flanked by a companion who can also transform into any of the beasts in your party. Also, you and your companion have health bars distinct from your monsters’ health bars. On top of that, you can fuse with your companion, creating hybrid beasts out of any two of the game’s 120 monsters. Pretty quickly, you find yourself feeling the same complexity creep of Pokémon, but with philosophy jokes and a little creepypasta on the side.
Still, Cassette Beasts’ charm is undeniable. This is a game aimed squarely at players who were kids when Red and Blue came out, who will laugh at Team Rocket being replaced with a group of evil landlords who look like vampires and talk about preying on the poor. Players who can appreciate ’90s mall aesthetics and the perfectly named “ElectroShack.” Players who know what a cassette even is in the first place, for whom the joke that the healing item in this game is a pencil that rewinds cassette tapes actually makes any sense.
As the hours piled on, the sense that Cassette Beasts was a fresh start for the Pokémon-like genre waned. In addition to the complexity creep, repetition sets in, and the battles begin to drag — just as they can in Pokémon. Other problems are unique to Cassette Beasts: Since monsters are always at the same level as the player character and can swap their “stickers” (the game’s term for abilities, allowing you to put all the best fire-type moves you like on whatever beast you choose), there are fewer and fewer incentives to record ’em all after you’ve put together a team that works for you. If you ever found yourself petering out in the endgame of Pokémon, I suspect you’ll feel the same here, too.
With some of the same problems that plague its source of inspiration, Cassette Beasts doesn’t so much evolve the formula as it does swap it out for a different type. It’s fun, it looks and sounds great, and it runs beautifully on Steam Deck, for what it’s worth. But its shininess is only surface-level, with the underlying mechanics, chain reactions and all, matching but not surpassing Game Freak’s best adventures. Of course, given the two-person development team here, that’s an achievement unto itself.
At the end of the day, Cassette Beasts is a remix of a song you like. Just don’t expect a remaster.
Cassette Beasts was released April 26 on Linux and Windows PC; it will be available May 25 on Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PC. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.
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