Grab your Walkman and your pastel shell suit: we’re hunting for Cassette Beasts.
In Cassette Beasts, you are all at sea. Beached on a weird isle, you are surrounded by fellow-wrecks. Like you, they don’t quite remember how they ran ashore here, why life is so sleep-smogged, or why the centrepiece of their days should be the slow pouring of coffee, at the Gramophone Café. Are these folk dead, drifting in a happy haze through purgatory? That may explain the muted, soapy colours, as though life had all but washed away. Apparently, they are in a place called New Wirral, where people transform into monsters and join battle with foes. My theory, however, is that they are somewhere else, somewhere altogether spookier; where time stretches out, with waning flavour, like well-chewed gum; a drowsy wasteland between starting point and destination: their thirties.
Cassette Beasts is Pokémon for grown-ups. Or, at the very least, Pokémon for the ground-down. In place of the little plastic capsules that power that series, we have cassette tapes, which record creatures in the wild, allowing our hero to play them, so to speak – morphing into their forms, with a quick froth of static, and slugging it out. Note the hint of the retro, keyed to touchable objects; you heal monsters not with a spritz of medicinal potion but with a pencil, spooling back the tape to its untainted beginning. It’s a smart conceit, one that recalls Assemble With Care, from Ustwo Games, in which you fixed an array of bric-à-brac (rotary telephones, cameras, cassette players) and, in so doing, mended broken connections to the past. The developer here, Bytten studio, gives mechanical voice to a hard-felt pang in many Pokémaniacs of a certain age: the desire to wind back the series to a time of challenge, obliqueness, and wonder.
To play a recent Pokémon game, if you were weaned on Red and Blue as a kid, is a strange thing. Anyone who remembers – or rather cannot shake – the music that wafted through Lavender Town, which both lulled you and nagged at your nerves, may look at newer entries, such as Scarlet and Violet, and think, Where is the risk? Where is that sense of darkness that used to curl, like smoke, at the edges? Bytten Studio wants to restore some of that creeping oddity. Hence the Poppetox: a top-hatted skull with goatish legs and a milky gaze. With its extendo-arms, it could almost be the skeleton of the Janitor, from Little Nightmares.
The Poppetox is one of eight bosses that you must dispatch, along with twelve captains, each of whom will stamp your ranger card. Cassette Beasts makes no bones about digging up its source material, adorning it with jokes and fleshing it out with an adult inquiry. Frankly, we need more of this sort of thing – relaxed and meandering riffs on established formulas, games that go where their inspirations, by definition, cannot. It isn’t that Bytten Studio has turned out a full-blooded horror; the game holds a PEGI 7 rating, for, among other things, “implied violence” and “fear.” But the crux of its pleasures lies in its soft exploration of unchildish zones. “It felt strange. In that moment, I was sharing a body with you, and the thing we became was both us and not us at the same time.” So says Kayleigh, an ally whom you fuse with, in monster form. “Now that we’ve done it,” she says, “I have this weird feeling inside me.” Hmm.
Not that you should expect an existential inquest. Above all, Cassette Beasts gets by on its wits, and is interested most in making you laugh. The designs of the monsters (of which there are 121) obey similar equations to those used by Pokémon studio Game Freak, but with less of a focus on the elemental and more on the domestic, and the deeply silly. Crab + traffic cone = Traffikrab. Lizard + gun = Velocirifle. Some of the gags have delayed punch lines. Clocksley, for example, is a mechanical toy with a long-range claw and a feather peeking out from the brim of its hat. When it evolves – or rather, when it is “remastered,” to use the in-game parlance – into Robindam, a green automaton wielding a bow-and-arrow, the joke hits home. Likewise, there is often a delicious flow of crunchy puns from one evolutionary leap to the next; behold Jumpkin as it grows into Beanstalker, before flourishing, finally, into Draculeaf.
I only have a couple of criticisms, and neither should stop you from playing Cassette Beasts. The first is the combat, which allows you a long list of moves; I missed the constraint of Pokémon, which caps you at four per critter, cutting back the bloat and allowing complexity to bloom. Also, the type-ings never took root in my head; while I like the idea of “Earth-type attacks bury Plastic-types,” owing to a kind of landfill logic, I could never remember the matchups. (Maybe this is not the fault of Bytten Studio, but rather that my head is hard-wired to the deeper simplicities – water beating fire, fire burning grass – of Game Freak’s series.)
The second is one of technical chops, the problem being that the technical keeps getting chopped. I played on a Switch, which had a habit of cracking up as though an old videotape were inside, locking and lurching in some of the more open environments. In the event, though, I’m not sure that this doesn’t perversely suit Cassette Beasts. Each time I booted it up, I couldn’t help smirking at the notice that it was made using the Godot Engine, given the time spent waiting for the game to catch up. And there is something Beckett-like in the limbo of New Wirral. The entire landscape feels like the result of waiting: for life to start or stop; for Game Freak to justify a little more of the deviance in its name and deliver something surreal; for the audience to age into the right frame of mind. As Kayleigh says, “A door has been opened that I didn’t even know was there before.”
Game: Cassette Beasts
Platform: Nintendo Switch, PC, Xbox One
Developer: Bytten Studio
Publisher: Raw Fury
Release Date: Out Now