At this year's Gamescom I got hands-on with Bytten Studio's Cassette Beasts, an upcoming monster-taming open world RPG in the vein of Pokémon, which is far more interesting to me than the basic concept of Pokémon. That's because you're able to fuse together any monsters you 'catch', but moreso because it's a monster collectathon where you become the monster, essentially fusing yourself with bomb dogs and hermit crabs with traffic cone-homes.
I like the way the game does away with the overdone shonen story of wanting to become the very best there ever was, and instead puts the spotlight on its cast of characters and the relationships you form with your buds. It's looking mighty promising.
I played roughly 25 minutes of an early build of Cassette Beasts, where I got to briefly explore the opening area of New Wirral, get into a couple of scraps and do some exploring before things ended on a spooky cliffhanger. It was a genuine delight, especially as I was joined by Cassette Beasts' artist, writer and designer Jay Baylis, who not only walked me through many of the game's sights but also talked me through it all as I went about my business.
One of the first things we chatted about as I explored the game's opening area – a delightful little seaside town – was its premise. Sure, it's a monster-collecting game, but what makes it so different from your Pokémons and Temtems? Well, it's an isekai (Japanese portal fantasy) for starters, but it's not just you who's been thrust into this strange new land; it's everyone you meet, and part of the game's overarching story is discovering why this has happened. This immediately raises intriguing questions and storylines, which makes a refreshing change from the usual "I wanna be the best trainer!" schtick we're all so used to with these sorts of games.
"[The folks of New Wirral are] from real places on Earth, or their version of Earth, at least", Baylis tells me. "You know, they have their own reasons for wanting to stay and how they feel about everything. You can play up the emotions of like, how they interpret the events of being stuck here and what that means to them, and what they can get out of it."
And the game's focus on people lies not only in the wider story of why you've been dumped in this land, but also in the monsters and AI companions you'll come across on your journey. You see, you aren't just catching monsters in a ball, but recording them to a cassette tape, which then lets you transform into them in battle. Baylis says it's less like a "pet simulator" and more like a "Power Rangers thing", so when you're transforming into the monsters you've taped, you're "elevating yourself, which means the focus is on people."
As for your AI companions, you'll meet a bunch of folks on your adventures and form better bonds with them by helping them complete their personal goals. If you've played Xenoblade Chronicles 3 on the Nintendo Switch, it's a similar thing where strong interpersonal relations may confer special benefits in battle.
For all the game's focus on people, you might think that it's compensating for janky combat or poor exploration. Wrong and wrong. The fights I took part in were polished, with vibrant animations and an introduction to what's inevitably going to become quite a complex, ahem, beast. Rather than bashing a monster to death with the same spell over and over and over again, Cassette Beast's weakest spells cost nothing to use. Instead, they build a meter - otherwise known as momentum - which charges your strongest spells so you can unleash them in a fiery blaze of glory; or Bomb Bomb Blast in my case.
Baylis says the game's combat is inspired by Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, where later battles will feature status effects that alter your rate of gaining momentum, or even moves that "debug" your enemies and prevent them from gaining momentum faster. "We actually have an elemental system, you know", he tells me. "Rather than it being 'water does twice as much damage to a fire monster', it's like, water debuffs fire by extinguishing its ability to do extra damage, right". And it goes even further, as if fire hits water, it'll create a "healing steam" which delivers "passive health regen".
I didn't get to test out this elemental system, but I did get to potter away from the opening town and encounter a few obstacles. Namely a lift that I activated by plopping onto a pressure plate and a gap that I'd use a glider to swoop over. These may sound like small things, but it was nice to see some physics implemented into the top-down exploration to give it some more depth. Baylis mentioned that the game's being made on the Godot Engine, an up-and-coming open source engine that's allowed them to make a game that feels bigger than a two-man team. More than that, though, it's enabled them to riff off nostalgia and tap into how they remember these sorts of games being when they were young'uns.
But the game's sunny demeanor hides a dark secret. Right at the end of the demo, I steered my character into an underground tunnel which soon opened into an abandoned subway station. Then reality glitched and tore and blam! A menacing Archangel crackled into existence and with it, a sudden drop in atmosphere from "Ah, this is nice!", to "Oh god, oh god". The whole encounter reminded me a bit of Undertale and how its happy veneer hid a darker undercurrent. And it brought me even more on board with the game's story and just why everyone had been trapped in New Wirral. Clearly, there's a lot more going on than recording monsters and I want to know more.
A battle between myself, my AI bud Kayleigh, and the Archangel ensued. At first it seemed hopeless, with all of my attacks barely scratching the Archangel. Until Kayleigh and I fused into a mega-powerful monster and batted them out of existence. Again, it all played into the game's focus on people, as Baylis explained that they wanted to explore what it meant to fuse with a person. What's neat is that building relationships with your party members will mean super fusions will get stronger.
The battle with the Archangel signalled the end of my time with Cassette Beasts, a wonderful monster-collecting RPG with a character-driven twist. It remains one of my highlights from Gamescom, not only because it was utterly charming and great fun, but because Baylis' passion shone through as I played the demo alongside him. Keep an eye out for this one.