2 Reviews liked by itspearl

I've been putting off this review for 2+ weeks because I simply cannot put all of my thoughts about Cassette Beasts in order. As such, I'm just going to break it all down into different pieces.
The Vibe: While there are many, many monster taming games out there—especially in recent years, as the Pokémon Outrage Machine (tm) continues to roll on—it's generally agreed upon that the most successful ones (Pokémon, Dragon Quest Monsters, etc.) capture a very specific sense of adventure, wonder, and self-expression. Cassette Beasts delivers on that in spades. Between Metroidvania-esque overworld abilities, character creation, 100+ exciting monsters, and an energy I can only describe via the 3rd generation of Pokémon, the excitement sets in from the moment the game begins.
Characters/Writing: The greatest compliment I can give Cassette Beasts is that the writing—both in terms of characters and flavor text—is undeniably clever and charming. It immediately introduces an adult-oriented tone, with actual thought and stakes behind everything happening, without ever stepping into the all-too-familiar self-depricating or edgy territory of lesser games. Cassette Beasts proudly declares "Our characters are adults, with adult feelings and adult problems" while tactfully avoiding becoming an Adult Swim parody of the genre it's living in.
Mechanics: This is probably the simplest talking point. Anything you could want from a monster taming game is here—a focus on weaknesses, evolution, capturing a whole horde of creatures, etc., and Cassette Beasts handles those things with complete confidence. Where it becomes its own game, however, is in its unique mechanics and how it layers them, creating a tactically-interesting and, oftentimes, genuinely difficult experience that requires the player to be present and pay attention to every battle.
Narrative: As I've already mentioned, the fact that the writing and world take themselves seriously goes a long way toward making the story enticing. The world building is handled exceptionally well and the overall narrative is a fun, creative, thought-provoking ride that ends with a few well-earned messages and morals.
Presentation: There's not much to say here other than that the music, artstyle, and SFX are stellar. The developers obviously had a well-defined stylistic approach, and they absolutely nailed every aspect of it.
Representation: This is the big one, my friends. This is the aspect that took a great game into a must-play into my favorite game of 2023 so far. The gender, sexuality, and racial representation in Cassette Beasts is among the best handled I've seen in the entire medium. At no point do any of those things become spectacles, at no point does a "wait, what???? You're GAY?!?!?" dialogue option appear. Every character just exists and are given the absolute freedom to just exist, with representational aspects coming up when relevant, in passing, or in even more subtle ways like a decoration in a character's house. They're written like real people, and they're given the respect of real people, especially in the relationship building aspect of the game. When you create your character at the beginning of the game (or change it at any point throughout) the pronouns you choose are represented appropriately in conversations, are never questioned, and are embraced completely by the writing. There are one-on-one moments with characters that are so heartfelt and validating in a way I've never seen in a video game before, especially not toward a player-created avatar. This is a difficult thing to describe without having experienced it, but believe me when I say that Cassette Beasts is inclusive in the purist way—by wanting players to feel represented, to see themselves in characters, and to be themselves among those characters. It's a truly incredible thing, and to me, it's the new standard for the medium.
In case it wasn't already obvious, I think Cassette Beasts is a miracle. It does what every newcomer to a genre should: it takes enough influence from its predecessors to know what works while also doing enough new that it becomes its own fresh, unique piece of art. This is my favorite game of 2023 so far, and it's permanently placed Bytten Studio on my radar. I can't wait to see what they do next.

There are so many elements that are executed to near perfection in this game. The plot, atmosphere, music, dungeon design, and combat here are all top tier. The sense of progression through unlocking apps on the Demonica is super satisfying. SJ contains some of the most interesting characters in the entire franchise. The journey through the Schwarzwelt is fantastic, engaging, and unnerving nearly every step of the way.
Strange Journey isn't just a dungeon crawler or a JRPG. It is also existential and horrific. Unlike other games in the SMT franchise, SJ is pre-apocalyptic rather than post-apocalyptic, and it is up to the player to decide on a course of action to either halt or accelerate the incoming doom to humanity. In my opinion, no other SMT game expresses the weight of such a decision as well as SJ.
Most of the gameplay involves navigating a number of dungeons. They can include surprising amount of complexity, my favorite being swapping out entire chunks of the region from a different dimension. Graphically, the areas don't necessarily look that interesting, and without the map, different parts of the same sector would be indistinguishable, but luckily you'll be looking at the map on the bottom screen more often than the first-person perspective on the top screen.
The combat isn't quite as strategic as the Press Turn system found in many other SMT games, but the Demon Co-Op system present here is still very fun and gives you a reason to be more selective of your party members, as demons that align with your protagonist make for a significantly stronger party.
Character development in SJ is among the best of JRPGs here. In a relatively short script, some NPCs slowly evolve from simple fellow crew members to ideologues of various alignments, and all of them are either fascinating or easy to sympathize with.
The main drawback here compared to other SMT games is how limiting the fusion can feel. In standard fusion, you can customize abilities with demon sources, but those are difficult to come by more than once for each demon, so fully customizing a demon with the abilities you would like is very cumbersome without using a password calculator.
Speaking of passwords, I wouldn't recommend using the password system for the most part. You can input a password to automatically summon a demon into your roster, but there are two problems with this. Most obviously, being able to summon nearly any demon can break the balance of the game and allow the player to entirely circumvent the problem-solving element of boss fights. Secondly, it costs a lot of in game currency to summon demons this way, which is already fairly tight if you aren't farming for it, so using this system regularly would require more grinding than the game needs. Passwords may be a good system for players that would prefer to farm their way out of a challenge instead of dealing with the puzzle of fusion, though.
New to Redux is the Womb of Grief, a monstrous mostly-optional dungeon with a new plotline. It's fun and the plot with new character Alex is interesting, but not as solid as the base game. Also new in this version is a simplified character portrait art style. I don't personally mind the updated portraits as much as it seems others do. It's a little more "anime" looking than the original SJ, but it doesn't compromise the unsettling tone of the game for me. To me, the most important new features in Redux are the additional apps available to the player. They provide a ton of quality of life upgrades that make dungeon crawling more forgiving, while not necessarily easier.
All of that said, this game won't be for everybody. It is very trial-and-error heavy in its dungeon design. I enjoyed learning the layout of every floor of each sector, and solving each teleporting puzzle was very satisfying to me, but if a player is more into story and combat than exploration and puzzles, they might find the maps tedious. Outside of the demons and combat, this doesn't have as much in common with SMT 3, 4, or 5 as one might expect. Mostly, I would recommend this to fans of other JRPG dungeon crawlers, like SMT 1-2 and the Etrian Odyssey series. If you like the more modern SMT games and are open to old-school exploration, or are a fan of classic blobbers and wouldn't mind a modern/sci-fi twist, then you should definitely give it a shot.

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