Palworld’s mixture of open-world survival, supply chain management, and monster wrangling may have taken the internet by storm. But, for all the similarities between its ensemble of critters and those found in Pokémon, the game doesn’t follow in developer Game Freak’s footsteps when it comes to how it actually plays. At its heart, Palworld is a survival game.
In an interview on the subject, the CEO of Palworld developer Pocketpair claimed that the game was designed to feel “completely different” from Pokémon. “I would even say that Palworld is a lot more similar to Ark: Survival Evolved in terms of game mechanics,” he added.
If you were one of the folks who went to Palworld looking for a more conventional monster-taming experience, you may have come away feeling disappointed. Maybe you’re looking for an alternative after the letdown of Pokémon Scarlet and Violet? Maybe you want something that meaningfully builds on the Pokémon experience rather than just repeating it? Either way, I’ve got good news: there are plenty of excellent indie titles that take the Pokémon formula and meaningfully improve on it.
Available for Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC, not only does Cassette Beasts understand the child-like wonder at the core of the monster-taming experience, but it also taps into nostalgia in a big way. An open-world role-playing game (RPG) in the mold of Pokémon, Cassette Beasts takes the formula further by adding a fully explorable world, monster fusions, and compelling writing - all wrapped in a charming 90s-inspired art style.
The premise is simple. Your custom avatar wakes up on the island of New Wirral, which is inhabited by strange creatures which can be captured through the use of (you guessed it) cassette tapes. There’s a lot of mystery here, too. The inhabitants of New Wirral have arrived from different time periods and versions of our real-world Earth. It’s a refreshingly grown-up take on the traditional monster-taming formula, forcing you to confront motes of darkness among the colorful monster-catching.
Contrary to Pokémon, the characters consistently feel like real people. Though Pokémon does have its moments of strong writing, it can be quite hit-and-miss. This isn’t an issue that Cassette Beasts’ writing shares, as it carries a wit and poignancy reminiscent of some of the best indie games.
Cassette Beasts has you travel alongside companion characters, with whom you form bonds that allow you to fuse more powerful monsters. It helps convey a sense that the mysteries of New Wirral and the Cassette Beasts are bigger than just you, making for a world that feels fleshed out and lived in.
This mature, sensitive, and charming outing feels as though it was explicitly designed for the adults who grew up with Pokémon as children. It’s no coincidence that Cassette Beasts boasts ‘Overwhelmingly Positive’ reviews on Steam. The game is also available on Xbox Game Pass alongside Palworld if you want to give it a try.
Temtem boldly takes the monster-tamer formula and transplants it into the massively multiplayer online (MMO) space. Available for PS5, Xbox Series X|S, Nintendo Switch, and PC, Temtem realizes the dreams of Pokémon lovers everywhere by finally allowing them to capture and battle beasts as part of a bustling online community.
The game’s writing and world-building stick pretty closely to the Pokémon formula. You pick a starter and journey around the world challenging gyms (known here as Temtem Dojos). What the main story really amounts to, however, is onboarding for the game’s robust player vs. player (PvP) scene, which shines thanks to Temtem’s bold decision to depart from Pokémon’s combat mechanics in some key ways.
Besides being an MMO, Temtem dispenses with the randomness of Pokémon’s battles while also adding a meaningful action economy to the game. Every attack in Temtem has a guaranteed chance to hit as well as a clearly signposted damage value and outcome. No longer do you have to charge up a risky Solar Beam only for the attack to frustratingly miss on the next turn.
Each turn, your critters build up ‘hold’, which can be spent for more powerful attacks down the line. Some moves don’t require ‘hold’ at all, while others need to be saved across multiple turns. It creates another layer of decision-making, adding a sense of ebb and flow that Pokémon battles often lack.
While Temtem's battles do make generous use of traditional elemental weaknesses and strengths, the game's departures from Pokémon orthodoxy do a great deal to elevate Crema’s ambitious MMO game. If you’re looking for satisfying monster battles, you’d be hard-pressed to find better than Temtem.
As much for Digimon fans as Pokémon lovers, Anode Heart is a charming, if surreal, monster-taming RPG from Stove Powered Games. Available on PC and macOS, Anode Heart shines a welcome light on the tropes and themes often explored by many of Pokémon’s competitors back in the early 2000s, like the cult classic Monster Rancher and Jade Cocoon series, as well as the aforementioned Digimon.
You play as an amnesiac robot called Seek. Your mission is to explore the mysterious Stack Island, partner up with the Tama, the cute pixel art monsters that make the island their home, and, ultimately, save the island from destruction.
The battle system is both an aesthetic and mechanical departure from Pokémon, too. Rather than politely taking turns to attack, your Tama’s actions are dictated by their relative speed and the type of attack they used the previous turn. This back-and-forth keeps battles fast-paced, tense, and engaging. With over 140 Tama to capture, there are plenty of pixel-art monsters for you to collect and enjoy, too.
While Anode Heart might seem strange from the perspective of a Pokémon purist, the distinctive blend of turn-of-the-Millennium nostalgia and gripping battles makes the RPG well worth a try. Plus, the game offers a free demo, meaning that you can try Anode Heart for yourself without committing any of your hard-earned cash.
Between Cassette Beasts, Temtem, and Anode Heart, there are plenty of fantastic indie titles out there that give Pokémon a run for its money, offering fresh takes on what some may feel is a worn formula. While Palworld has spiced things up with a liberal injection of survival mechanics, this trio of top-tier indies is more concerned with delivering on the more conventional monster-taming fantasy. Those looking to rekindle some monster-taming magic need to look no further.
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Cat Bussell is a Staff Writer at TechRadar Gaming. Hailing from the crooked spires of London, Cat is an experienced writer and journalist. As seen on Wargamer.com, TheGamer.com, and Superjumpmagazine.com, Cat is here to bring you coverage from all corners of the video game world. An inveterate RPG maven and strategy game enjoyer, Cat is known for her love of rich narratives; both story-driven and emergent.
Before migrating to the green pastures of games journalism, Cat worked as a political advisor and academic. She has three degrees and has studied and worked at Cambridge University, University College London, and Queen Mary University of London. She's also been an art gallery curator, an ice cream maker, and a cocktail mixologist. This crash course in NPC lifestyles uniquely qualifies her to pick apart only the juiciest video games for your reading pleasure.
Cat cut her teeth on MMOs in the heyday of World of Warcraft before giving in to her love of JRPGs and becoming embedded in Final Fantasy XIV. When she's not doing that, you might find her running a tabletop RPG or two, perhaps even voluntarily.