Baten Kaitos - Reviewed by Barren
Baten Kaitos: Eternal wings and the lost ocean
Platform: Nintendo Game Cube
Average game time: 60 hours
Year of release: 2002 (Japan), 2004 (US)
Baten Kaitos is one of the few RPGs available for the Nintendo Game Cube... Good thing it's an excellent one.
Finally translated this winter after its success in Japan, Baten Kaitos immerges us into a world long destroyed by a war between the humans and the gods. The earth is hidden deep below the clouds, the islands are floating in the sky, and the ocean is but a myth. Humans have grown wings, and the natural essence of objects can now be trapped into "Magnus" cards. The story takes place around five of these Magnus, which are said to contain the essence of one of the gods. On one side, you have the Empire ruling one of the main isles, trying to collect the god's power for themselves; on the other side, you have a crew of heroes trying to stop them. Of course, this sounds indredibly cliché (and in a way, it is): evil empire, reluctant hero, apocalyptic slumbering power waiting to be awakened... However, the many and very unexpected plot twists and the interweaving of the various sub-plots give a whole new meaning to this classic RPG storyline. It's almost as if Namco had decided to take the most basic story possible, and interpret it in the most original way. When the game starts out, you're assaulted by a considerable amount of flashback movies in black and white; as the game progresses, you begin to understand the story behind each flashback, until you can finally put the pieces together. This kind of sets the pace for the whole game: there are a lot of things that you don't understand until much later on (such as the awkward silences following some dialogs), and your second play through the game will take on a whole new meaning.
There are six party members in total. Kalas is a young orphan seeking revenge against the Imperial officer who killed his family, Xhela is a peppy young woman trying to avoid the god's awakening, Gibari is a laid-back and easygoing fisherman (they fish in the sky), Lyude is a young Imperial ambassador with a unique sense of morality, Savyna is a mysterious and reclusive huntress, and Mizuti is a strange character who wears a mask and speaks in a most peculiar way. As a player, you incarnate (Charname), Kalas' guardian spirit. Note the original distinction between main character (Kalas), player character (Charname) and leader (Xhela, due to Kalas' self-interested goals). Of course, since the player character isn't part of the party, you may feel that the story is taking place around you and that your involvement is limited. In fact, the only choices you can make (aside from combat-related ones) reside in the advice you give Kalas throughout your adventure. If your bond with Kalas is strong enough, the fequency of the devastating (and very random) "spirit attacks" in combat is increased. However, developping a strong bond with him usually means adopting his I-don't-give-a-damn attitude, which leaves us with a roleplay-good option and a powergaming-good option. The party members seem like a rag tag crew at first glance, but their involvement with the plot becomes more and more evident as the game progresses. In fact, things are made much more interesting when it becomes obvious that there is a traitor within the party... and actually, every one of the six is hiding something.
Audio and video
The music in the game is very well-done, and giving out a bonus soundtrack cd with the game was an excellent idea. Each song befits the area it is associated with, and also gives out a vibrant "RPG vibe", if there is such a thing (i.e. reminiscent of cult RPG titles). The only possible complaint about the music is the one that plays during the battles; it's always the same song, except for the boss fights. It's still a good song, but with the combats tending to be quite lenghty, you'll get quite tired of it. And as per a general players' concensus, the voice acting is pretty awful, and always sounds forced. Good thing it can easily be turned off in the option. I heard the original version has better V.A., so we probably shouldn't be blaming Namco, but rather the english translation team.
The graphics are also very good, although Kalas never looks quite as cool as he does on the game's box. The backgrounds are enough to prove that the age of pre-rendered still lives strong. However, there is no scrolling in the various game areas, meaning that you always see the *whole* area (making the party quite difficult to control when it looks abouthalf an inch big). Also, the character portraits (those that appear during the dialogs and in the menu screens) can be quite sketchy at times, and hardly fit with the elaborate beauty found everywhere else. The combat animations for the "finisher" moves are long, fluid, flashy, and always impressive.
Ok, it has to be said: the combat style will annoy a few people. The card-using, pseudo-turn-based system is focused vaguely on strategy, and a lot on luck. It also relies way too much on speed, as you have to execute your combos very quickly before your turn is over (which can make fast-moving characters like Savyna almost unplayable). Combat involves the top 3 members of your party and up to 3 enemies. Another annoying combat thing is the way element-based Magnus are handled. First off, it's separated into 3 couples of opposing elements: fire and water, light and darkness, wind and time (someone please explain to me how these two can be considered opposing forces?). Elemental damage can be blocked *only* with defense of the opposed element, and elemental defense can *only* block attacks of the opposed element. Basically, this means that you can't block an elemental attack unless you: 1- Know what type of energy the opponent is using (which isn't always obvious when the monster isn't shrouded in flames or something), 2- Be lucky enough to draw defense cards of the appropriate type, and 3- Be fast enough to counteract each attack with the matching defense card (and good luck if you,re trying to oncentrate on creating a defense combo as well). This also means that your Magnificent-shield-of-shining-light-of-doomzor is useless against anything but darkness-based attacks.
In addition to the combos you create by combining your cards' "Spirit numbers" in a certain poker-like order, some Magnus can only be found by using some specific combinations of cards in battle. While some of those combinations are intuitive and can be deduced with either sheer logic or the cards' description texts, others take a vast amount of luck and guesswork. This also means that you won't discover all the Magnus in the game before a long, long time, which somewhat adds to the game's replay value. Note that I said "in battle", meaning that you also have to make sure you don't get killed (or don't kill your enemies too quickly) while you're guessing. Most healing items also fall under that category, and can only be used while you're facing hordes of monsters. However, these items also stay in your inventory after they're used giving you some time to try them out. They also change over time: for instance, milk will turn to yogurt, and eventually into cheese. However, you won't be noticed of these changes unless you have a specific item (obtainable only with one of the aforementionned combos, and turns into something useless with time); in other words, it's not uncommon to keep a fruit in your inventory for healing purposes, and end up with a Rotten Fruit in your hand just when you're facing a boss.
So, Baten Kaitos in a few short words? A bastion of hope in a genre that can seem to have sold out to Playstation lately. Excellent game with a lot of innovative elements, but not for everyone. I liked it, though!