Baten Kaitos - Staff Review  

A Flight into Unoriginality
by Bryan Boulette

40-50 Hours


Rating definitions 

   Baten Kaitos begins with a hero, stricken with a case of amnesia, waking up in small, quiet village which is largely cutoff from the outside world. The hero promptly goes wandering off into the village's woods, where he happens upon a mysterious girl and a seal keeping an ancient dark god asleep. The two break the seal, only to be confronted with the flagship of an evil empire seeking to regain power over the other nations of the world. The general commanding the ship just happens to have a mysterious past with our hero, Kalas, and that past leads him to reluctantly involve himself in the quest to battle the empire and discover the truth about the seal he unleashed. To do so, he'll travel from flying island to flying island, engaging in battles conducted through the usage of magic cards.

   If you think all of the above sounds rather... familiar, well, you'd not be wrong. In an unfortunate way, Baten Kaitos' story and characters distinctly lack the uniqueness of the game's innovative battling system, which I'll touch upon momentarily. The characters and story don't just fail to break new ground -- they're actually a pretty trite and bland mishmash of tired cliches and loosely "borrowed" concepts done better by other games. The hopefully optimistic and determined winged blonde who hovers in the sky while casting magic spells is frighteningly similar to the various Princess Nina characters of the Breath of Fire series. The fisherman Gibari is a near clone of Final Fantasy X's Wakka, not only in looks, but also in personality and mannerisms. The Evil Emperor even has a powerful magician-clown sidekick, a role hearkening back to Final Fantasy VI's Kekfa and Final Fantasy IX's Zorn and Thorn. The self-serving reluctance of Kalas, the game's hero, has been done better in Grandia II's Ryudo and Shadow Hearts' Yuri. They presented the same disinterested "not my problem" attitude in a far more compelling and amusing way.

Caption: When Evil Generals Attack Caption: When Evil Generals Attack

   The atmosphere of islands floating in the sky, each with their own elemental affinity, is awfully reminiscent of Skies of Arcadia, only Baten Kaitos does it without the same level of style and originality. Skies of Arcadia used the idea to present diverse and realistic cultures, where Baten Kaitos only passed off shoddy cliches. We're shown a weak puppet state playing to the whims of the Evil Empire. The brave and heroic warrior kingdom that is, regrettably, outmatched in manpower and technology, makes an appearance. And there's the magically-inclined, nature loving kingdom fully confident that its powers make it invincible to attack. Graphically, the landscapes are lush and colorful, but they offer little personality, little to differentiate them from any of a dozen locations that one could pick from random RPGs three generations old. It's disappointing, given the efforts most games go these days take to present life-like, realistic worlds with enough originality and detail to fully immerse the gamer. These locations are beautiful, but ultimately forgettable.

   In playing through Baten Kaitos, I would have been hard pressed to identify a single truly originally presented character or story concept. If a game is still going to use the "resurrection of dark god" and "Evil Empire" conceits in the mid-2000's, they should at least try putting radical new spins on the ideas, or at least presenting them in original and exciting ways. For instance, Skies of Arcadia used the Evil Empire, but in so doing, they presented an inventive and distinctive environment, and they gave the Empire a fresh feeling with the clever personalities involved. In playing Baten Kaitos, expect a mediocre story and mediocre characters, both of which could have come straight out of 1993. It might be tempting to forgive these sins and give Baten Kaitos a pass, if only because of the persistent scarcity of RPGs on the Gamecube, but when one considers the leaps and bounds games have made in story, character, and world development in recent years, the lapses are hard to forgive. Later in the story, Baten Kaitos throws some plot twists into the mix in an attempt to breathe some life into the comatose story, but the twists are too little, and too late to make up for the dullness of what comes before. The character development remains flatlined throughout the entire game.

   Even if these critical areas are neglected, though, Baten Kaitos does have a few shining spots. As disastrously as it fails in story and character, it succeeds with its fun, smooth, and original gameplay. I've never been a big fan of card-battling systems, typically finding them to be clunky, out of place, and just all around odd. But Baten Kaitos managed to create one that really entertains and allows for a substantial level of strategy mixed with elements of traditional RPG gameplay.

Beautiful Visuals Beautiful Visuals

   Every item in the game is a card -- weapons, armor, healing items, character techniques, and spells -- which the player collects as he or she explores. Each character can then build their own deck of cards: the size of the deck depends on the character's level, while the type of cards the player will give each character depend on that character's unique strengths and the role they'll play in combat. Battles are reminiscent of the usual turn-based RPG goodness, but with enough of a different flair to make them interesting and enjoyable. There are no Fight, Magic, or Item commands. Instead, at the start of battle, the character will draw a hand of cards from his customized deck. Using those cards determines the character's action. Use a weapon card (each character uses a different type of weapon, and thus has different available cards) and the character will attack; use an armor or shield card while being attacked, and the character will use a defensive maneuver. Use a spell card or a special technique card, and the character will engage in that action.

   The random drawing of cards from a pre-selection within the deck adds randomness and necessary planning and strategy -- if you skimp on certain types of cards when creating each character's deck before battle, you may find yourself unable to perform a needed action at the right time. For instance, a character may need healing but find himself with no healing cards; he may need to defend, but have nothing except weapon cards. Despite the level of planning needed, the deck creation process never becomes burdensome and remains relatively easy to construct for the gamer who wishes to do it with minimal thought and time. And despite my fears that the game's card system would be slow and obtrusive, leading to ponderous battles, Baten Kaitos manages to pull its encounters off with rapid speed. It's energizing, it keeps you on your feet, and it's fun.

   So with a disappointing story but a fun and original battle system, one might wonder how Baten Kaitos fares with the two other big considerations, graphics and sound. Thankfully, it doesn't disappoint there. The graphics are sharp, well drawn, and full of vibrant colors. One of the best selling points of the Gamecube is its usage of color, and Baten Kaitos easily stands up next to games like Tales of Symphonia, Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles, and Paper Mario. Even when one is wandering through locations entirely devoid of personality, at least the lovely backgrounds, with gorgeous and colorful artistry, can be fully appreciated. And aside from the physical similarities some of the characters share with figures from other games, they're still well animated and designed.

   The battles are pretty riveting to watch. Characters flow wonderfully as they glide about the screen attacking, and the monsters look equally great. The spell and technique effects are well done, making the same effective use of color as the backgrounds.

   As for the music, Motoi Sakuraba turns in a fantastic score. Sakuraba, a brilliantly talented composer, is most known for finding a few good styles and sticking with those (not necessarily to his detriment). The Tales games all offer great soundtracks with a distinctly Sakuraba style and feel; hear one, and you should immediately be able to pick out Sakuraba's stylings in the other ones. The Star Ocean games and Valkyrie Profile can instantly be recognized as Sakuraba.

   But with Baten Kaitos, the expert and prolific composer broke out of his mold and really experimented with some new stuff, and he does it to great effect. The whole soundtrack is convincingly epic, with plenty of poignant and emotional themes. The battle music, always one of Motoi Sakuraba's strong points, is particularly original. For instance, the main battle theme combines Sakuraba's noted rocking style with heavy use of violin. The result is thrilling.

   I'm a big fan of Sakuraba, though definitely not the biggest, and I have to say that this is one of my favorite Sakuraba soundtracks in a long time. For those who preordered the game, Monolith Soft even kindly tossed in a nice (if a bit too short) sampler soundtrack containing a handful of enjoyable tracks.

   In summation, Baten Kaitos is, sadly, a deeply flawed game that comes nowhere near its full potential. While Monolith went all out in the graphics department and in creating an original set of gameplay systems, and while Motoi Sakuraba turned in one of his best scores in years, the game almost falls completely flat courtesy of a dreadful story, unoriginal writing, stilted dialogue, and poor character development. If one can overlook these shortcomings, the game is worth a play; otherwise, one would be better served by picking up one of the Gamecube's better offerings.

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