Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean

System(s): Gamecube

Genre: Turn-Based RPG

Developer: tri-Crescendo/Monolith Soft
Publisher: Namco

Release Dates:
Japan - December 2003
North America - November 2004
Europe - April 2005
Australia - May 2005

Baten Kaitos was a title released in 2004, published by Namco and co-developed by Monolith Soft, the company behind the critically acclaimed Xenosaga, Xenogears and Chrono Cross series of JRPG’s; and tri-Crescendo, the company that developed the visually stunning Eternal Sonata. As one of the few RPG’s (and one of the last) on the Gamecube, it was met with much anticipation by fans.

For a long time, story has been the benchmark for which all great JRPG’s are measured. Well, on the story front, Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean is merely adequate. Evil emperor with a superior military force wants to revive a dark God to satiate his increasing megalomanial lust for power and conquest, blah blah blah. It’s pretty standard stuff and it’s been seen many times before. There is a shocking plot twist involving the main character, but that’s to be expected, as that too has become a staple of the JRPG genre. Having said that, the plot twist is quite a significant one, which changes entirely how you view the earliest parts of the game and gives you food for thought. The game is a good 45 hours long, not counting side quests. This means that, although there isn’t much replay value, it will take you a while to finish it the first time and give you plenty of entertainment.

As far as the characters go, besides the vengeful protagonist Kalas, mercilessly teased from childhood because he has only one wing, most appear very one dimensional at the beginning. It takes them some time to really grow, although they largely fit standard JRPG archetypes i.e. rebellious villager, mercenary with a dark past, unwilling soldier and hot-headed young guy. The one character that truly stands out is the enigmatic Mizuti, a diminutive wizard who wears something resembling an Aztec mask and refers to herself in third person (as the “Great” Mizuti much to the bemusement of the other characters, especially Kalas). Mizuti serves as the comic foil. This is in spite of her being a kind of Deus Ex Machina, saving the party and advancing the plot on many occasions. In addition, Mizuti’s dialogue is delivered excellently. The rest of the characters do grow and develop somewhat later into the game, so it is forgivable that they start off a bit flat and uninspiring.

Although the story doesn’t particularly stand out, and the characters are slow to develop, one thing does make Baten Kaitos stand out, and that is the setting. The legend goes that long ago, there was a war among gods that evaporated the oceans, leaving behind a toxic miasma on the earth. For some unspecified reason the game never explains, the land floated into the air, and the inhabitants evolved wings, called “Wings of the Heart.“ These are not strong enough for them to fly great distances, however, and characters rely on large creatures somewhat similar to whales for transport between islands.

To make things more complicated, you play the role of a “guardian spirit” that bonded to Kalas, and is thus always with him. This involves you more directly in the story but without breaking the fourth wall, as characters will not only directly address you by name, but occasionally ask you for a response. Sometimes this works, and other times it feels a bit jarring. The setting of floating islands paves the way for some great design by the developers and some interesting locations. An entire land made from islands floating among the clouds with winged inhabitants sounds pretty intriguing in itself but that’s nothing compared to a fairytale inspired village made of confectionary. There is even a dungeon that serves as an homage to classic pixelated masterpieces such as Namco’s own Pacman. There were obviously some very creative minds at work on this game and it shows.

Or perhaps eccentric is the word. The game introduces a few radical ideas, some of which work, some of which don’t. The ideas that occupy the middle ground here include interesting side quests and a card based battle system (before you hardened JRPG veterans recoil in horror, it works surprisingly well). The side quests are interesting, although they are few and far between. Some of those you receive last the duration of the game. Highlights include collecting star constellations for display on a church roof and gathering a dying man’s extremely large extended family. As for the card battles, card games themselves are not overly popular except with a specific demographic, which lessens the game’s appeal to a broad audience; simply put, many people won‘t appreciate using cards to fight, although there’s not much to separate it from many Final Fantasy games in how much control you ultimately have over your character. This shouldn’t take anything away from the game, as Baten Kaitos combat is mostly simple and quite engaging.

Since card games are based on a great deal of luck however, the lack of control over your allies during battles can be made more frustrating, particularly during some very tense boss fights. Paying attention to the cards you have been dealt at least mitigates the time you spend watching long, drawn-out cut scenes during battle, as your character moves to attack while you are still selecting more cards to use. This means battles are not quite the slow, grinding chore they can be in other turn-based games. You also need to think quickly, as you have limited time to pick cards before your enemies physically attack you. However, you can customise your deck in the inventory screens like you would equipment in any other turn-based JRPG, so as long as you are well prepared, most enemies other than bosses shouldn’t pose a huge problem.

There is elemental damage infused in certain offensive cards, as well as special attacks. Oddly, unlike traditional water-beats-fire elemental systems in JRPG’s, elements beat those that are directly opposite to them i.e. light beats dark but dark, in turn, also beats light. This increases the strategic element and makes it all the more satisfying when you land a good combo of elemental hits on a foe weak to that type and finish with a special move. There is one strategic idea linked to the use of cards that is quite confusing though, and the game never really adequately explains it. Each card has a number in the corner, and stringing together combinations of numbers nets you bonus damage. That part is easy enough. Where is gets confusing is there are over a hundred unique combos to discover by using certain items in battle along with weapons and armour in a particular order. The game never tells you what these items are or what order they should be used in and, in theory, you could have fun discovering this, but the combination of items appear random and the game never really encourages you to find out. Sometimes you’ll do it by accident, which just increases the sense of frustration.

On the plus side, the special attacks are fun to watch and the dark elemental specials look particularly stunning when unleashed. Cards do play a reasonably important part in the plot (which the game refers to as ‘Magnus’). Five special cards called “End Magnus” when brought together, are what releases the dark god that forms the main antagonist later in the game. But even more importantly, what is truly innovative about cards is that they are used in-game to store items.

Not only are all healing items and equipment stored on Magnus, but special quest items. You can store up to five items at a time, and these, as well as regular cards, can change depending on the circumstances. This means that your fruit can rot, water become stagnant etc. and quite literally this brings an extra dimension to the gameplay. This change also affects their use in battle. What used to be a healing item such as an apple, becomes a good means of poisoning your enemy once it has rotted, although quite how hurling raw pork ribs or blackened bananas at your enemy causes them decent damage is a mystery. There are no monetary rewards for finishing battles in Baten Kaitos, which is instead earned by placing a camera in your deck and taking photos of monsters. This can sometimes up the ante in boss fights, as you will want a photo of the boss to sell for a significantly high price, but will need to spend a character’s turn doing so. One of the more frustrating decisions made by the developer was to only allow levelling up from churches. These are located in towns far from dungeons, so if you aren’t careful, you can end up going into dungeons weaker than you intended.

The sound is perhaps the weakest component of Baten Kaitos. All main characters relevant to the story are fully voiced, as well as numerous minor characters. In short, if they are given a name by the developers, they speak, which is fairly impressive considering the number of characters. It’s worth noting that the voice acting was purposely made to sound slightly distant because of the player‘s role as an incorporeal being, which many reviewers and players alike failed to pick up on at the time of release. However, the game does not explain this, but rather leaves the player to figure this out themselves, so the negative press given to the sound is not surprising. It was an interesting idea but perhaps a bit too clever, and affects the voice acting in a way that is difficult to ignore. Not to say the voice acting is terrific, but for a game originally released in 2004, it isn’t as painful as it could have been, so long as you can handle the aforementioned surrealism of hearing all the characters sound like they have a bucket on their heads.

The dialogue is excellently written, but the quality of the voiceovers can vary. If it starts to grate, though, there is always the option to turn it off. By contrast, the rest of the sound is excellent. JRPG’s frequently sell soundtrack CD’s, and it’s not hard to see why, as the music is beautifully composed by Motoi Sakuraba and lives up to great JRPG standards. Again, the land of Mira is a particular highlight. The cleft between dimensions, where the characters get somewhat lost, is musically scored so as to invoke a sense of wonder and eeriness.

Presentation wise, there are some great C.G.I cut scenes in the game at key moments, and the character status screen has some nicely drawn character art. Aside from that, presentation is largely standard for a JRPG. What makes Baten Kaitos impressive, graphically speaking, is the beautiful pre-rendered backgrounds. This game looks gorgeous, and really shows off what the Gamecube is capable of. This skilful use of pre-rendering is similar to what Capcom accomplished with their remake of Resident Evil, only with much more vibrant colour and detail (and less flesh eating zombies, obviously). It’s not so much the technical side of the graphics that really stand out but the art style. The setting really comes to life thanks to the gorgeous artwork. This game is like a fairytale picture book come to life, despite being a little rough around the edges. Character models are well drawn, and having character art pop up on screen in dialogue boxes to accompany the spoken dialogue is a nice touch, particularly as each piece of artwork changes based on the emotions of the character. The character animations when running are pretty comical and exaggerated, almost cartoon-like, but you can forgive this because most players will be too busy picking their jaw up from the floor after viewing the stunning scenery.

Overall, Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean is a fairly lengthy JRPG that tries to do something radical in certain areas. Due to this, the voice acting sounds off and some characters are wooden or unlikeable to begin with, but they don’t ultimately detract from what is a great 45 hour experience. Assuming you are undeterred by the thought of card-based combat mechanics, I would highly recommend giving the game a look if you like JRPG’s. When so many games in the genre struggle to set themselves apart from Final Fantasy, it is refreshing to see one so boldly set out to do things differently. Despite the fact that the gamble the developers made with the game’s design doesn’t always pay off, the unique setting, colourful scenery, graphical presentation and solid, if somewhat quirky gameplay make this arguably the best JRPG's on the Gamecube, and one of the best of it's console generation.

+ Beautiful graphics, especially the pre-rendered backgrounds
+ Unique card battle system brings plenty of strategic thought
+ Radically new gameplay ideas that implement a fresh, strategic element
+ Great soundtrack
+ Creative & unique level design

- Apart from the odd plot twist, story is pretty standard fare and characters are slow to develop
- Voice acting sounds odd
- Boss fights can be frustratingly difficult

Overall Score

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