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Baten Kaitos, the card-based RPG developed by Monolith Soft and Tri-Crescendo, headed by Shinji Noguchi was slated to be one of the most brilliant games on the Nintendo GameCube. Gorgeous pre-rendered backgrounds, an engaging story, and a card-based battle system were supposed to make RPG fans quiver with joy. Released in November, Namco's Baten Kaitos was met with open arms by most. Did Namco succeed in putting out the finest RPG for the Gamecube? Yes, they certainly did. That game is named Tales of Symphonia. However, Baten Kaitos does provide a relatively unique game in a sea of Final Fantasy clones.
Baten Kaitos is a world full of strife. In this world, in the form of cards, exist objects called Magnus. These cards hold the power of the item captured in the Magnus, which can be released when the cards is used. In the game, this functions in two ways: outside of battle in puzzles and in the deck for battle. Blank Magnus are also available to capture the essence of things in the world.
Baten Kaitos could've been the best thing since breaded Slice. The game certainly has appeal to those who aren't Collectable Card Game (CCG) players. In fact, someone who's never had experience with anything beyond Yu-Gi-Oh! or PSO Episode 3 may find Baten Kaitos' easy-to-learn, easy-to-master system of control and deck-building simply enthralling. Unfortunately for Namco, any player of Magic: the Gathering or most other CCGs will find the system dreadfully simple.
The battle system in Baten Kaitos is split into two elements: building your deck and battle. Constructing a deck in Baten Kaitos is much like equipment in your standard RPG. Players start with a very small number of cards to be put in their deck. Expanded later by level-up, the deck is the cornerstone of everything in Baten Kaitos' battle system. BK's cards have several attributes; an offensive and defensive "Combo Number," which determines how early a player can use the card; an Attack or Defensive value, to determine how much damage an item does or takes away; a possible elemental charge; and anywhere from one to four face numbers.
Combo Numbers are the easiest to understand: A card with Combo 1 can be played at any time during your turn: be it the first card play or the last, Combo 1 cards can be played at any time during that character's turn. Combo 2 cards can only be played after a Combo 1 card has been played. Simple enough? Cards go all the way up to Combo 5. Players will initially not be able to combo cards, but quickly build in rank to have six or seven plays during a single combo. Some items may change during a combo, based on if a certain item has been played previously. Certain items also exist as combo breakers--they tend to be much more powerful than other cards, but cannot be followed at all.
During an enemy's attack, cards may be played as well. The cards played on defense can reduce damage based on standard and elemental damage as well as healing some status effects. Some objects can be used both on defense and offense, but will have different defensive and offensive values. Also included are the numbers on the face of the card. Linking these cards, either by pairing them or creating a straight, will increase the value of the combo at hand.
Additionally, the game has some unique status effects. Confusion is nothing similar to what gamers are familiar with; the numbers on the face of the cards start moving around and it's more difficult to get the number that you want. Headache is similar; the numbers have simply changed position on the card.
Experience and levels work differently than in most other RPGs. There are two types of experience levels: Class levels and standard levels. Class levels allow the characters to gain extra deck space and additional cards to combo in battle. Standard levels are just as anyone would expect: you get additional hit points and statistics. The oddest part is that characters do not level up automatically; instead, they must travel to a church at blue-colored save points. Because of this, it becomes impossible to power level in certain dungeons in the game, as the red-colored save points only function as save points. Additionally, it's never explained why the characters can be transported to the church, only that they can.
One of the most unique aspects of the game is how money works. Selling standard Magnus is not a way to earn much money, but by selling pictures of the monsters you fight, you gain large amounts of cash. At the beginning of the game, Kalas, the main character, is given a camera card. By adding this card to his deck, Kalas is able to take pictures of monsters and make money in the game. Because of this, it's rare to sell standard cards, and therefore your menu becomes cluttered with useless cards.
The telling of the story of Kalas and his friends is done from an interesting perspective. Players do not play directly as Kalas, but as his Guardian Spirit, a spirit who has bonded with Kalas to give him more power. Unfortunately, you, the spirit, have gained a form of amnesia and can't seem to remember anything before the start of the game. Although the backstory of Baten Kaitos is interesting, it's difficult to become immersed in the world. After learning of the initial nuances of the world, most of which are revealed early on, the story becomes rather lackluster. Baten Kaitos' early and mid-story are very common -- the evil empire is posed to take control of the world and the only people who can stop it are Kalas' group of spunky characters. This does change midway through the second disc, but it's still very difficult to stay interested in the story after the 'big plot twist.'
This brings about the game's largest flaw: the characters. Kalas, the ersatz hero who doesn't want to be anyone's savior, Xelha, the thieving girl who is thrust into Kalas' care, Gibari, the humorous blitzball player... er, what? My mistake, I meant the Hawaiian-styled fisherman from a small village. Lyude, the Imperial officer with a sense of right and wrong, Savyna, the female warrior of great skill, and the Great Mizuti (who is the only character who stands to be unique in a sea of mediocrity) round out the cast. All of the characters, save Mizuti, stink of previous RPGs influences. This is only a bad thing in some ways; players will be able to jump in with the characters and form attachments very easily.
That is, unless you have ever talked to someone for more than twenty minutes. Unfortunately, the dialogue in Baten Katios does not feel natural at all. Even with the VA turned off, lines don't seem to have a flow between them. Transitions between topics seem forced and characters seem somewhat oblivious to not-so-subtle hints in others' speech. The aforementioned 'big plot twist' is foreshadowed with less subtlety than it should be, but it still does provide a bit of a jump for the player. Due to the fact that the player is a Guardian Spirit, and not the main character, choices are voiced as questions to you, spoken aloud. People don't think it odd at all that Kalas, and occasionally other party members, are talking to someone who's not there. Dialogue between party members is also rather unbelievable, as if the parts were penned to show how dialogue should not flow.
When the voice acting is turned on, things take a turn for the worse. The voice actors themselves are decent, and do their job. However, Namco has created an audio effect to imitate the fact that the Guardian Spirit is hearing things through his host. That being said, all of the dialogue in the game sounds as if it's being spoken in a bathroom. A tinny sound with a faint echo accompanies all of the voices in the game.
It's really very unfortunate that this side of the audio spectrum suffers from problems, as the music from Baten Kaitos may very well be Motoi Sakuraba's finest. Just as a note, no, I have not heard Valkyrie Profile's soundtrack. Compositions cover a spectrum from orchestral to rock, and everything fits exactly where it should. Much like Katamari Damacy, the soundtrack functions well on its own, even with its different genres.
Baten Kaitos is also quite possibly the most beautiful game on the GameCube. The game features pre-rendered backgrounds with polygonal characters. As such, the backgrounds have a gargantuan amount of detail. As the game takes place in the sky on islands, some of the towns feature clouds floating through them. Characters animate well, though they do run a little goofy. Still, it's something that can be easily overlooked.
Because the backgrounds are pre-rendered, it can be somewhat difficult to tell where you can and can't go when characters are distant from the camera's vantage point. Aside from those minor gripes, though, the game is absolutely brilliant, graphically.
It's very unfortunate that everything in Baten Kaitos did not come together to create a truly great gaming experience. The shallow battle system becomes boring quickly, and the voice acting's poor quality drops the game to a simply average level. The game reeks of originality, both graphically and with its gameplay style, it's just that everything in the game simply doesn't quite come together, putting Baten Kaitos in the realm of games for those who aren't in search of the most complex system and don't mind the audio quality.