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Baten Kaitos (BK) is an odd mixture of elements that work astoundingly well with a few failed components that turn a potentially amazing experience into one that is merely mediocre. On one hand, BK has some of the most strikingly original and masterfully imagined set of backgrounds and worlds that I have seen in any RPG of recent note. On the other hand, the character designs are bland and boring. On one hand, BK's storyline is filled with twists and turns that keep you guessing all the way up until the final curtain call. On the other hand, every plot twist is predictable, laden with poorly executed voice overs and ultimately mismanaged. Are you beginning to see where I am going with this? Keep reading for the intimate details.
It is nice to see BK try something new for the battle system, and pretty much every other system in the game. Almost every aspect of BK is managed by a card system (referred to as Magnus in the game.) From battles to item usage, if you can interact with it and use it for a specific purpose, it is likely a card. Thankfully, for the most part, this style of play fits in quite well to an RPG's gameplay and even the plot makes use of Magnus in its designs.
Battles play out in turn based fashion, but with both sides' playing cards on both the offensive and defensive front. As you go up in levels, you will be able to select more cards from your deck to play in a combo and you will find yourself able to compile a larger sized deck as well. Different cards perform different actions in battle and you will find yourself playing into some heavy strategy as you decide whether to put together a large scale attack combo or to heal one of your battle participants using the appropriate card.
Further increasing the depth of battle is the idea of combos and elements. Most, if not all, enemies in the game are strong/weak against some form of element and choosing the right cards for the job can be either beneficial or detrimental to causing damage, as elements can work against you as well. If you, for instance, played a light based attack card in the same combo as a dark based attack card, they would almost certainly cancel each other out (depending on their respective strengths,) which could then make the attack moot. Combos can be performed that link certain related cards with each other in a combo or by matching up sets of numbers. By performing a nicely executed combo, you can truly maximize your damage dealing (and even healing or defending) possibilities.
I really enjoyed the combat in BK and found it to be a strategic breath of fresh air in a typically stale battle system. By carefully balancing a deck that is filled with offensive and defensive cards (coupled by item usage cards,) you can truly manage your battle from a strategic point of view. My only complaint in this regard is that I rarely took the time to put together any decent numerical or card based combos and instead relied solely on the elemental advantage of each respective enemy, which seems somewhat wasteful.
One of the more interesting aspects to BK's system is how money is acquired. By straying (quite far) from the RPG norm, money is not collected by simply defeating monsters. During combat, you can have the option of using a camera Magnus to take a picture of the enemy. Depending on the quality of the camera and how long you let the picture "develop," you can end up with a card that can be sold for varying amounts of money. That is pretty much the only way to gain cash in BK as selling your normal magnus is next to useless (most cards sell for no more than 1 - 5 dollars.) Given that you will soon find yourself scrolling through hundreds of useless cards, along with purchasing new cards, you can easily into 5 digit numbers. Thus, it would have been nice to see alternate forms of income (IE: sell useless cards!)
The rest of BK's gameplay is handled in much the same way as any other RPG (as in you travel from place to place in fairly linear fashion, talk to people, solve dungeons, etc.) with one rather intriguing (but ultimately annoying) addition. As you travel you can trap the essences of different items into Magnus. By doing so, you can bring random items from around the world with you for solving puzzles. This factors into much of the game involving dungeons that require some sort of Magnus manipulation. The problem lies in the execution, however, as it is almost as though the game spends too much time looking for ways to use this feature. It is as if one of the developers loved the idea so much, that it had to be implemented everywhere. Sadly, due to ergonomic problems (it takes impossibly long to trap/remove essences,) extremely vague clues on where to use certain essences and a limited number of items that can be kept at any one time, this feature soon turns annoying.
One of my major beefs with BK is with its sketchy difficulty level. You can be moving along at a nice pace and then suddenly get hit with an hour long boss fight. Even the regular battles in this game can take a very long time, and since the enemies respawn, this can soon get very grating. There were at least 2 or 3 boss fights in this game that I NEVER want to go through again, and I truly think that this aspect detracts from the overall experience. That being said, dungeons were (mostly) incredibly well designed, interesting, varying and of a perfect length. Kudos goes out to BK's dungeon designers.
Plot wise, BK is something of a mixed bag. The storyline brings an innumerable number of plots twists, genuinely tries to encourage character development and attempts to bring the player into the story. With such good intentions, what went wrong? Well, I suppose several factors tie into the disappointment. First off, nearly every plot twist in the game has been done before (and done better, I might add.) Next, the voice acting is nothing short of atrocious. I have no idea why it is so bad, but even the sound file sounds as though it was run through a cardboard tube. Suddenly, the fact that the characters may have something interesting to say doesn't matter at all since you just want them to shut up.
Long story short, while you will more than likely not appreciate the characters all that much (a little too generic/unlikable for me) and the script will make you say, "boy, I sure didn't see that coming," the overall plot does come together into something coherent in the end which certainly says something. I chalk the whole thing up to being a little too "been there, done that."
Graphically, BK is nothing short of amazing. The environments really have to be seen to be believed. All cut scenes are handled through the in-game engine (with the opening animation being the exception) and you will wonder how they made it look so good. The entire game is imaginative and beautifully rendered. Amazing use of color and incredibly beautiful effects bathe BK in a glorious light that makes it shine.
Character models are also impressively detailed, but shockingly lack the imagination of the environments. How can the creators of what is essentially an RPG based candy land town also create such blah character designs? It somewhat blows my mind that such an ingeniously designed world can be populated by such a spectacularly boring populace.
The music in BK is also top notch. Motoi Sakuraba (Star Ocean, the Tales series) has outdone himself in a hauntingly beautiful score that only got better as I listened to it more and more. Genuinely appropriate and quite imaginative, the music in BK will make you want to turn up your speakers. As I was playing, my wife walked in and forced me to leave back to the overworld in the game in order to hear a particular track in the score; it really is that good. With very few throwaway pieces, I have no problem recommending the soundtrack of BK to whomever is interested in well composed music.
Overall, BK strikes me as something of a disappointment. Not because it is a bad game necessarily, but more because it came so very close to greatness. Some of the great minds behind such classics as Chrono Cross have come together to create something that you can tell they put a lot of effort and work into. Had the game been scripted slightly better and perhaps refined a little more, I would have had nothing negative to say about it. As it stands, however, I find BK to be merely average. You will probably have a decent time with it, and it is more than worth playing just for the visuals, but all in all your time (and a lengthy time it may be, my finishing time was somewhere around 55 hours) may be better applied elsewhere.