Released in Japan as "Baten Kaitos II: The First Wings and the Heirs of God," Baten Kaitos Origins is a prequel that takes place twenty years before the original Baten Kaitos. A proper analysis of this game requires a third eye in the back of one's head, always comparing the game to its predecessor.
Unfortunately, I didn't play the original Baten Kaitos to completion. I touched base with it (just enough to get a hang of the card-based battles), and after completing Origins, I also read up on the storyline so I could piece together the mental puzzle pieces created for me.
I'll forego a more lengthy preamble and cut to the chase. Let's talk about the various aspects of this game.
Being a direct prequel, taking place only twenty years before the original, the art studio was fortunate in that they had a lot less to do this time around. Like the transition from Final Fantasy X to X-2, Baten Kaitos Origins makes use of dozens of pre-rendered backgrounds from the first title. These, of course, are beautiful. Baten Kaitos is known for its excellent artwork and graphics, and it's not a stretch to say that it's the most gorgeous game for the GameCube.
Along with the still backgrounds, I have nothing but praise for the animation. The battle animation, in particular, is some of the smoothest and most noticeably gorgeous I've seen in a turn-based RPG. It's a shame that to win almost any battle, one's eyes are constantly drawn to the bottom of the screen since the card-based battling is so intense and action-based!
All major characters have hand-drawn face portraits; this art style seems strange yet beautiful to me; a cross between the Romantic period and modern artwork. Some characters came out looking ugly, but most of them look fantastic.
My only complaint has to do with animation during exploration. For example, the ship upon which the team travels, called the "Sfida," is a nice shiny golden object. However, as an object, it seems to have zero animation put into it. The ship moves along straight lines at a constant speed. It doesn't look realistic or fantastic. It looks boring, even a little weird. This is just one example among many, though it is the one that stands out most in my mind.
Top this visual sundae off with some unique opening and ending cutscenes (using a lack of framerate to its advantage), and you have yourself one extraordinary piece of graphical art. The graphics get a 95%.
Likely thanks to his connection with tri-Crescendo, Motoi Sakuraba is back to score the prequel/sequel. As noted in our soundtrack reviews, Sakuraba's musical style varies greatly in Baten Kaitos. Sure, the typical high-impact yet redundant battle themes are present, but the rest is very different. If I were to use a word, I would say that the music is sensible. I use the word "fitting" a lot, and the music is certainly fitting, but I think "sensible" is a better word here because Sakuraba could have overdone things with large choral vocals and sampled orchestra all over the place, but he didn't. Instead, he used soft, traditional instruments to match the paint-like visuals of the game. Piano, guitar, and female voice (his wife's) are staples for this game's soundtrack.
The game also sports a fair bit of voice acting. One particular point of interest is the character Guillo, who is essentially a puppet. Guillo's gender remains undetermined, and to match this, every word spoken by Guillo has been recorded twice: once by a man and once by a woman. The two tracks are played simultaneously for every bit of Guillo's dialogue! The reason for this is explained later in the game, but I personally was astonished to see how well the technique worked! Imagine having to match the intonation and style with another person for every line, and imagine the work the sound team must have done to normalize the audio and keep everything in synch! I thought it was great.
The other two leads, Sagi and Milly, also had great voice actors. With the exception of all the screaming and crying they were forced to do, they did their jobs well. All the other major characters had decent voice actors. However, the NPC extras, particularly the ones that did children's voices, always grated on my ears.
For containing one of Sakuraba's most un-Sakuraba-like scores and for having some decent voice acting, I'm giving sound a 90%.
Warning: Baten Kaitos Origins is not for casual gamers. It is lengthy, and it is extremely challenging.
I'm going to start at an unlikely place. When I say "challenging," people think I'm going to talk about some difficult battles. Those people would be wrong. Rather, I'm here to tell you that the game's exploration is difficult.
What do I mean when I say "exploration?" Well, there's puzzle-solving, fetch quests, dungeon navigation, and the ever-aggravating NPC trigger talks. You know what I'm referring to: you go into a town, and you learn that to progress in the storyline, you have to talk to someone about something. Of course, you don't know where someone is, and when you eventually find them, they send you to someone else. It's like a fetch quest, except all you're doing is talking to people to get further in the storyline. If you choose to play this game, you will spend at least an hour in each town doing this sort of thing.
What makes this game different from other RPGs is that the level of difficulty for many of these puzzles rivals the optional quests of other RPGs. That's right: many of these quests are mandatory. There are others, ones that are even more vague and frustrating, for those who are into these adventure-game style puzzles. As for me, I would have much rather fought some battles or watched hours of cutscenes (the latter of which was the staple of Monolith's other big series).
If the tedium and frustration of running around town doesn't wear you down, battles will. It's a relief to know that battles are not random encounters, because if they were, I'd set my deck with one card that I'd use all the time: Escape. No, you see the enemies on the field, and if they see you, you can use a temporary dash (which brings out your wings) to get out of the way. A bar appears to gauge how much wing-dashing power Sagi has, and if that bar hits red, you stop to catch your breath, and enemies that attack during this time get a "first strike" on you.
For those of you completely ignorant of what Baten Kaitos is all about, battles take place with cards. Before battles, you can set up a deck (anywhere between 30 and 60 cards, depending upon your level) and decide what will and will not be a part of your strategy. This deck is a "universal" deck: all three playable characters use the same deck, which definitely makes things interesting. The cards, called "Magnus," come in varying form. There are standard attacks (weak/medium/strong), special attacks, weapons, armor, items, artifacts, elements, and some other miscellaneous cards. All of these various battle magnus make up your attack strategy for battle.
Along with your deck's size being controlled by progress within the game, the amount of cards you can "pass" per turn increases. You start only being able to drop one card at a time, but by the end of the game, I was able to pull out 8 cards per turn. This is important for setting up decent attacks as well as for quickly allocating healing items.
Though the deck's setup is up to the player, there's no doubt that there are ways to optimize the deck throughout the game, and in particular, for boss battles. One thing I appreciated about this game is that, if you lose a boss battle, you can immediately retry and set up a new deck before going into battle. Before the game's end, I'd say I made at least five different decks for particularly challenging boss fights. For example, some boss fights involved multiple enemies, for which I put in loads of wide-range special attacks. Or, in another case, a slow but hard-hitting boss required me to throw in some extra healing items.
Outside of battle, there are the "quest Magnus." These are elements you can draw and use later. Eventually, you also learn to mix quest Magnus, and also use quest Magnus to upgrade battle Magnus cards. The problem I found was that, unlike the Atelier games, the mixing of Magnus and the upkeep of quest Magnus inventory was both frustrating and pointless. I avoided the use of quest Magnus and Magnus mixing as much as I could, but it was unavoidable in many places.
I completed the game at 70 hours. Outside of Final Fantasy games, which I usually go "ultra-complete" on (all subquests done), I've never put more than 60 hours into any RPG. I did not spend time doing side quests. All I did was go through the coliseum battles, which was more for level-grinding than anything else. I suspect many of those 70 hours were spent retrying the same 10-minute boss fights over and over.
There is definitely a long learning curve to this game. I got through most of the first disc without having to struggle, but the moment I hit disc two, I found myself constantly having to retry boss fights and save often (because regular enemies that kill you lead to an immediate game over).
The big question that most people grapple with at this point is this: is the game enjoyable? Challenge is good, but being frustrated to the point of wanting to destroy your console is bad. I'd say that this is easily the most subjective of places, even though there is an objective line between challenging and cheap. Some battles really are "luck of the draw" with the cards, but if you prepare wisely and level up a good bit, victory should be nearly certain with a good deck in play. So, you ought to familiarize yourself with card-based battling in general, and this game's system in particular, if you plan on completing the game. It's no cake-walk, but I loved going through it. If you're ready for the challenge, this game is for you. I give gameplay an even 85%.
There's little to say here. The controls work well. The camera angle is fixed. Menu navigation is simple. Buttons are assigned nicely for battles. I can't complain.
Oh wait, yes I can. I mentioned earlier that there's a gauge on the wing-dash boost meter, right? I understand why they'd put a temporary gauge in for dungeons where you have to escape from enemies, but why have it in towns? I should be able to run freely through towns! Instead, for long treks, I'd run for a short bit, wlak when the boost meter went back to zero, then run again. This was quite annoying.
That's the only problem I can remember, though. Overall, there were plenty of places where they could have done it wrong but they did it right instead. I appreciated the easy-to-navigate menu and the seamless interaction of the card-based battle system, so I'm giving control a 90%.
Let's start with the game's title. Nintendo decided to cut the lengthy, poetic, and fitting subtitle to this sequel, which complemented the original "Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean" very well. From the get-go, I imagined that Nintendo completely botched the translation of this game.
I was definitely wrong about that.
The aura and vibe of the world, and of the people inhabiting the world, was one of subdued grandeur. With this comes a variety of well-spoken characters. I particularly appreciated Guillo's almost constant use of animal-related similes and metaphors. The fun thing about this is that all the animals in Baten Kaitos are fictional creatures, so the fantasy feel was upheld nicely. The amount of archaic and otherwise obscure vocabulary in the game would be enough to stump your average college literature professor; few games can boast equality on this level.
So, we know the dialogue is well-written and the translation is good. What of the plot itself?
You play the role of a self-named guardian spirit. As a spirit, you reside in the heart of the protagonist, Sagi. He speaks to you, and you speak to him. It's a nice relationship you have going. Note that the "guardian spirit" concept was in the original Baten Kaitos as well.
Sagi's best friend is a walking, talking, fighting puppet named Guillo. Sagi and Guillo are sent with the rest of Baelheit's "Dark Service" to assassinate Olgan, the emperor of Alfard. When they get there, however, they see that the job's already done for them. Regardless, Sagi gets set up and framed, and he's forced to escape. On the way, he is assisted by Quaestor Verus's Aide, Geldoblame, and he also gets a third party member, a young lady named Milly, before escaping the imperial capital.
Sagi and Guillo also encounter a legendary beast, first referred to as an "Umbra," and later known as an "Afterling." Guillo goes out of control and destroys the monster, Sagi gets a massive headache, and suddenly the two of you are in the distant past, and everyone is calling Sagi "Marno."
This "distant past" is a staple feature in Baten Kaitos Origins. You visit the past many times throughout the game and learn much about the War of the Gods and the wicked god called Malpercio.
Sagi, Guillo and Milly visit all the floating islands from the original Baten Kaitos, save for Mira. They also visit an island strangely absent from the first game called Hassaleh, which contains Sagi's hometown.
As they travel, you meet important characters from the original Baten Kaitos, now twenty years younger. I've already mentioned Geldoblame, but other key characters that make cameos include Gibari, Savyna, and the rulers of the various island nations. If you haven't played the first game, you're not missing much not knowing these things, but those who did play the first game will appreciate the cohesion created by including these younger versions of familiar characters.
The majority of the story is the tale of an election in Mintaka, the capital city in Alfard. Quaestor Verus, a more "traditional" candidate, is up against Baelheit, the man who ordered the assassination of Olgan. Baelheit clearly has the majority support, and his plans are to "promachinate" the world. Promachination is a fictional term that may as well be replaced with the word "industrialization." Baelheit goes from island to island, burning down forests and otherwise loathing mother nature and replacing it all with technology. Your team joins with Verus to try and stop Baelheit and secure the help of other nations in what is sure to be a world war.
To tell anything more of the plot would be detrimental to the enjoyment of the game. The storytelling can be slow at times, but the parts that do reveal the various twists and turns are some of the best parts of the game. The last few hours are especially packed with revelations from left field; the scenario writers, if I may use the analogy, certainly "put all their cards on the table" at the ending. There are also some variations to the game's ending, depending on a few choices that are made during the game's second disc, and whether or not you completed a vital subquest.
The game has a rich history and mythos that is all its own. Don't expect the game to live up to the hype of Masato Kato's last series (Chrono Trigger/Cross), but understand that this game is something certainly worthwhile on its own. I'm glad to have experienced the game's plot in the way the designers intended, even if it did feel slow at times. I give the story an 85%.
This game is superb in many ways, but sometimes too frustrating to warrant an A-level score. There's a fine line between "challenging" and "cheap," and there are some occasions where I feel Baten Kaitos Origins crosses that line. However, compared to the original Baten Kaitos, which many people felt lived on the "cheap" side of the divide, this sequel has been balanced out nicely, thanks to the efforts of the developers.
Add that to the excellent visual and aural aesthetics and a decent, cohesive storyline, and you have yourself one solid RPG. It's a shame that the game has come at the eve of the GameCube's lifespan, just as the Wii comes to take over. Hopefully this will not diminish sales, because the game deserves to sell well, and Monolith Software (and tri-Crescendo) deserve recognition for this excellent game. If you still want to pump life into your current-gen Nintendo console, this is the game with which to do it. I give Baten Kaitos Origins an 88%, and I recommend it to most any RPG fan.