Does MonolithSoft deliver another hit extending the GameCube's life, or is it a quick cash-in during the system's dying days?
That the GameCube should get another full length RPG, when the system appears to be on its last legs, desperately holding on for the release of The Legend of Zelda, seems a rather odd idea. It's especially odd that the RPG should be a full-length prequel to Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean from Namco and MonolithSoft, considering how poorly the first game sold. However, here it is, and many people have been wondering whether Baten Kaitos II would live up to the legacy of the first title, which proved the developer of being capable of creating a quality title that has no relation to bad sci-fi space opera.
Like many Japanese RPGs, Baten Kaitos II suffers from the dreaded alphabet known as “Kanji". Due to this language barrier, it is recommended that people who cannot read Japanese fluently wait for the English release, which will be handled by Nintendo of America and will see a ship date of sometime this summer. If, however, you are a brave and hardy soul and do not fear the perils of untranslated software, consider importing the title from our partners at Lik-Sang. (Until the end of May, you can use the coupon code LS-7DA093455B to get $5 off most orders of at least $40.)
As in the first Baten Kaitos title, you play the role of spiritual advisor to a young man named Sagi. He's a new recruit in the Alfard army, and to his surprise (not to mention yours) his first mission is to successfully assassinate the current emperor. Not exactly the kind of thing Sagi pictured himself doing as a soldier. As the story progresses, Sagi will be exploring many areas you've seen in the original Baten Kaitos and players will definitely be able to connect the dots between the two titles. Cameos abound, and fans will be delighted to learn that quite a few extremely influential characters from Baten Kaitos will play major roles in Sagi's adventure.
Since the game takes place a full two decades before the events in Baten Kaitos, it would be expected that many locations such as towns would share a similar look. Indeed, many of the cities in Baten Kaitos II use the same backgrounds from the earlier title, often touched up. This is not to say that Baten Kaitos II recycles everything from its forebear; all of the dungeons have been rethought, and while the general layout of an area (such as the Lesser Celestial River) may be the same as its future counterpart, there are more differences than similarities. One of the most noticeable improvements in Baten Kaitos II is in the character models and animations. Characters are much more detailed than in the previous game, with vastly improved modeling and texturing. Probably the largest gains came in battle animations. Sagi and friends rip through enemies with style and verve, showing off flashy ending moves and moving at breakneck speed. Enemies and NPCs also benefit from a visual upgrade, though overworld animations still suffer from some awkward movements. Still, even with these many gains in the visual field, Baten Kaitos II simply cannot compare to other pre-rendered titles like the Resident Evil remake, let alone real-time graphical endeavours such as Resident Evil 4.
For those who have played the original Baten Kaitos, one of the first things they will think of is the incredible soundtrack and either sparse voice acting (if they own the Japanese version) or absolutely terrible voice acting (if they own the English version). By some stroke of good fortune, Motoi Sakuraba has returned to work his magic for the soundtrack of Baten Kaitos II. And magic, it certainly is. It might be easy to name off superlatives to equate how fantastic this soundtrack really is, but it does not to the game justice. Just as with the previous game, the music of Baten Kaitos II is phenomenal. From the surreal and delicate Le Ali Del Principio (sung, no less than by the composer's daughter herself; Mio Sakuraba), to the wicked funk of Chaotic Dance 2, gamers will be enthralled by the aural treats coming from their speakers. Voice acting, instead of being allocated to only a few sparse scenes, now graces every cutscene in the game. All of the characterizations are excellent, of which special mention must be made for Guillo. It is Sagi's robotic friend and has two voice actors, male and female, reading its lines simultaneously, which creates a unique effect. Speaking of which, players who happen to have a surround setup will be thrilled to know that Baten Kaitos II fully utilizes Dolby Pro Logic II, just as the previous title, and to great effect.
Baten Kaitos featured one of the most experimental and inconsistent battle systems to grace any RPG. Using battle magnus to defeat the enemy by complimenting elemental and physical damage, some battles were extremely difficult and drawn out if you drew the “wrong" cards: either opposing elements or too many defensive items. In fact, some battles could take in excess of an hour to complete. In an effort to rectify this problem, Baten Kaitos has completely reinvented its battle system, in a way that will probably disappoint existing fans. Simply put, the battle system has been simplified. Instead of intricate deck building and strategic moves, Baten Kaitos II feels more in line with typical Final Fantasy fare than the genius of the original. This isn't to say that everything is bad; the battle system is fast, furious and still quite fun.
Instead of managing individual decks for each of your characters, everyone shares the same deck. Instead of having individual cards that do damage or protect independently (such as Flame Swords or Ice Armour), your characters equip them during battle. Each weapon or armour has a certain amount of HP which is depleted with each successful blow, after which the card disappears back into your deck. Characters attack with “Attack Magnus" which look like little daggers with a corresponding spirit number in the upper right hand corner. In this game you cannot pair up cards or run a poker “straight" in reverse to get extra damage: to make a multi-hit combo, you must go in order from numerals 0-9. As in the previous game, there are “finishing" moves, but these too can be linked together if the MP gauge to the right-hand side of the screen has enough attack power. As one might expect, normal attacks increase the meter, whilst the special moves deplete it. Though these changes were made to improve the speed of battles (and indeed they are extremely quick), there are a few problems. Since everyone shares the same deck, it can get quite annoying when say, Sagi's turn is next and the screen is filled with equipment for Guillo. Players will sometimes feel like they spend more time discarding unwanted cards than actually fighting enemies. For all of these issues, it must be emphasized that the battle system is very fun and quite engaging; it just isn't as inventive and addictive as that of the previous title.
One of the best additions to the battle system is Relay Combos. When a character has just finished his or her turn with a special move, and the next character is ready for battle, it is possible to enact a Relay Combo if the player has a card with a spirit number of one in hand. The second character can then select more cards (including another special move), and the third character can join in if the cards in hand permit. Relay Combos allow for insane amounts of damage, which will net you significant amounts of TP, which are required for your party to Class Up. Veterans of Baten Kaitos will recall the shrine where they powered up their characters: however, it is only used for completing a Class Up, as characters now automatically level up after battles. Sagi can also purchase Auras at the shrine, which will align the character with a certain element, allowing them to deal damage in that element and be protected from certain attacks.
Though the battle system itself is on the disappointing side, everything else about Baten Kaitos II is a very large step over its predecessor. Quest Magnus take on an entirely new importance. Sagi will collect quite a few Blank Magnus in his travels, and while they're still used for sub-quests and the like, they have a far more important function now: the ability to alter your battle statistics. For instance, if Sagi traps the Magna Essence of fresh fruit into one of his cards, all of his party's stats will be increased slightly. If the fruit is kept until it rots, the party's stats will plummet below par. Sub-quests too, have been expanded: there is an entire menu location dedicated to keeping track of them, and there are many to complete. Dungeons are excellent, and scenarios are well thought out and even include a mini-story mimicking a mystery novel, in which Sagi has to deduce who the perpetrator is in a terrorist plot using only what the suspects tell him. All of these things come together to build an excellent world and an extremely enjoyable gaming experience.
In short, Baten Kaitos II is not only a fantastic follow-up to the original game, it exceeds it in almost every aspect. Whoever enjoyed the first game will be enthralled in the prequel, and those who did not will certainly be surprised.