Reprise your role as a guardian spirit in the long-awaited prequel to Baten Kaitos!
In the emerging world of Final Fantasy spin-offs and Mega Man Battle Network parades, RPG fans found an abode of originality in 2003's Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean. Monolith Software and tri-Crescendo's card-based RPG presented a fresh and challenging battle system and an above-average story. It had its setbacks, though—the battle system was too complex and its clever item combinations proved troublesome. Baten Kaitos Origins admirably retains its predecessor's spirit while mending some of its faults, providing an engaging and lengthy adventure.
Baten Kaitos Origins takes place in the same world as Baten Kaitos, roughly 60 years before the first game's events. In the world of Baten Kaitos, humans are largely confined to a handful of self-governing islands floating above the clouds. Magnus cards, a staple tool for this world, can store the essence (a.k.a. magnus) of anything from swords to smoke. Humans here also have "wings of the heart," somewhat vestigial appendages that reflect the power and kindness of one's heart.
The world is largely presented through pre-rendered, animated backgrounds and contains its fair share of outlandish locales and critters. For example, people ride on a living, breathing shark ship to commute among continents. Those new to the world will more fully enjoy the world's crazier moments, since the game reuses many of Baten Kaitos' settings, although players familiar with Baten Kaitos will also enjoy revisiting the earlier era and its inhabitants.
Those same veterans will also be caught off guard by the prequel's revamped battle system. During battles in the original, players had to avoid clashing elements, construct poker hands for bonuses, actively block enemy attacks, and combine magnus to make new cards. While the battle system's difficulty was ultimately rewarding, the cards' random nature often caused grief. For BKO, Monolith Software and tri-Crescendo wisely distilled the "magnus" of these gameplay elements into something far more approachable. The party now shares a single deck and hand, and many cards may be used by all characters. During a character's turn, cards are played from low to high, and no number may be used twice. Type 0 cards are usually equipment (weapon, armor or accessory), and a character may only equip one at a time. Card types 1 through 3 are generic attacks (weak, medium strong), and 4 and above are special techniques. If a character uses at least one special attack during his turn, the player may continue the combo chain using the next ready character by starting with a 1 card. Long combos charge the party's magnus power more quickly, which is spent on special techniques and certain items. The more extravagant the attack, the more time a character will also need to recover before his next turn. Cards without a number, such as healing items, must be used alone. The player may also use a turn to discard multiple magnus or pass.
Pretty much anything can be stored as magnus—those used outside of battle are stored in blank magnus cards called quest magnus. Since magnus is the essence of pretty much anything, quest magnus can even contain intangibles such as fun and exhaustion. Some quest magnus also ages over time, so players must keep an eye out for rotten food and other undesirables. What's more, simply carrying quest magnus can augment or weaken the party's statistics: grab some water to improve fire defense or collect a shiny stone to raise holy attacks.
Baten Kaitos Origins moves magnus mixing outside of battle, where it really belongs. Quest magnus are combined using special cards called magna mixers; magnus recipes scattered about the game provide guidance. While combinations of attacks in battle do result in flashy combo attacks, they are no longer how you obtain more potent magnus cards. Instead, stores can upgrade battle magnus by infusing quest magnus into a battle card. And since you aren't expected to cook your own cards any more, BKO is also much better about providing incrementally better cards. So whereas mixing magnus was a vague and tedious chore in Baten Kaitos, it is a fun hobby and diversion in this prequel.
The story in Origins is adequately amusing. An adventuresome but unsure young teen named Sagi must lead a group of friends to save the world from the Alfard Empire and its efforts to infiltrate neighboring island-nations through the forceful introduction of their technology. What's more, this so-called promachination is mysteriously linked to giant, unnatural beasts starting to appear on the continents, which have a mysterious link to a thousand-year-old legend. Like Kalas from Baten Kaitos, Sagi is a spiriter, meaning he shares his body and consults with a wise and powerful guardian spirit—you!
At its core BKO shares the same save-the-world plot found in almost every Japanese RPG, but Origins' personalized take is plausible enough as to not feel forced. The game's dungeons, if you can call them that, are small and fairly well incorporated in the plot: Sagi usually has a better reason for his ventures than the retrieval of some artifact. Political overtones also spark interest—promachination and political espionage has generated unrest within Alfard, too, and a few hours into the story you must investigate a terrorist bombing. Well into the game a few interesting plot twists surface, but I wouldn't want to spoil those.
The game's storytelling does have some familiar faults. BKO relies far too heavily on scripted boss battles you must lose—after surviving to inflict enough damage, mind you. And while the magnus descriptions are often enjoyably silly (or downright insane), the prose can sometimes obscure a magnus card's usefulness. At times the writing feels a bit stiff, but this is understandable given the quantity of text. Less forgivable are the voices, which unfortunately are no less abysmal than the first game's. The voices bear few traces of direction: lines are delivered with little concern for situational context, and only a few characters sound anything less than cheesy. Fortunately voices can be safely stored in the off position, save for the relatively benign battle exclamations.
Baten Kaitos Origins is a worthwhile addition to the first game's saga. Baten Kaitos Origins will not sway dissidents of turn-based RPGs, but the peculiar aura and lively battles are commendable, and its plot is strong in spite of its clichés. If you're looking to give your GameCube a final farewell, I could think of far worse send-offs than Baten Kaitos Origins.