Card-carrying characters clash with creatures in this creatively crafted quest.
Starting in on Baten Kaitos, there's a peculiar blend of clever, original ideas and incredibly hackneyed story themes. I get the idea some people will love it, while others should pass on it, depending on what you're looking for in an RPG.
If you're primarily looking for a really cool battle system, Baten Kaitos should fit the bill nicely. There's no equipping of armor or weapons; each character in the party uses a deck of cards (called "magnus" cards), with weapons, spells, armor, and healing items. Apparently, the amount of cards in a deck depends on how far the character has advanced, and three are in a "hand" at a time. Cards can be used in combination, with special bonuses for pairs, straights, etc. That goes for defense and healing cards, as well as attacks. For example, if an enemy uses a large combination of attacks, the player can defend each hit by rapidly playing defense cards, if they have them. Between deck construction and the actual battle, there's a large potential for strategy. Battles unfold very quickly, too. You sometimes have to react and select a card quickly if you're being attacked.
There are new takes on building experience and gaining cash, also. The player must go to a church and pray to gain levels (which entails more HP and card capacity) after earning experience. Better cards are simply found along the way, or won from battles. The premier method of earning cash, apparently, is to photograph enemies and sell the photos. This seems like a more interesting method than killing the local wildlife and taking the gold pieces that they are inexplicably carrying.
As for the story, well, it's far less interesting. The player guides Kalas, a guy with a sword, blue hair, and a rough-around-the-edges attitude. The story starts with Kalas waking up in a village after being attacked by forest creatures (Rock Cats, apparently), and he soon learns fascinating facts such as "the wildlife has been acting strange lately so you shouldn't go to the forest," and "the mayor would like to meet you." Really, it was hilariously easy to call out each preconceived piece of dialogue just before it happened.
For example, the subject of Kalas' family came up in dialogue, and my friend quickly called out "he's gonna say he doesn't have anyone to go back to!" So, I hit the A button, and Kalas sadly says he doesn't have anyone left. Much laughter was had. The town mayor said that it would, of course, be a bad idea to go back to the woods because the creatures there were "acting strangely." Obviously, that's the next destination, and there wasn't even a good reason given, not even that Kalas felt like it. I fought a boss there and messed with some ruins, unleashing some ancient evil, just like every game I've ever played. Also, another character joined the party, and as predicted, it was a girl that used magic (or magic-themed cards, rather). I'm surprised I didn't receive a magical, legendary sword with mysterious powers, too. I'm not exaggerating, it's really that predictable, and hasn't gotten any better in the first couple hours.
On the other hand, this could all be a clever ploy to get the players' guards down and drop some real storyline surprises on them. That happens every now and then. In fact, a couple of my most favorite RPGs seem to have a very plain storyline to start, and then totally turn things upside-down as the player nears the end. (I'm thinking of Fallout 2 and Grandia II in particular, but I'm sure there are others.) Time will tell how good Baten Kaitos's story really is.
The soundtrack, however, is very nice, as are the visuals. When exploring an area, the camera is at a fixed location, but the environments are quite beautiful. Things like rivers are well animated, and other places are very artistically depicted. For example, the second town visited looks almost like a painting, with a single camera angle showing a twisting street leading up a hill into the distance, with people doing their daily activities all about. The style almost seems like it was modeled closely after Final Fantasy IX, which isn't at all a bad thing, in my opinion. The downside is that Kalas and anybody and anything you interact with are often extremely far away from the camera, making it impossible to make out any details except for basic gestures. Fortunately, the main characters have drawn portraits that change expressions, and are voice-acted for most of the important dialogue.
If gameplay matters above all else to you in an RPG, Baten Kaitos is a good choice with a fast-paced card-based battle system. If you're looking for a good story, though, Baten Kaitos may or may not deliver a plot as detailed as its gameplay, judging from the first couple hours.