Oh my, that Tengu has nipple tassels. I feel… violated somehow.
Looking back on Monolith’s history, the outlook for Baten Kaitos was rather grim. Previously, the only games that had made it out of the software company’s doors were pretentiously overwritten titles that had little in the way of satisfying gameplay. Not something to get one excited about their newest creation, to be sure.
However, as unlikely as it may seem, Monolith’s first GameCube title is fun. The basis for the gameplay comes from Magnus Cards, magical artifacts that enable a user to use a variety of attacks and ‘defensive maneuvers’. Evidently in ages past, Magnus was the power that defeated an evil deity. People around the world fought together to seal the beast in the barren earth, while they found a future in the sky. Some people have the ability to form ethereal wings out of sheer will when under duress. Baten Kaitos’ story follows one of those people, Kalas.
It should be noted that Baten Kaitos not only has a multitude of written Japanese (foremost being the complicated Kanji alphabet), but also has little in the way of voice acting. People unable to read the language should probably avoid importing as it can become difficult to understand what to do next.
At any rate, Kalas and his band of warriors are trying to prevent the use of the End Magnus, special Magnus Cards said to hold the doom of the world. The player has a more active role in Baten Kaitos other than assuming the avatar of Kalas. The game puts the player in the role of spirit advisor to Kalas and party. Players will be asked to input their name and gender. Occasionally, Kalas will ask you a question, and your decision will affect the way the scenario play out.
Though the game is developed by Monolith, Baten Kaitos feels like something straight from tri-Ace. Even the presentation of the menus and signature “save notice” are present. Considering the fact that the battle director of tri-Ace’s Valkyrie Profile is in charge of Baten Kaitos, it’s pretty obvious where the similarities come from.
The backgrounds of Baten Kaitos are all pre-rendered, along the lines of Resident Evil. However, the backdrops of Baten Kaitos put much of the two survival horror games to shame. Leaves flutter in the breeze; clouds rolls in from the highlands. It’s all extremely beautiful, regardless of the fact that it’s FMV. Taking inspiration from Art Nouveau and the Inca-Mayan cultures, Baten Kaitos’ art direction is a wonder to behold. Unfortunately, not everything lives up to the outstanding locales. Character models aren’t the nigh perfect polygonal Olympians of Capcom’s titles, but instead are quite average. Animations too, are nowhere near the quality one would expect of an otherwise pre-rendered title. In fact, there are quite a few enemies that look like they were taken from a Dreamcast rendering environment, considering how few polygons were left to them.
Motoi Sakuraba crafted the music for this epic and he certainly doesn’t let down. Baten Kaitos’ soundtrack is considerably better than in the recent Tales of Symphonia and is probably one of his best in years. Battle music is varied and equally excellent; the adrenaline-pumping themes he is most famous for are out in full force. In addition, Baten Kaitos runs in Dolby Pro Logic II sound, so gamers with the right equipment can enjoy the aural treats even more. Unfortunately, like the FMV backgrounds, there is a down-side to the audio. The little voice acting there is during cut scenes sounds like it is coming from a tin can. The battle voice-clips, fortunately, fare much better, and are clear and varied.
Using cards for every action and defense, Baten Kaitos’ battle system is certainly unique. Instead of buying weapons and armour, players will have their characters use different cards for the same effect. Each character can hold a certain amount of cards in their deck, which increases with class levels. Kalas fights with a sword and dagger, and uses those kinds of cards within his battle deck. Cards come in different types and strengths. For instance, a long sword is a much stronger attack than say a short dagger. By finding new and better Magnus, players can upgrade their characters’ attacks. While in battle, the player will choose a card. The character will then attack using the power of the Magnus card. Each action a character takes is determined by the Magnus that was selected.
In addition to physical attacks, there are also elemental powers. Certain enemies are aligned with certain elements and it is prudent to attack them with the opposite. Fire and Water are opposing forces, as is Earth with Wind and Light with Dark. Physical attacks are considered neutral. The way the system is set up really increases the level of sophistication required to pull off successful combos and attacks, as each enemy (especially the bosses) requires certain elemental attacks to get huge bonus damage. So if you have Kalas attack a Fire Elemental enemy with an Ice Dagger card, he’ll cause bonus damage because of the elemental bonuses.
Elements work both ways as well. You see, elemental damages are independent of other attacks. There is a screen that pops up after an attack (either from the player or enemy) that shows how the damage breaks down. So if you are attacked physically, you must use a physical card to defend. If you are attacked with a Fire element, you must use Water to negate it. No matter how high your physical Magnus might be, the Fire damage is calculated independently. It is therefore necessary to use Ice Armour to negate the Fire damage. Confusing? It is as first, but as one plays longer, it becomes quite normal. In addition, if you use a Fire attack and then a Water attack, the two elements will cancel each other out, depending on how strong each was. If the Fire attack was fifteen and the Water was eight, the corresponding damage would be considered to be seven Fire. In this way, Baten Kaitos encourages players to manage their decks appropriately and not merely choose cards at random.
Healing items are also in Magnus form. Some can be added to the battle deck, while others are used via the menu. Battle deck cards are reusable, while the others are considered consumables. The most interesting thing about the Magnus Card system is that cards will change over time. One might find an Unripe Banana card, which causes damage when used, but then eventually ripens and becomes a healing item. Eventually the Ripe Banana will rot and then become unusable. Milk will turn into cheese, grapes into wine. Weapon cards will degrade slowly, especially if they’re used to defend.
The most interesting aspect of the battle system is how combos are formed. In the most basic sense, every string of attacks a character makes is a “combo”. As characters gain class levels, they not only get a bigger battle deck, but also can use more cards within one attack turn. But there’s more to it than that. Occasionally, characters will find “Combo Enders” which must be preceded by a normal attack, and when chosen will end the combo string with an extremely powerful attack. In essence, if Kalas can use four cards in a turn, and he chooses one of his super moves (the Combo Ender) after the first card, he won’t be able to choose two more cards. So, in most cases, players will choose it last. In addition to these “obvious” super moves, there are also secret combos. These require a random combination of cards that will then transform one of your existing cards within your hand into an extremely powerful move. These require extra cards like a “dead branch” or “bonsai tree” to get the effect. While they’re very fun to discover they are rather, obscure. After doing a variety of moves with Kalas, the CHEESE turns into “Hellfire”. That is pretty bloody weird. However, there are hints given out at times on how to unlock the secret power of your cheese.
Outside of battle, characters will still use Magnus Cards in their everyday lives. Near the beginning of the game, Kalas receives five “Blank Magnus Cards” and is able to copy items onto them. This is mainly used in side-quests, where someone may need milk or water. Simply go to a cow or a stream and then copy the needed item into your Quest Magnus. It can also be used to penetrate dungeons. If a dead log is in your way, copy fire from a fireplace and use it to burn the offending object to ashes.
Characters level-up by visiting a shrine. After gaining enough experience, Kalas and crew can visit the priest there and level-up. With enough experience, they can gain class levels, which allow for larger battle decks and longer attack turns. It seems a little strange since really it isn’t all that different from normal RPG leveling-up, with the exception that the player must do it manually.
The only thing that is severely under-developed is the fact that money really isn’t a necessity. Baten Kaitos wants to be a dungeon crawler, but due to the story and locales, it isn’t possible. Money can be obtained by taking pictures of enemies and selling them, but outside of that, there is no real method of making money. In fact, the only things that can be purchased in shops are battle Magnus, and players will find much better ones within dungeons and after battles. The only real reason to buy anything is to purchase the consumable healing cards to be used outside of battle. Considering the amount of healing cards available in one’s battle deck, it really isn’t an issue.
All in all, Baten Kaitos is a fun, addictive ride. Battles, the heart of the game, are very addictive, and any RPGer should do himself a favour and check this title out—as long as you are able to wade through the leagues of Kanji. Hopefully, Namco Hometek will be localizing this title for English audiences. Baten Kaitos may not be a “normal” Japanese RPG, but that is no reason to pass it up.