Namco delivers again with gorgeous settings, a surprisingly engaging card-based battle system, and an epic quest that can only be described as enormous.
Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean begins with your entry into the story. Not Kalas, the main character, but you, the player, bonding with Kalas as a Guardian Spirit. You have an opportunity to introduce yourself to Kalas, and are treated as a separate character throughout the game, with other characters addressing you and commenting on your presence throughout. Due to a blow to Kalas’s head that causes you to experience amnesia, the story abruptly jumps forward to his quest to avenge the murder of his brother and grandfather at the hands of the Imperial elite. Kalas’s journey quickly brings him to cross paths with Xehla, a young maid in service to the Emperor Geldoblame. She has learned of a wicked scheme the Emperor has to conquer the world by unsealing the five End Magnus, thereby resurrecting an evil god that was conquered long ago, before people lived in the sky. Seeing that Xehla’s mission will no doubt bring him within reach of his revenge, Kalas accompanies her, but makes it clear that he has no intention of trying to take on the entire Empire.
From there, the 50-60 hour adventure takes you on a journey to exotic nations throughout the Sky, crossing paths with the Empire, and attempting to warn the local rulers that their lands are being threatened. Others join the party as you travel, but you know little about these strangers’ pasts, and signs point to the possibility that there may even be a traitor in your midst. The plot’s greatest and most touching moments come as each character’s secrets are unveiled, and as they come into full understanding of their own potential and their trust for each other.
In many respects, Baten Kaitos plays like just about any other RPG: you go to towns and shops, rummage through villagers’ cabinets, crawl through dungeons, and walk up to enemies to engage them in battle. However, the battles themselves are entirely card-based. Now if you’re like me, you may be under the impression that a card-based system would make for a slow and distant experience. In Baten Kaitos, nothing could be further from the truth.
While the system does have a lot of complexity for you to experiment with, you have to be quick on the draw with your decisions. Weapons, spells, armor, healing items, and various other tools are all represented by cards (or Magnus, as the game calls them). You’ll put together decks for each character outside of battle, and once the battle starts, the cards will be shuffled and dealt to you randomly. In an attack round, you have only a few seconds to select your first card, and from there, you’ll need to play subsequent cards while the battle animations are playing out. New cards will fly into your deck as you’re choosing, and certain cards, such as finishing moves, are only available after several other cards have been played. You can only play a specific number of cards per turn, based on your Class Level (separate from normal experience levels), and at the end of each turn, a screen will slide in showing you the total combined damage or healing of all your cards. Don’t think you can relax on the enemies’ turns either because as they’re attacking, you’ll need to select suitable defensive items to minimize damage.
In addition to standard attacks, each character also has specific finishing moves, which are usually incredible spectacles to be seen, and really complement each character’s style. Gibari’s moves are all strong examples of brute force, and Lyude may not seem like such a wimp anymore once you see him shoot guys up with mafia flair or execute a quick series of awe-inspiring kicks.
As you may expect, many cards have not only physical attack and defense attributes, but also elemental attributes, such as fire, water, light, and dark, which play a role as well. For example, water attacks are more effective against fire beasts and vice-versa; however, Baten Kaitos takes it another step further. If you play a fire card with 30 damage points in the same turn as a water card with 29 damage points, the elements will cancel each other out, and you’ll be left with a paltry total of 1 point of fire damage. So as you’re flying through the cards, trying to get them out before your character finishes, you also have to make sure you don’t ruin a strong attack by mixing opposing elements. Or you may decide that the physical attributes associated with those cards will be worth it. Cards may also have a chance of inflicting status effects on enemies such as poison, flames, or paralysis.
Let’s talk numbers. Each card you use in battle also has numbers on its face. At the beginning, most cards will only have a single number in the upper-right corner, but later cards may have different numbers in all four corners. You can select which number you want to play in your turn by pointing the C-stick to the appropriate corner of the card. These numbers can be combined in a way somewhat similar to a poker game. You can play a full round of 7s, play three pairs, or put together straights, counting up or down. These combinations all add up to percentage increases to your total damage or healing at the end of a turn. Playing a straight with a rare 9-card in it can more than double than damage to your opponent, which can make all the difference in a tough boss fight.
The final key facet to the Magnus card system is the way that cards age and interact with each other. While standard items such as swords, armor, and spells, don’t change, you’ll find that anything that could be considered perishable really is. You’ll start off with Green Bananas, which is an attack card. Over time, they will turn into Yellow Bananas, which is a healing card. With more time, they will become Blackened Bananas, which is an attack again. And eventually, those blackened bananas will be Rotten Fruit, which poisons the enemy as well. This applies to a large portion of cards, so you can never really keep a complete tab on your inventory. Wheat will turn into Beer; Ice will turn into Mineral Water; and you will often find yourself wondering just what that Green Mold used to be.
Card interactions work in a similar fashion. If you play a specific set of cards during a turn, you may discover an all-new card, and hints to these combos can be found in the card descriptions. Subtleties can make a difference. If you can play Fresh Beef with Fire, you get Beef Jerky, but if you play Fresh Beef with Charcoal and then Fire, you’ll end up with Grilled Hamburger. Hamburgers are good for you, kids – be sure you grill up a lot before the meat spoils.
The card system is worked very thoroughly and thoughtfully in every aspect of the game, including key revelations in the story, meshing together without feeling tacked on. In fact, the money-making aspect of the game is more plausible than most RPGs that expect you to believe wild animals are constantly carrying around huge stashes of gold. The only way to make money in Baten Kaitos is to use camera cards in battle to take pictures of enemies. You then wait about ten minutes for the photos to develop, like a Polaroid, and sell them at shops for big money. You’ll also use Blank Magnus cards outside of battle to capture the essence of items in the environment. You may need a flame to light torches in a dungeon or you may need to find and capture a Popular Pick Up Line for a guy who doesn’t know what to say to his true love. Watch out though because the aging factor applies here too. That pick up line may get outdated and hot lava will quickly cool into a useless pebble.
There are literally more than one thousand cards in the game, and Namco has really ensured you can keep track of them all. Your deck for each character increases whenever they raise a class, and you can sort the deck or unassigned cards by element, type, attack power, or even how recently you acquired the card. The Gathering selection in the menu allows you to look at any card you’ve seen in detail, even if you haven’t specifically had it in your possession. You can also browse any card combinations you’ve encountered, and for music lovers, each of Motoi Sakuraba’s compositions is freely available to listen to, as long as you’ve first heard it in the game. One nifty detail about the menus is that the game takes snapshots during each battle and replaces the menu background. You can get a clearer look at the image by going to the screen showing your current gold and play-time.
Speaking of play-time, let it be clearly known that this game is massive. As of this writing, I’ve put sixty hours into the game in the last week, and I’m still not finished. Thirty hours ago, I felt like the game was wrapping up, but at this point I really have no idea how much more there is to go. Shortly after you get to the second disc, the story ceases to have any predictable benchmarks of progress, and while you may be momentarily disappointed that defeating such and such a boss wasn’t the final battle, you’ll be overwhelmingly pleased and surprised at the adventures and revelations around the next turn.
Baten Kaitos is an artistically stunning game, with a number of detailed touches throughout that make it shine. Backgrounds are pre-rendered and slightly blurry at times, but that hardly detracts from the beauty and imagination displayed by this group of artists. Most of the backgrounds are animated with grass blowing in the wind, dust kicked up, or lightning clouds rolling by in the background, making it truly a sight to see. Townsfolk also tend to be quite engaged feeding ducks, or making hand gestures, or taking huge gulps of beer at the bar.
Motoi Sakuraba’s musical score is one of his more impressive works and is a perfect complement to the visual artistry. He uses an incredible mixture of styles throughout the game, and while most of it has an orchestrated classical feel to it, there are also a few surprises, including one dance/rap theme that plays in a few specific boss battles. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the voice work. It’s hard to believe that the voice actors even have a full understanding of English, much less comprehend what’s happening with these characters. Although it is easy to bash the quality of the acting, the scope of it is actually quite astounding. Every significant conversation is voiced, as well as many others, for what must amount to hours upon hours of voice work. However you like it, whether you want to listen to it or not is entirely up to you, because Namco has included an On/Off option in the menus.
When it comes down to it, RPG fans will not be disappointed in this gem of a title that Namco has brought exclusively to the GameCube. This is first-class work with a compelling storyline and an active card-battle system that stays fresh throughout the life of the game.