"Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean is a game you can almost review without even playing it. It was published by Namco, who generally issues quality products, and it's the joint production of Monolith Soft and tri-Crescendo; the former is responsible for the Xenosaga series, while the latter I'm not familiar with but is probably related to tri-Ace, the team responsible for the stellar Star Ocean games. The title's stunning art direction was handled by Yasuyuki Hon..."
Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean is a game you can almost review without even playing it. It was published by Namco, who generally issues quality products, and it's the joint production of Monolith Soft and tri-Crescendo; the former is responsible for the Xenosaga series, while the latter I'm not familiar with but is probably related to tri-Ace, the team responsible for the stellar Star Ocean games. The title's stunning art direction was handled by Yasuyuki Honne, who also worked on the equally magnificent-looking Chrono Cross. And the orchestral soundtrack was brought to life by Motoi Sakuraba, whose name you may not recognize but whose work you certainly would.
So, yeah. Baten Kaitos was made by people who knew what they were doing.
Combining all of its parts in near-perfect harmony to form a rhythmic, almost dreamlike experience, Baten Kaitos is, I think, the best RPG on GameCube – a feat that I admit is not particularly difficult to pull off. It's gorgeous to look at, but beyond that, it's fantastically deep and diverse enough that no two players will have the same strategies. It is, in fact, one of my favorite RPGs in recent memory.
So why only a 9/10? I suppose I should deliver the bad news first and foremost: The story blows. You'll notice that I didn't mention anything about writers in that opening paragraph, and I did this with good reason. Baten Kaitos's plot isn't obnoxiously bad, it's just painfully generic. I think Monolith Soft and tri-Crescendo have underestimated the number of evil empires I've overthrown and wicked gods I've sealed away for eternity. The materials are all here, too. The game's setting – on floating islands in a land-less world, in which most people have grown wings – is unique, but there isn't a single original idea to be found in the way the story plays out. The reluctant hero, the girl with the all-important pendant, the ever-present giant floating castle idly waiting to annihilate the world… It's all here, and boy is it ever stale and forgettable.
This is made all the worse by the fact that the whole thing is handled with such bloated, self-important seriousness, as if the writers really thought they had something special on their hands. Dull conversations are long and drawn out, empty characters are developed to their fullest, and we are forced to engage in hours of back-story and plot history that we don't care about. After I beat the final boss, there was still about fifty minutes of filler to get through before the credits rolled.
Granted, there is one really good plot twist about two-thirds of the way through, and I guarantee you won't see it coming. I also like the fact that the player isn't represented as the main character, but rather plays his “Guardian Spirit,” which helps to immerse you in the experience. But for the most part, this is as standard and generic as they come.
It's this, and a number of other small problems – why are the voiceovers so bad? why can't I level up on the spot? – that prevent Baten Kaitos from being the near-perfect, grade-A classic that it could have been. But while having such a dull plot would be murderous to most RPGs, in which there is nothing else to cling to, Baten Kaitos is so enjoyable as a game that I was able to overlook this one major flaw.
The game is card-based, and actually plays out more faithfully to that concept than you may imagine. Each character has their own deck of Magna cards (as they're called), and in battles, they're randomly dealt a hand from which they derive all of their moves. Battles move in traditional turn-based fashion but involve real-time elements – once you've selected a card with which to start a chain, you have to stay with the pace by selecting more and more cards to keep said chain going. The same goes with defending – as you're attacked by an enemy, you've got to quickly pull out defensive cards to contend with their hits.
All of the traditional RPG principles are in place, such as elements – in this case, there are three pairs of corresponding elements, not unlike the innate colors of Chrono Cross. What makes this battle system come together so smoothly is the addition of numbers in the corners of each card. The key to success is strategic use of the C-Stick to select a number as you choose a card, so you're not just playing the cards, but you're playing their numbers, as well. Basic poker combinations, such as pairs or straights, will lead to bonuses in combat – which means that a well-executed combo could add an extra fifty percent or so of damage to the total attack power.
There's a lot of luck to this, and it can be frustrating when it's one character's turn to attack when he has nothing but defensive cards in his hand. But such moments are canceled out when you're lucky enough to pull off a nine-card straight, tripling the damage of the attack and ensuring that your target will not be getting up anytime soon. Boss battles are filled with such hit-and-miss moments, and knowing that pure chance could mean the difference between a startling victory and a miserable failure only makes combat that much more exciting.
There are hundreds, if not thousands of Magna cards to collect in Baten Kaitos, making the battles every bit as deep as you allow them. As your characters grow in class, they'll be able to hold larger decks and play longer attack chains, and the hardcore could literally spend hours customizing and perfecting their decks to make them strong and balanced enough to handle any situation.
It is enormously fun. Most RPGs – even the good ones – start to get dull as I'm clocking in on the final act. But the diversity and intuitiveness with which Baten Kaitos's card-based battle system has been pulled off ensures that I actually enjoyed the game more as I got further and further into it. The more I was able to understand and master the Magna card system, the more rewarding the adventure became. And by the time it was over, fifty-five hours after I started, I wished I could just keep playing.
And that's not even saying anything of the title's outstanding production values, which I believe I've already touched base on. I'm starting to get weary of pre-rendered environments, and some of Baten Kaitos's camera angles are a little questionable, but so much imagination has gone into the visual presentation that I find it hard to complain. I think back to an early area in the game, a fishing village situated on a continent made entirely of clouds. The swirling shades of purple as clouds flow through the town like smoke are simply dazzling to watch, all animated perfectly and flawlessly sprinkled with polygonal characters. And the locales just get prettier. Why, here's a village embedded in the side of a cliff, with a waterfall guzzling through it! Here's a town made entirely out of pastries and deserts! Here's a golden imperial city studded with working machinery! The whole game, from beginning to end, is stunning to look at.
And Motoi Sakuraba conducts another knockout, this time blending folksy and tropical tunes to capture the mood of every setting perfectly, with only a few blunders. (The battle theme starts out beautifully, but then loses track of itself.) Unfortunately, the painful voice acting leaves much to be desired, but it can be turned off – though this oddly doesn't include the battle voiceovers, which can't be avoided. It's bad enough that I was intentionally not using certain characters because I didn't want to listen to their stupid voices. (I warn you, Xelha kills ten puppies every time she speaks.)
So the plot sucks. Yeah, it's a problem, but this is still some of the most fun I've ever had playing an RPG. It's smart, clever, and devilishly addicting once it gets going. Screw Tales of Symphonia, this is the best RPG to the found on GameCube.
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