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Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean (GameCube) artwork

Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean (GameCube) review

"When thinking about Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean, one mundane locale sticks in my head. It’s a simple airship port nestled on the side of a mountain. We view it from such a distance that the gnarled rock inhabits most of the left side screen. Gigantic faces are haphazardly sculpted into ledges, their eyes closed against punishing winds. Purple lightning flashes periodically, followed by distant thunder claps. Billowing clouds surround and speed by the cliff, close e..."

When thinking about Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean, one mundane locale sticks in my head. It’s a simple airship port nestled on the side of a mountain. We view it from such a distance that the gnarled rock inhabits most of the left side screen. Gigantic faces are haphazardly sculpted into ledges, their eyes closed against punishing winds. Purple lightning flashes periodically, followed by distant thunder claps. Billowing clouds surround and speed by the cliff, close enough to reach out and touch. Of course, they’re comprised of poisonous gases that could kill any living being in an instant. If you push the analog stick, a tiny figure will sprint towards the sanctuary of a small cave. That insignificant speck is you.

It’s easy to say, in this shining moment for the maligned GameCube, that the universe of this RPG stars over the other components of the game. Baten Kaitos takes place in a world that consists of islands floating above a ravaged earth, each independently ruling itself. The belligerent nation of Alfard is fueled by industry. The streets of its capital are lined with gold piping and swells of steam. In the surrounding areas, poor people live in hovels carved out of desert rock, and they’re forced into mines to supply the country’s energy demands. The Empire wants to spread its pro-machination philosophy, preferably by force, to every ignorant society. Like Mira, the trippy island of dreams, where the main avenue consists of gingerbread, icing and marshmallows. Or the hidden frozen land of Wazn, where the snow comes up to your shoulders and the lone city is crafted entirely from ice.

Each pre-rendered landscape is intricately drawn, and as a result, the areas are not that large. But that doesn’t mean they’re easy to navigate and explore. I spent thirty minutes trapped inside a festive bazaar because I couldn’t discern an exit amongst the flood of bright, flowery ornamentation. In fact, the limited space leads to some creative dungeon design. One consists of a series of single screens, and the only task is to follow a path from the entrance to the exit. Simple enough, except the screen is fractured like a kaleidoscope. You have to mentally reassemble the pieces in order to reach the goal. Similar original challenges provide a welcome break from the more normal mazes and block-pushing puzzles found in this game.

Control is in a distant, third-person view, so when you move, the camera generally stays fixed. The world, quite literally, does not revolve around you, and it can make it difficult to navigate when your avatar runs off into the distance. But colorfully adorned costumes bring the characters back the center of attention. Baten Kaitos takes place in a world where people possess magnificent “Wings of the Heart,” though these appendages usually only physically manifest in battle. Our blue-haired hero, Kalas, is in the unique position of only having only one wing; the other is a mechanical replacement. Unfortunately, he can’t remember why that is; he has a case of amnesia. Along his journey he’s joined by the minimalist mercenary Savyna, who wears little and talks less, yet sports plumes like peacock. Another companion is the strange wizard known as The Great Mizuti, who wears an exotic tribal mask and speaks with an annoying tone and meter, like a intolerable version of Yoda.

Assuming the typical role of world saviors, the party does its best to transcend the beauty surrounding it. While we get a glimpse into the past of each of his five allies, Kalas’ most significant companion is a young woman named Xelha. She looks completely innocent, but she’s on the run from the Empire for reasons unknown, though it appears their goal might be more than simple world domination. When Kalas comes to her aid, the adventure is set in motion. One unique plot device casts you as the hero’s guardian spirit. Occasionally, he’ll ask you for advice, and your responses will strengthen or weaken your mutual bond; he’ll even get a little pissy if you choose an option he doesn’t like. It provides a more personal connection with the protagonist, and it makes the game’s one major twist all the more shocking; for a short time, you’ll be seeing the action from a whole new perspective.

Baten Kaitos has another singular attribute hidden up its sleeve, though. The battle system is based on cards(called Magnus), and a Magnus can hold any type of item: weapons, armor, and even food. But the combat does not unfold in a slow, collectible card game, “Let’s Duel” manner. It is turn-based , but each turn is strictly timed, resulting in gameplay that requires fast reflexes and quick information processing ability.

Speed is key. At the beginning of a character’s offensive turn, you have a limited number of seconds to play a card from his personal deck, or he’ll be skipped. This initial time period actually decreases as you advance in level. After the commencing strike, you’re expected to ignore the fancy attack sequences to play more cards; if an animation ends before your next move, your turn will prematurely end. Party members can use Magnus to protect themselves against an enemy as well, and they’ll end up getting hammered if you’re not quick enough on the draw. This defensive component adds an essential strategic factor to the game. Instead of guarding HP, you can choose to slough off marginal cards to set up a really powerful attack progression.

It’s so important because you won’t get anywhere haphazardly throwing Magnus around. Most every card possesses some elemental property, and those that are diametrically opposed will naturally cancel each other out. In order to avoid that, you’ll have to continually manage your decks or remain hyper-vigilant in the heat of battle. Magnus also possess at least one Spirit Number, though there can be up to one in each corner. You don’t just choose a card, you have to flick the C-Stick towards the Spirit Number you want to use. Damage and defense are multiplied by a significant percentage if you manage to deploy cards in a special order, either in sequence or by pairing every number. Eventually, you can play up to nine cards in succession (Spirit Numbers only span 1 to 9). However, that many cards are never exposed in your hand, so you have to quickly evaluate replacements dealt from the deck. Just wait until the numbers start spinning.

Luck will play a little role in every battle. Only for you, though; the enemy unfurls their combos at will. Unfortunately, the designers decided it would be too discouraging to lose because of a bad draw, so many of the fights are graciously stacked in the player’s favor. Even though only three of your party can participate at a time, they’ll never be outnumbered, and many of the bosses fight solo. And because you have to actively engage in defense, normally only a single character will be attacked at a time – barring double turns. That means at least one of your group should escape unscathed every round.

And the fundamentals of this battle system do negate one interesting idea involving Magnus: special combos. Magnus really can hold anything, from twigs to cakes and dolls to wine. Baten Kaitos’ special brand of alchemy involves combining items in battle by using them in certain sequences (what else?). Well, an easy group of opponents are likely to die before the ingredients for your recipe all appear in someone’s hand. When fighting against tougher enemies, you probably don’t want to waste space in your deck or turns attempting to construct a “Stalker Letter.” This component feels like it should be essential to success, but it ends up being totally superfluous, like the numerous optional fetch quests that extend the playing time well past sixty hours. It takes too much extra work to find a training ground that is just right for the task.

Fortunately, the development team was able to achieve a compelling balance overall. The colorful, detailed artwork makes the world feel large and deep, even though the areas don’t foster grand exploration and the plot is a relatively basic tale of greed, sacrifice, and revenge. The combat is lively and unpredictable. It requires active engagement, rather than allowing you to passively issue the same commands over and over again. The card-based system alone provides reason enough to check out Baten Kaitos; the rest is just beautiful decoration.

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Community review by woodhouse (April 29, 2007)

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zippdementia posted November 05, 2008:

BK had a great setting, as you point out, and an intriguing plot line... that I was never able to make it through due to the terribly boring combat system. You'd think the cards system would be a good idea... it was. Actually, my real complaint lies in the extremely limited animations and poor character designs (not to mention dismal voice acting). No matter how interesting the combat system was, it just LOOKED boring, with every card, no matter how interesting, invoking the same old animation as the last one.

You might be unleashing hell on your opponents, but it still just looked like you were scratching your nose.

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