"Baten Kaitos' first few impressions are among its best. It begins with a series of flashbacks: a peaceful family scene at home, that same home engulfed in flames and invaded by sinister figures, ethereal petals coalescing to represent the bonding between human and otherworldly spirit. This tragic imagery, pregnant with intrigue, covered in film-grained sepia, and streaked by transparent vertical lines evocative of tears and raindrops, is subsequently juxtaposed with the natural hues of the charm..."
Baten Kaitos' first few impressions are among its best. It begins with a series of flashbacks: a peaceful family scene at home, that same home engulfed in flames and invaded by sinister figures, ethereal petals coalescing to represent the bonding between human and otherworldly spirit. This tragic imagery, pregnant with intrigue, covered in film-grained sepia, and streaked by transparent vertical lines evocative of tears and raindrops, is subsequently juxtaposed with the natural hues of the charmingly rustic village of Cebelrai. During the protagonist's awakening in this hamlet, a soft melody of flutes and string instruments conjures up feelings of innocent contentment and romantic serenity. These ten powerful minutes surpass the next three thousand in the absolute totality of their thrills, setting expectations that the rest of the game only partially lives up to.
Along with this vivid imagery, the rich lore of Baten Kaitos makes it initially seem like an incredibly promising experience. Its world is one in which humanity inhabits islands floating in the skies, the result of a conflict with an ancient god of destruction that swallowed the ocean a millennium ago. Despite exile from earth, civilization has flourished, producing five distinct island nations. Humans have evolved Wings of the Heart, which are said to be a physical manifestation of their personal temperaments, and a crucial innovation has been made: Magnus, small magical cards that can extract and trap the essence of any object for portability, storage and later-use. These cards are both a technology in the game's fictional universe and the mechanical foundation of its combat system.
Such creativity and originality of world design can only reach its full potential if it is occupied by compelling actors engaged in captivating adventures. Unfortunately, Baten Kaitos' characters are virtually opposite its universe in terms of design: a motley crew of cliches wearing preposterous costumes, each one shallow, unlikeable and unimpressive. Kalas, the hero, is a punk kid who tries or pretends not to care about anyone or anything but himself, not even the daily reality of an empire oppressing the entire world. Xelha, the heroine, is only interested in saving the world. Fisherman Gibari looks like Wakka and just likes helping people. Lyude is an incorruptibly good empire soldier who defects to fight the good fight. Savyna, the chick in black, has an attitude, a dark past and hand-to-hand combat skills. And finally, Mizuti belongs to the Cait-Sith-and-Quina-Quen comic relief school of JRPG characters who resemble living toys more than actual people.
The adventure this crew is engaged in could hardly be any more stereotypical of JRPG's. An extremely and doubtlessly evil empire is flaunting its military might, and its power-hungry emperor aspires to world domination by obtaining the five End Magnus, artifacts that will revive the ancient god of destruction. The heroes make it their business to defeat the elemental guardians protecting these magnus so that they can claim them first, but every single one of them ends up falling into the emperor's greedy hands anyway. There is also a man Kalas wants revenge on for the murder of his grandfather, and he happens to work for the empire as well. It is as if the developers spent all their efforts on the world itself that when it came to characters and plot their creative well had run dry - and so they simply did the bare minimum to create a story simply as a vehicle to have a functioning JRPG at all.
Cliched and badly written, this setup predictably gives way to plenty of friendly banter between heroes, desperate pleas for help ("You're our only hope!"), angry and long-winded verbal exchanges of the cheesiest insults imaginable ("Stupidity seems to be one of your strong points!", "We came to put an end to your freakshow!"), predictable revelations followed by incredulous reiterations ("the End Magnus...", "the End Magnus?!"), bombastically evil laughs that only have real-life equivalents among insane asylum patients, and a love story shoehorned in just for the sake of having one. Except for one genuinely surprising and well executed plot twist halfway through the game, these overbearing and ever-present cliches, along with the poor writing with which the story is executed, conspire to blemish the creative achievement of the game's universe.
The third member of the unholy trinity undermining Baten Kaitos' beautiful world is some of the worst voice acting in the history of the medium. This may seem a trivial, superficial concern because it is generally taken for granted that videogame voice acting is not good, but it is anything but in regards to Baten Kaitos, given how central it is to the experience and how layered its badness is.
This game is shamelessly melodramatic as JRPGs are often wont to be, which can be bad enough in writing and is only exacerbated when delivered as spoken lines by people with no acting skill. Characters brought to life with voices are creatively and emotionally put to death, and any moment that attempts to be dramatic, poetic or philosophical becomes practically embarrassing instead. It is probably not a good sign that an IMDb query reveals that nearly everyone involved has little-to-no documented experience outside of Namco-published video games, and even the unintended, ironically positive effect of being comically bad, as in Deus Ex or Resident Evil, is entirely absent. Finally, the recording was so poorly done that everyone sounds as if he or she is speaking through a mask - and this is true for every line of spoken dialogue, not just the ones by characters who actually wear masks. These problems rob the game of believability and create an aurally unpleasant experience that must be tolerated for some forty hours.
Yet while Baten Kaitos gets so much wrong on the non-interactive front - mainly story and everything else associated with it (which is what JRPG's traditionally emphasize) - it excels at being an interactive experience relative to its counterparts. Almost every battle function of the typical JRPG is consolidated into the Magnus system - attacking, defending, equipment, items, magic, healing, status effects - and the only way to access them is by drawing numbered cards from an individual character's deck. Selecting multiple cards of the same numbers or forming straights will give the actions taken a boost that increases exponentially with the size of the combo, an activity made challenging by the fact that it must be accomplished in quick succession. Only a split-second is given to view your current hand and play the right card. Hesitation will end the combo prematurely, and a mistake will forfeit the bonus, leaving only the base damage value. Both cerebral and reflex-driven, this hybrid puzzle-RPG combat system makes for a refreshing gameplay experience unlike any other RPG.
Outside of Magnus and the combat system itself, Baten Kaitos simply chooses some of the better JRPG conventions while refining others. Dungeons are refreshingly short, usually consisting of only five or six screens. It may not seem like enough, but when you factor in the time spent fighting battles and solving a puzzle or two, it proves to be the perfect length - lean yet substantial, without being overwhelming or excessively time-consuming. Chrono-style, on-screen encounters allow you to pick your battles to a degree instead of being at the whim of a random number generator, and the difficulty is so well tuned that there is scarcely any need to grind for extra levels. These prudent design choices relieve Baten Kaitos of the tedium chronically and often almost inextricably characteristic of JRPG's. It's a pity that such great gameplay has to coexist with such horrible story.
If not for the unique combat, then Baten Kaitos is at least worth experiencing once because of how profoundly beautiful it is, to admire the work of the actual artists who contributed to an inconsistent whole. Despite using pre-rendered backgrounds, a technique that was obsolete even when this game came out, the world of Baiten Kaitos is simply a wonder to behold. Soon after departing from Cebelrai, the party visits Diadem, so high up in the skies that clouds float gracefully along the cobbled paths in the very heart of its civilization. In order to get to Mira, a dreamlike nation that exists between the world and an another dimension, they must travel through the Trail of Souls, whose neon skies give the impression of flying inside an Aurora Borealis. Once in Mira, they must venture into the Labyrinth of Mirrors, the locational disorientation of which is represented by a fractured, crystalline screen. And when the party lands in Mintaka, the capital of the empire, it is a regal, mechanical metropolis of bronze and billowing steam. In spite of its failings, Baten Kaitos is a constant stream of gorgeous imagery.
Much like the visual landscape, such beauty applies equally to its musical landscape. Motoi Sakuraba, already renowned for his work on Star Ocean and the Tales series, composed a powerful and emotive score for Baten Kaitos, and the game's main theme, To the end of the Journey of Glittering Stars, may very well be his musical tour de force. Quiet and wistfully moody at first, it suddenly erupts into a boldly rousing and emotional crescendo. The song itself is a microcosm for what Baten Kaitos should have been: an engrossing, thoroughly beautiful and unforgettable journey.
Sadly, such lofty praise cannot be directed at the game as whole. Baten Kaitos is one of the most uneven games ever made, a gruesome patchwork of the amazing and the abysmal - one that is endured as much as it is enjoyed, and not worth playing more than once. Once it's over, its rich, imaginative world, inspired and inspiring in its visual and musical beauty, should be forever relegated to memories, only to be evoked by reminiscence, screenshots, videos, reviews, or literally anything other than playing the game itself.
Community review by radicaldreamer (January 03, 2010)
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