Baten Kaitos review
A Good Deal
The Gamecube isn't exactly overflowing with RPGs, so it's nice to see Namco supporting our little box with some wonderful gems. Baten Kaitos is one of those efforts that uses an unconventional combat system with more recognisable genre staples. The result is a great game that feels somewhat restricted by its own chosen mechanics.
The story itself goes along a fair few RPG conventions in the creation of its tale. The key facts to remember is that there's an evil empire and a dark god waiting to be revived. Thankfully we are given some extra plot details to keep us interested, especially when it comes to the personal troubles of the party characters. The military man who finds himself in conflict with his nation's actions is a good example of this. Or the twists that come up further along. Some of them seem a bit obvious but it's good to have them all the same.
Baten Kaitos furthers the depth by repeatedly breaking the fourth wall. The player takes on the role of a spirit that is in contact with Kalas, who will often speak directly to the player, even staring towards the screen as he does so. It's a level of involvement that takes us beyond simply controlling the action to being part of it.
The only major problem I have with the storyline is that it can be fairly slow to move along at times. The beginning especially doesn't have all that much happening and it takes a while before anything of storyline significance happens. A few others times the plot seems to stagnate as it waits for the next big revelation to happen.
Now let's take a look at the graphics, and immediately we see Namco working the hardware of the Gamecube to produce a visually stunning game world. There is such a good range of locations to visit, like the earlygame forests to the more mechanical cities later on. Each one is rich in detail with magnificent structure, layout and the extra little details like the living population around each place. These places are so great that it's difficult to notice that the game falls back on pre-rendered backgrounds in many places.
The characters match up perfectly with the settings. The 3D polygon models are rendered with a great amount of skill and the general designs are very interesting, like the main guy Kalas possessing one mechanical wing and one natural wing. Battle sequences also play out well, with some very smooth and impressive animation used for combat moves and for simple exploration and cutscenes too.
Prepare to be struck by more than awe.
The audio is quite befitting of the themes portrayed within, like serene melodies in the majestic forests or more gritty tracks for the cities. There is a good spread of tracks, and the battle music is especially good for providing upbeat energetic support.
Voice acting is used throughout, and while I can't honestly praise it as outstanding it is nice to hear our cast of characters speaking in most situations, which helps to draw the player into the adventure.
So then, the combat system in place is a card battle system... wait, come back, it's not actually bad. Each character has a deck of cards, where each card corresponds with a specific action, such as attack, defend, heal, status effect etc. Each turn a character has so many of these ready to use randomly chosen from the deck and can select a number of cards up to nine to either attack the enemy or support the party.
So far so mundane, but looking a little deeper shows a tremendous amount of depth to this combat. When attacking cards usually have an element attribute. There are six elements that are paired off as opposites, which can end up cancelling each other out if you hit with opposing elements (so using water and fire cards in the same turn is a really bad idea). You can also rack up combo damage too. Every card has 1-4 numbers sat at the corners, and by activating cards using sequential numbers will stack extra damage or support value at the end of the turn. The bigger the combo the bigger the increase, which encourages fast play to rack up the hits.
On the defensive you can also use cards to block enemy attacks. Some cards specialise in this, or you can make use of the element system to cancel out incoming damage. This requires some good reflexes though to pick out the right cards to use.
There are little treats involved in simply building a deck too. Some cards can be purchased, but chances are most of them will be treasures found exploring or as battle rewards. Some cards can only be earned by using a specific combination of cards in a single turn, which can lead to some powerful deck combinations. Even more interesting is the way cards change. Ultimately, cards used during battles are never "used up" but some will change over time. A healing item may either become even better or transform into an offensive card.
Of course, because it's a card battling system it does have one notable flaw. Luck. Even building a killer deck it's possible to walk into a battle and have your ass handed to you simply because you were dealt a horrible hand of cards you can't really use, like being given a ton of healing cards when you need to launch attacks on the enemy. On the other hand, otherwise difficult battles can be made rather easy by luckily being handed wonderful combinations of cards. You could say this means no battle is ever the same, but it can also be pretty frustrating at times and inconsistent.
That all you got?
Area design is pretty good here. Dungeon locations have some solid layouts that encourage exploration on the part of the player. Enemies are visible onscreen in an effort to avoid the random encounter systems of yesteryear, which is nice. You can pick out items hidden in places and generally have fun finding your way to the goal (typically being whatever boss is waiting for you as if they have nothing better to do). Granted the level of the design isn't on par with the likes of Zelda, but it's good for what it does.
Towns and cities possess similar traits with a few extras. Civilians will often share their gems of wisdom if you chat to them. Shops are scattered here and there, although I found that I rarely used them as items earned from battles or exploring were typically more useful.
It's worth noting that there is no "transition field" in here. Travelling between different places involves selecting icons on a map screen, which is a slight shame as I did enjoy sailing around in Skies of Arcadia (as an example), but at least you'll know where you are going.
As per typical RPG, Baten Kaitos will last a long time. There are quite a few challenges and twists throughout the cause the main quest to stretch some distance and it's all quite a lot of fun to do. There are also a fair few sidequests to take on - including some very character specific missions later on that I found particularly rewarding - which help to boost the lifespan even further.
The card battle system is something that you'll either love or hate. If you're prepared to lose some battles due entirely to bad luck then you'll likely derive a grand enjoyable adventure out of this. The system mechanics are definitely interesting, location structure is great and the game possesses technical merits as well.
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