Baten Kaitos is the latest RPG from Namco, the company behind the release of the quite amazing Tales of Symphonia. The story goes, according to Namco: "The world of Baten Kaitos exists in an era where lands float in the sky and the once-vast oceans are mere legend. With your help, Kalas and Xelha must struggle to reveal the mystery of the lost ocean and destroy the corruption that threatens their world". Not the most original or inventive of plot lines and it doesn't get any better than that. This game treats us to about forty hours of rehashed story and plotlines that we have seen in RPG games for the past decade or so, evil gods, forgotten prophecies, corrupt leaders more than obvious plot twists the lot yet instead of improving on them it makes them worse.
This game's worst failing is its forgetability, Baten Kaitos's plot and characters are almost carbon copies of every other game on the market but show less emotional depth and likeability. The main character Kalas is bereft of any redeemable features even going as far as to abandon those that would help him so that he can satisfy his desire for revenge.
Baten Kaitos tries to change certain game play aspects while keeping them the same. To level up you need to get experience and like other games this is done through defeating enemies but unlike other games you don't just need to level up you need to class up which allows you to use more cards, this is done through items that are often rewards from defeating bosses. Where Baten Kaitos really differs though is on how you level and class up, it's not instantaneous. To progress you have to find a special coloured save point that will transport you to a Church where upon a priest will take your experience and items and let you class and level up. What is the point in that? You go through an entire dungeon and potentially gain enough experience points to go up three levels and get an item to class up, yet you have to leave the dungeon and work your way back to a village so you can use the special save point because the one in the dungeon is only a standard save point. This method provides no improved game play, in fact it brings annoyance and tedium because you either have to face a boss underpowered or work your way back through a dungeon to fight the boss.
Now the most integral, important and creative aspect of Baten Kaitos is the Magnus system and every bit like marmite you'll either love it or hate it. We hate it. On paper the Magnus system is excellent, cards that age and change over time, a real-time card based combat system, card based quests and even a card based plot but put into practice and its something entirely different.
There are only a handful of items in the game; everything else is done exclusively through Magnus cards. Magnus change over time, they evolve and de-evolve, certain items get better others get worse; this comes with the problem that you don't know when. In the first city there are a few timed Magnus quests but each one has a different timer. Without looking at a guide beforehand you'll need to reload the game quite often as you find out that while waiting for one Magnus to change to allow you to complete a quest, a reward from a different quest necessary for the next city has now degraded and you've failed a quest before you've even started it which can get extremely frustrating.
The same applies to normal Magnus. It is quite often you can go into a boss battle to find out that in the two minutes it has taken you to walk from one encounter into this one all the food your characters have been holding has now gone rotten and can only be used as mediocre weapons leaving you with no way of healing your characters. It is possible to get an item that will tell you when your items have changed but it isn't a pick-up item it's an item that's obtained through the Magnus SP combo list.
What is the Magnus SP combo list? It is a list of Magnus that can be obtained by using specific Magnus in question. These can be the fairly obvious such as a Frozen Tangerine which requires an orange and an ice cube or they can be the down right weird such as the Tongue Twister rouge, which requires wheat, uncooked rice and an egg Magnus, because we all know that's what goes into making lipstick...Luckily though hints are located in the descriptions for certain Magnus, it is a good diversion trying out various different recipes to find the one that will grant you that brand new Magnus.
The Magnus system though really shows its bad side when it comes to the combat sequences. There are plenty of great ideas hidden within the combat system but they just don't gel well, the combos, the effects of opposing elements in particular are great ideas and add a healthy tactical aspect to battles that aren't seen in other RPG titles, but due to the random nature of the cards and the time limits imposed on them their benefits are quickly taken away.
The combat system is worsened when you and your enemies are playing with completely different rules. You are constrained to a deck of cards built up outside of fighting, you are then dealt random cards and must use those in battle, if you are dealt just defence cards you have to waste them until you are dealt an attack card with which to go on the offence with and the same applies for defence when you only get offensive cards. Your opponent on the other hand seems to have a less random deck, they'll always have assault cards in the attack phase and they'll have a few block cards for the defence phase and will always get their finishing moves as they get low on health. This creates a greatly unfair scenario where most of your game over screens are caused by bad luck more than bad strategy and makes the game more annoying than enjoyable.
Even with the number of Magnus to find, a lack of mini games and side quests which can be completed without diverting from the path the game leads you on cannot prolong the length of Baten Kaitos and makes it firmly a game that won't be played again once completed.
Normally we get graphics and sound out of the way first but in this case we've left them till last because good or bad they don't impact on the game. In fact they follow the same trend, something potentially great marred by some obvious flaws. You've all seen the screenshots, this game is beautiful yet the feeling is hollow. While gorgeous there is little appeal to them, the areas are small with little going on, the camera is quite distant and static preventing you from seeing the finer details and obscuring the more important ones. The world map is purely a 2D effect and the character models are extremely wooden and badly animated. While technically inferior the graphics for Final Fantasy 7 had a more immersive feel and compared to the 3D worlds of LoTR: The Third Age and Star Ocean on the PS2, Baten Kaitos seems to be stuck somewhere between this generation and the last.
Ignoring the obviously appalling voice acting the sound is the best aspect of this game. What we have is a deeply emotive soundtrack which inspires the gamer far more than any other part of this game.
While this game has its moments they are few and far between. For the best part this game is decidedly average with nothing to warrant a purchase over any other rpgs for the GameCube and definitely not deserving of its hefty price tag.