I probably could write a few essays on select topics regarding Baten Kaitos, there is that much I can say about it, but because I don't have that kind of time, I'm going to try to keep those discussions to a minimum. There will definitely be rambling tangents--just not too rambling--I hope.
I forget exactly when I found out about Baten Kaitos, only that it was still in development in Japan at the time and all I knew was that it involved people with wings. I've played so many RPGs now that I tend to get a bit jaded about the traditional medieval European setting, so people with wings (always a bonus for me) and islands in the sky sounded pretty interesting. So I kept following this game, downloading the trailers and such, as it was released in Japan; all the while hoping it would get picked up for a US release. Thankfully it did and I got my first taste of it at E3 2004, though it gave me the same initial negative impression a lot of people get. A traditional RPG with a card battling system?
Like a lot of people who got into this game despite some initial skepticism, the card battling is not as bad as it sounds. (On the other hand, if you're looking for an depth card game in the fashion of Magic: The Gathering, you will be disappointed.) In fact, in some ways this system is more engaging that the old stand-by of attack, magic, item, and run. Though combat can be initially confusing for a player to join without reading the instructions, it's surprisingly fun because the battling happens in pseudo-real time. You may have cards, but you've got to think on your feet. The bad part of having a card-based battle system is that you don't know what kind of hand you're going to get, and even the best-planned deck will still give you inappropriate cards from time to time. But the good part is that it keeps combat lively and unpredictable.
Just as in a real battle, the situation is never optimal. The constant need to evaluate and address the situation based on party health and the deck in one's hand tends to make the battle exciting as it's impossible to fall into a set pattern of attacking enemies. If a character is stuck with a hand of defensive cards, it's arguable that he's is in a very good defensive position, but the enemy isn't giving him any openings. At least, that is the way I would interpret it--the reason for that being, what is in the player's hand is not necessarily represented on screen. A character is not constantly switching weapons out of magical cards, so much as making multiple attacks with the same weapon (whose properties are probably changing due to the influence of the cards). Also on the good side is that enemies are bound to same rules at the player, so they have their good rounds and bad rounds, and even have to waste time shuffling their decks (just like the player) if they run out of cards. The system is fair to both player and enemies.
And for those who like to celebrate their skills, there are bonuses in battle for correctly using cards in numerical order (all cards have a minimum of one number on them) or in pairs, three of a kind, or more. A correctly executed combo done late in the game could net 300% more damage than the attack would ordinarily have done!
Battles aside, the real gem of the game is the story and its setting. In the beginning it's tempting to sell Baten Kaitos short. Everyone lives on islands in the clouds! Big deal, Skies of Arcadia already did that. There's a rebellious main hero on a quest for revenge! Oh, like that's original. A virtuous noble of the enemy country changes sides to join the party! Hi, Enrique, didn't I just meet you in Skies of Arcadia? Hey, look at the mysterious girl who knows lots of ancient stuff on a quest to save the world! Okay, she's a queen this time instead of a princess. Deviations happen.
The point is that Baten Kaitos uses a lot of the traditional themes and motifs seen in previous games, but the neat thing about it is when it explores those characters beyond what we've seen in other RPGs. Since Lyude is unabashedly my favorite character, I'll use him as an example.
He's the noble character of the trademark evil Alfard Empire (which we probably would call Valua in Skies of Arcadia). Considered a disgrace by his military family for speaking out against the Empire's decision to make an example of the villagers of Azha (to the Emperor's face no less), he's more or less exiled as a token ambassador to the country of Diadem where the party meets him. Lyude is a soldier himself, and though he knows his post is a mere formality, he takes it seriously. So when the Empire invades Diadem under the false premise that Diadem's king intended to invade Alfard first, Lyude switches his lot from the Empire to that of the heroes so he can protect Diadem's king.
This in and of itself is not unusual in an RPG. Leo from the Lunar series switched sides after seeing the light, and Enrique of Skies of Arcadia is very much like Lyude, being a noble (a prince in this case) of a corrupt empire. But what makes Lyude different from his predecessors is how his betrayal and subsequent guilt are handled. Unlike with the other characters, the player is not allowed to forget that Lyude betrayed his country and disgraced his family by siding with the heroes. In a way, he is indirectly responsible for the Alfard Empire being a shattered ruin by the end of the game. This guy comes with a lot of baggage. Villains taunt him for being a traitor, even townspeople will occasional comment and shun him for wearing his Imperial uniform, and since he still wears it despite this betrayal, that says something to me about him as a character. He honestly loves his homeland, but he can't abide by what it's doing.
When the party gets ready to venture to Alfard for the first time, Lyude asks himself if he can face his family and friends in battle. And as it turns out, a confrontation does occur between him and his siblings, who give him a chance to return to the Empire if he will hand over his companions. Though he begs them to let him and the others go, they can't otherwise they'll be executed. Knowing this, it would have been very easy for Lyude to side with them if he was a weak-willed individual, but he doesn't, and even draws his gun though he doesn't know if he can shoot them. The thing is: Baten Kaitos draws these plot threads out when they aren't normally addressed. Leo never thought of himself as betraying the men under his command, Enrique never felt that he had abandoned his country, but Lyude is never allowed to forget that what he did amounts to treason. In that way it makes him more human than the others, because nobody changes sides at the drop of a hat and any such decision must certainly weigh heavy on them. Even when it seems there is no longer anything to say about the Azha incident, there is still a flashback to show what Lyude had said in protest to the Emperor and how he had backed down, to his later regret. At the end of the game, Lyude is still pondering the future of Alfard, now that their Emperor is dead and they have no one to lead them. He had sacrificed his country, his family, just about everything, to do the right thing and that makes him a remarkable character.
Perhaps rightly so, because so much good and evil weighs in his mind, he is the only character who uses primarily light and dark-based attacks in the game. Normally that sort of dichotomy goes to the cool badass of the party (just because light and dark are cooler than normal elements) so it's a nice change of pace seeing those elements given to a character whose greatest suffering is perhaps that he cares too much.
The other characters vary in their predicatability, but the game uses some of that to its advantage in what is probably its greatest plot twist. And to do that, I'll have to back up a bit and discuss what probably would be considered a plot gimmick in any other RPG, but is so skillfully woven into the story in this game that it's a lot more than that. Normally a player takes on the role of the main character in an RPG. If this was Final Fantasy VII that would be Cloud. But in Baten Kaitos the player does not play as Kalas, the main character, but instead as Kalas's Guardian Spirit. The player is rarely allowed to forget this either as the characters will often break the fourth wall to talk to the player and ask for opinions. Rather than breaking the mood, it actually serves to enhance it as Kalas will react appropriately to whatever you have to say (and he can have negative reactions as well as pleasant ones). Kalas does warn the player early on though that the better you bond with him, the better he'll do in battle and the more likely it'll be that he'll listen to you. This simple fact that the player is not Kalas, allows for the plot twist I've never seen before. It just couldn't be done to the same effect in any other game.
A little before the midpoint of the game, the characters defeat a particularly nasty trio of bad guys and then worry about convincing the local lord of their story about the five End Magnus. They figure it shouldn't be too much of a problem since they have one of their possession, or they did until Kalas reveals he doesn't have it anymore. At first the party wonders if Kalas was somehow stupid enough to lose it. Eventually though, they come to the conclusion that someone within their group betrayed them, or possibly some other option they have thought about.
Xelha was easy to rule out as a suspect, since the quest to stop the empire from getting all five End Mangus is hers, and Gibari is so transparently "let's trust everybody" that he couldn't betray the party unless he became a completely different character. So to me as the player, that left Lyude, Savyna, and the unknown third option that the End Magnus was stolen by some other means. Lyude had temporarily betrayed the party earlier while under hypnosis by the Empire, and while he was supposed to have been cured, it remained a possibility even he acknowledged. Savyna was still new to the party, but according to Lyude's suspicions, she had probably worked for the Empire in the past, and she wasn't keen on talking. Only, if Savyna was the traitor that would be too bloody obvious, especially for someone who already has the Xena: Warrior Princess look about her (female killing machine in leather; and if that's not enough, she used to be called Lady Death).
I did not consider Kalas as a suspect at all because I (through the Guardian Spirit) had been controlling Kalas ever since the game started. But Kalas turned out to be the traitor.
Normally the main character can't be the surprise traitor because he/she is the player's avatar; the player would know about it. Any betrayal would have to be done against the main character's will; while hypnotised, under an otherworldly influence, or another personality. Kalas's betrayal is done completely on his own, under his own free will, and without the player's knowledge until the moment he reveals himself.
The most beautiful part about it is when Kalas explains how he pulled it off--not how he secretly gave away the End Magnus, but how he pulled the wool over the player's eyes. This is actually not his first betrayal of his Guardian Spirit, but his second, and the first is the reason his Guardian Spirit experiences memory loss right at the beginning of the game (which is when the player starts). Kalas had wiped his uncooperative Guardian Spirit's memory so it would keep helping him even though it disagreed with his plans.
Since the player is the Guardian Spirit, this takes on a rather chilling tone. More than in any other game, this betrayal is personal. When Kalas starts to leave, lured away by the promised power of the End Magnus, this disconnect between the player as the Guardian Spirit and Kalas as a character is its strongest, and I as the Guardian Spirit suddenly got to do a lot more talking than I ever had before (always through dialogue choices in a menu). Going through them is a mix of acceptance, hurt, and desperation as Kalas resolutely refuses to change his mind about what he is about to do. Because of his warning earlier in the game (about him no longer listening to me if our bond was weak), I started kicking myself for all the goofing around I did in the beginning because Kalas was ignoring me and I was afraid I was going to lose him and it was my fault.
When he finally got rid of me, having accepted the power of the End Magnus, the screen faded to black and I started wondering if Namco was gutsy enough to end the game that way for belligerent players (I would've forgiven them if they had, that plot twist was worth it), but the game does go on with the player hearing Xelha's voice and then managing to merge with her and become her Guardian Spirit instead.
All said and done, I found the set up for Kalas's betrayal done admirably well. The clues are there and just a little odd, but not odd enough for the player to suspect him of something as radical as that, and then the betrayal is taken hard not so much because he's betraying his friends, but because he's betraying the player as his Guardian Spirit, and that betrayal is made even worse because he's actually betraying for the second time since the first happened when the spirit's memory was erased. That extra layer of immersion in the story doesn't happen with most other games, because the Guardian Spirit has no face, personality, or voice other than what the player gives it. The Guardian Spirit really is the player more than any other main character could be.
As in Skies of Arcadia each continent is host to a different nation, each with its own unique culture, but unlike Skies there are much less real world parallels. You don't have the Spanish country, the Arabic country, the Japanese country, etc. Instead there is Salad Suud, for the most part a temperate mountainous wilderness; Diadem, Land of Clouds (and good fishing); Anuenue, the Rainbow Nation, rainforest dwelling academics and worshippers of the Celestial Tree; Mira, City of Illusion, with interesting themed villages like the picture book town that looks like Disneyland's It's a Small World ride on drugs; and Alfard, Empire of the Flame, which follows the evil technological empire archetype. There are two "hidden" nations that appear later in the game. Wazn, the Ice Lands, isn't terribly original either, but Duhr is different. It's the only land that exists on the polluted Earth that was abandoned a thousand years ago. Because of the noxious atmosphere, the inhabitants traditionally wear colorful masks, even after they eventually set up a magic shield to protect themselves from the poison.
Considering that the characters have wings, there is surprisingly little time and detail spent on this phenomenon knows as "Wings of the Heart." It is apparently for these wings that Kalas is willing to work for the villain Melodia and betray his companions. Basically, everyone in the Sky is supposed to be able to summon "Wings of the Heart" with which to fly--very handy for a sky-dwelling population. These wings differ in appearance depending on the individual and can only be maintained for a limited amount of time, supposedly related to the strength of a person's heart. Kalas, being born with only one wing, is thought to be a freak. Malformed wings from a malformed heart (though surprisingly his "disability" doesn't come up in a derogatory fashion until almost halfway through the game). He manages to make do with an artifical wing, called a winglet, created by his grandfather, but I'm surprised the first townsperson he explains this to doesn't recoil away from him in shock.
Also, I can't help wishing more was done about the relationship of a person's wings to their heart. Lyude comes from Alfard, a nation where people no longer fly, and has no wings. Is it because he is weak-hearted and has lost his wings (doubtful since he's one of the heroes), or because he doesn't know how to unlock the wings dormant within him? Since he's not the main character, the fact he is a wingless party member among people with wings is never addressed. As a side note though, I would've loved it if Lyude had come with winglets (since they're originally an Empire invention), but alas, he didn't. On another note, Savyna once worked for the Empire and does have wings, though it's not clear if she is an Alfard native or came from somewhere else originally. It would have been nice if that had been clarified.
The story perhaps has an unusual setup (in these modern days) in that stopping the revival of the ancient evil god is apparent right at the beginning of the game. Given how popular that plot is, the fact it shows up so early seems to oversimplify the story. I was betting though, that resurrecting the god would only be the halfway point though, and I was close. All the End Magnus do come together about halfway through the game (normally that would be towards the end of the game), with the actual ressurection being about two-thirds of the way through in a nifty twist. For once, there is a reason that a villain secures each captured party member in a different location instead of just killing them and being done with it (because any decent villain should know the heroes will be rescued sooner or later).
The second half of the game though is a little unreal because supposedly the nations are constantly under attack by the evil god Malpercio's minions, and the nations' armies are busily defending the towns, but with the exception of a couple optional subplots just before the final dungeon, we don't see any of that. In fact, travel from one nation to another is completely uninhibited by any enemy forces at all.
Also, regarding those subplots, one thing that Baten Kaitos does a little too traditionally for me is that all the sidequests for the characters' second best finishing moves and final class upgrades takes place after everything except for the final dungeon is done. For completists, that means putting off the final dungeon until all five quests (all party members except Kalas) are done, and that tends to dampen one's enthusiasm after a player is done with all those belonging to active party members and is just doing the rest for the heck of it. The rest of the sidequests in this game are fun and best done throughout the game, and they're straightforward enough that most players should be able to get substantial rewards from them without ever consulting a FAQ.
Unfortunately, Baten Kaitos seems to have slipped from the bandwagon of the good dub job. It's rather sad these days, when companies are starting to get more serious about hiring good actors, but Baten Kaitos sports some pretty poor VAs. Kalas and usually Xelha, are pretty good, which is a relief since they're the two who speak the most. Gibari felt miscast at first, but I got used to him. Savyna is okay. Lyude, however, has a terrible VA who can't seem to act to save his life. Given that Lyude is the sort of character that tends to get slammed by a lot of male players (for being too sensitive and not sucking it up), having a wimpy sounding VA doesn't help. He has some oddly deeper battle grunts which makes me wonder if those might have been leftover from his Japanese VA, and if that's the case, then he's been drastically miscast and that deeper voice might have helped his image. Mizuti, though, probably takes the cake for most appropriately cast voice. I was never disappointed by Mizuti's odd speech and mannerisms.
The voices for the supporting characters vary from good to abysmal. There's at least a few VAs who have this problem where they like to talk reeeeeaaally slooooooowly and I found myself hitting the button to skip along because I was done reading the text long before they finished speaking it. In most games I'll read at the speed the person is talking, but that was just painful with some of these people, especially the Ancient Earth Wizards. It's bad enough when they're talking to slow, it's even worse when their voice is so bad you don't want to hear them drag it out. There is a way to turn off the voices in the menu, and I'm sure a good many people did that, but I decided that it was worth listening to. For one thing, I like knowing how all the names are pronounced (like Anuenue's for example). I think the voice coach screwed up in a couple places though. Malpercio seems to be pronounced one way during the opening movie and another in the actual game. Given the slight Italian flavor to a few of the names, I'm pretty sure the intro movie's pronunciation is the correct one, with the "ci" being pronounced as "shi." Giacomo's name also appears to be misprounced, with "Gia" being pronounced like "ja" in "jacket" instead of "jo" in "jogging."
The primary villain character, other than Malpercio, is fairly well casted. Though Melodia does not particularly have a "good" voice in the sense that she's pleasant to listen to, the actress has enough of a command of her voice that it's more than likely you won't realize that she's the evil girl that speaks every time an End Magnus is unleashed, even when you finally meet her in person as the benevolent granddaughter of a duke. That the actress is able to keep good Melodia and evil Melodia far enough apart that they can't be identified as the same person until she reveals her true colors takes a certain amount of talent, especially when it hits the player with the weight of "Why didn't I notice before?!" And don't let the opening movie fool you. It looks pretty, but it's the only piece of CG in the game. All the other cut scenes are rendered with existing sprite artwork. For someone who's been spoiled on pre-rendered movies and immaculately detailed close-ups of speaking characters, this is a bit of a letdown. The character portraits change depending on the person's mood, so they tend to be enough to convey the emotion that is coming across, save for the occasional disconnect between how the actor is portraying those lines. But because the player is busy looking at the text box for the portrait emotion and the dialogue, it's sometimes possible to miss what the sprites themselves are actually doing, since on occasion they will emote just as much as the dialogue. The opening movie looks pretty sweet though, and most of the scenes can easily be matched to different parts of the game once the player has reached that event. Even Kalas's final conversation with Xelha, after they've beaten Malpercio is in there. The only one I don't get is the scene with Kalas and Xelha on a boat when the whale shows up. I kept wondering when that was going to happen and then it never did.
That ending though... Baten Kaitos has one of the longest endings out there. After beating Malpercio from the final save point in the game, there is still another hour to go! (For a game that had already taken me 67 hours, that's pretty long!) There's the restoration of the polluted Earth, the floating continents rejoin the land below, there's the obligatory victory party, but where's the long lost Ocean? It turns out all of that is revealed in a cut scene at the end of the game. Xelha's been carrying the Ocean inside of herself all this time and now she wants Kalas to help her release it. The implication is that the process will probably kill her since she won't tell Kalas what will happen to her, but he finally agrees to help her. After saying the prayer, which is a beautiful piece of poetry, a voice comes out of nowhere, and suddenly there's one more fight to the game! O_o For some reason or another Geldoblame, the emperor of Alfard who was shoved into a pit of lava halfway through the game, is back again and now he's merged with the very Earth, so Kalas and Xelha have to kick his butt in a hard-to-die-in-but-annoyingly-long battle. Then Xelha collapses and dissolves like she's died. Then it rains and the Ocean comes back.
And that's not all! The cast does a line-up at the forest where Kalas first met his Guardian Spirit to say good-bye to the player (almost like the end of the play--I half-expected everyone to take a bow). After Kalas and the spirit separate, one of the kids from earlier in the game runs up to him saying they found Xelha's pendant and that they can hear her voice in it. When Kalas holds it up to his ear, he hears her voice, and then water splashes out and Xelha's back! O_o Sure, there's an explanation for it, but since Geldoblame's return seemed just a convenience to make her die and release the Ocean, this seems even more a convenience just to bring her back for the happy ending. If I could just erase Geldoblame's appearance and Xelha's subsequent death and ressurection I think it would've made for a better end to the game. Having her die and come back again so closely together just cheapens the whole experience. I wonder if perhaps the game was getting so long that they had to cut their story short, which resulted in the big info drop about the Ocean after Malpercio's defeat. It's possible the event with the Ocean and the whale in the opening movie were missing from the game because the designers ran out of time or budget to complete everything they'd wanted and the opening movie (as typical for the development process) had already been finished long before.
Overall though, despite the length, the slip of the ending, and other flaws, it has been one of the more enchanting games I've played. There aren't many 60+ hour games where I didn't feel it was too long until well after the 60 hour mark. People who are less concerned about sidequests will surely be done faster, especially those less concerned about nabbing every enemy on screen at least once. I think it will wind up being in my Top 5 games, or at least Top 10, once I have a little more distance to look back on it.