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The Gamecube’s Wild Card
If discretion is the better part of valor, the virtues of Baten Kaitos are attributable as much to what the game doesn't do as to what it does. To be certain, the game boasts brilliant graphics, and its card-based battle system offers a unique take on turn-based combat. The game's greatest achievement, however, is its ability to avoid the pitfalls that make many recent RPGs frustrating or dull. Like the game's hero and heroine -- the rebellious Kalas and the compassionate Xelha -- the game balances its radical battle system with a good-natured attitude that adds up to a very enjoyable gaming experience.
At the heart of Baten Kaitos's gameplay is its card-based battle system. Within the game's cosmology, most objects can be stored onto "Magnus cards," a kind of disc that captures the essence of each item. In battle -- and sometimes outside of battle -- characters can use these cards to release the physical manifestations of the items they store. While these items naturally include a diverse arsenal of weapons and defensive equipment, they also include many types of food, as well as miscellaneous objects ranging from clouds and dead bluebirds to mean-spirited dolls, hair-care products, and even a popular pick-up line. Despite being stored on cards, these items respond to the passage of time. Thus, fruit ripens and will eventually rot; bankbooks become more valuable as they accrue interest; ice melts; lava cools to a pebble. While such transformations are not always predictable (e.g., a peach turns into "Peach Boy"), they do usually conform to logic and as such instill a satisfying sense of order and rationality within the game.
Each playable character has a battle deck, which the player assembles from the party's shared inventory of Magnus cards. Cards available for battle are generally classifiable into four broad categories: 1) attacking cards; 2) defensive cards; 3) cards that affect a character's attributes (e.g., healing cards, status-curing cards); and 4) cards that have no independent effect in battle, but which can be played in various combinations to create new cards. The threshold strategic decision, therefore, is what balance of each category of cards to include in assembling each character’s deck. Too many defensive cards may prevent a character from marshalling an effective attacking combination; on the other hand, too few defensive cards may get your character killed (which is the least effective attacking position of all). Additionally, some cards are playable only after a certain number of other cards have already been selected; a deck too heavily laden with powerful finishing moves may therefore prove ineffective without the weaker cards necessary to set up a combo. Finally, one must decide how many precious slots to occupy with cards completely useless in battle, but which may nevertheless create key items when played in combination with other cards. The construction of each character’s deck thus provides a broad array of strategic possibilities.
Combat is turn-based, with each turn further subdivided into attacking and defensive rounds. Each turn, a character has access to a limited number of cards dealt randomly from his or her battle deck. A character’s level determines the maximum number of cards he or she can play in each attacking round (at the most advanced level, a player can combine as many as nine cards in each attack). While attacking cards become increasingly powerful as the game progresses, no single card ever wields anything close to the devastating power of an “Ultima” spell from the Final Fantasy games, or some similarly unbalanced attack. To the contrary, successfully dealing damage usually requires characters to play a combination of several cards. Time therefore becomes a factor. While low-level characters are afforded an infinite amount of time to select their cards, the time allotted to play one’s cards diminishes rapidly once characters advance in level. A successful attack thus requires not only powerful cards, but also quick thinking.
When a character is attacked, he or she has a defensive round in which to diminish the amount of damage inflicted or otherwise to affect her status or other attributes. Such defensive rounds are played from the same hand available for an attacking round; indeed, some of the same cards useful for attacking have defensive capabilities as well. Many swords, for example, can be used both to attack and to parry enemy attacks. Using a sword card defensively, however, means that one loses it for the upcoming attacking turn. Defensive tactics thus become relevant for one’s attacking options, and vice-versa.
Every card available in battle has a number in its upper-right corner, and some cards have up to four numbers to choose from when played. Combining cards with identical or consecutive numbers affects the amount of damage one inflicts or absorbs. While these numbers are relatively unimportant at the beginning of the game, successful battle tactics are increasingly dependent on creating effective configurations of these numbers. In addition, most weapons and armor belong to one of six elemental alignments, which are themselves arranged into three opposing pairs (fire-water, light-dark, and wind-time). Playing a fire-based sword in combination with a water-based sword, for example, will diminish the effectiveness of each. As such, successful battle tactics require a player to be conscious both of a card’s number value and its elemental attributes, in addition to its attacking or defensive values.
If this all seems complicated . . . well, it is. But the game does an excellent job of introducing the battle system’s complexities gradually, so that the learning curve is steady and gamers can easily adapt. Conversely, the battle system’s complexities are increasingly important as one progresses through the game, and thus help to keep combat from becoming stale and predictable.
Indeed, the battle system’s greatest strength is its response to the very aspects that make combat in many RPGs boring. While many RPGs feature identical battles, in which your party makes identical tactical choices to eliminate identical groups of identical enemies, the random selection of cards at the heart of Baten Kaitos’s battle system ensures that no two battles are utterly alike. No matter how powerful your deck, an infortuitously dealt hand will require you to adopt new tactics. Similarly, because there are no super-powerful summons or spells in the game, powerful attacks depend instead on a player’s consciousness of the numbers and elemental attributes of the cards he or she strings together. This prevents combat from descending into the mindless button-mashing of much RPG combat, especially at higher levels. The other side to this coin, of course, is that battles necessarily tend to last longer than those in many other RPGs. The length of battles can be further exacerbated by the inability to target more than one enemy with any attack. Nevertheless, enemies are visible on the world map and are usually avoidable, thus reducing the number of long, unwanted battles one is required to fight.
The battle system has other drawbacks as well. Chief among these is the fact that characters are not particularly unique or distinguishable in battle. A player may of course choose to designate a character to be a “healing” character (i.e., one whose deck consists primarily of healing cards) while another functions as an attacking or item-manufacturing character. Even so, characters in Baten Kaitos have less “personality” in battle than in games where characters belong to particularized classes that serve to define the character’s combat options. The extent to which this drawback affects a player’s gaming experience, of course, depends to a considerable degree on how broad or specific a view one takes of RPG combat. Considered broadly, the ostensible variety of character classes available in many traditional RPGs is something of a chimera, obscuring the fact that most characters only ever do one of three things in battle: 1) dish out damage; 2) heal party members; or 3) obtain items. Insofar as a player can choose to construct battle decks in Baten Kaitos that are optimized for any one of these purposes, the extent to which character specialization exists or not in the game is largely a function of the player’s personal choice.
Considering that more than 1,000 Magnus cards are available in the game, interaction could have posed significant logistical difficulties. Indeed, deck management provides the greatest challenge to interaction. The game attempts to minimize such difficulties by providing various sorting options to help organize the decks along a number of different variables. Nevertheless, these sorting options are not always helpful for locating a particular card buried among the hundreds one may possess at any one time. That said, I found that issues of interaction rarely posed a significant obstacle to gameplay. With a few minor exceptions, localization was similarly acceptable, if not necessarily ideal.
In contrast, the game’s graphics are truly a treat to behold. The hand-painted backgrounds are vibrant and extravagantly detailed, while the spell effects and finishing moves are particularly impressive. Admittedly, graphics tend to play a minor role in my enjoyment of a game; as long as the graphics don’t actively impede gameplay (e.g., by making it difficult to see where the heck I’m going – this means you, FF7!), I’m usually content. But the graphics in Baten Kaitos transcend the merely functional and qualify as bona fide eye-candy. I have no qualms about awarding a top score here.
The game’s music and sound are less unequivocally great. The voice acting, in particular, is atrocious. While I acknowledge the remote possibly that the voice acting becomes bearable at some later point in the game, I cannot say; I personally exercised the merciful option of turning the voices off, consequently ensuring myself a much more pleasurable experience.
The music fares considerably better. While many tracks are innocuous and forgettable, a few really stand out. Usually, these tend to be the quieter and more contemplative tracks, but some of the more intense and atmospheric tracks are notable as well. The game provides a nice option of listening to any musical track that’s already been encountered during gameplay. While many gamers may not make much use of this option, I reckon it’s a nice touch.
The game’s story is completely unoriginal, almost comically so. A party of travelers, representing all your stock archetypes (grumpy hero, kind-hearted heroine, brawny sidekick, effete noble rebelling against the corrupt empire, lone-wolf ninja, powerful mage shrouded in mystery), set out to prevent said corrupt empire from awakening an ancient power and thus effecting world domination. (“Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”) To the extent that the story departs at all from the clichéd norm, it generally does so unsuccessfully. The game’s excessively lengthy finale complicates the story without particularly enhancing it, and the game’s final plot twist -- which goes entirely unexplained -- is pointless at best. Most regrettably, the “evil god” at the core of the plot is woefully underdeveloped and very disappointing as major villains go. In short, don’t expect the game to be receiving literary awards any time soon.
What triumphs the story does enjoy thus lie not in its bigger picture but in its smaller details. Xelha, despite the fact that you’ve seen her before in countless other games, emerges as a genuinely likeable character. The Great Mizuti is simply adorable, and is one of the few “powerful mages shrouded in mystery” whose mystery -- when revealed -- is truly worth the telling. Additionally, the game attempts to draw the player him- or herself into the story, casting the player into the role of a “Guardian Spirit” intimately bound up in the game’s intrigue. While this concept is more gimmicky than fully successful, it provides some enjoyably quirky moments when characters turn to you and solicit your opinion about various matters. The game’s developers could have gone farther with this concept, but it generally functions well enough. Finally, the game contains one outstanding plot twist that is quite likely to impress many gamers, though I will say no more about it.
The game’s originality is based less in its story and more in its battle system and its concept of Magnus cards. Almost every aspect of the game, however, includes some highly original aspect. One of the towns, for example, boasts a graphical design as surreal as any I’ve experienced in an RPG. In addition, leveling is treated differently in Baten Kaitos than in most games. Rather than automatically gaining a new level when acquiring the requisite number of experience points, these experience points are redeemable only upon visiting a church (accessible from most towns). While some gamers may find this process an additional hoop to jump through, I found it quite refreshing; I enjoyed the fact that leveling became a less important -- or at least a less prevalent -- aspect of the gaming experience. Whether for good or for ill, Baten Kaitos is certainly not a run-of-the-mill RPG; it deservedly earns its points for originality.
The game is not particularly difficult, although several of its sidequests can be notably vexing. In addition, the randomness inherent in a card-based battle system can make any individual battle somewhat unpredictable. Nevertheless, character deaths are a rarity and party deaths are practically unknown. Once one gets the hang of the battle system, the game is relatively straightforward.
The time to complete Baten Kaitos depends largely on how many of the sidequests one chooses to complete. Because even run-of-the-mill battles can be relatively time consuming, a gamer is likely to spend at least 40 hours completing the game. With the addition of formal sidequests, that figure can double. A gamer who wants to obtain every card, discover every special combo, and observe what the passage of time does to all of his or her cards can expect to spend countless further hours. I tend to think life is too short for such endeavors, but your mileage may vary.
Despite its quirks -- or perhaps because of them -- Baten Kaitos emerges as a fresh and highly enjoyable RPG for the Gamecube. The game’s story could be better developed, and its card-based battle system will not appeal to everyone. Nevertheless, the game manages to tap into an essential aspect of what makes console RPGs fun. I would recommend it both for role-playing gamers who want a new experience and for gamers generally who want to remember what they enjoyed about the experiences of old.
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