Review by BWoodhouse
"Where are you going? Where have you been?"
Baten Kaitos Origins takes place two decades before the events of Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean. As such, it features a whole new cast of main characters. Sagi is the sympathetic orphan, striking out to support his adoptive family. Guillo is his lifelong companion, a mysterious puppet with two timbres of voice and gaudy fashion sense; it tromps around in high heals. Milliarde is an aristocrat who cannot bear to see the feeble punished, and in her estimation, Sagi and Guillo are weak indeed. Take any of these simple descriptions at face value and it only shows you haven't played the first Baten Kaitos, an RPG defined by twists and betrayals. In Origins, though, one particular question looms. Twenty years from now, where have these heroes gone?
Whatever their destination, the path covers familiar ground. Sagi and Guillo begin as new recruits into the Alfard Empire's Dark Service, a covert military organization that carries out dirty deeds. Their first mission: lead a team to assassinate their very own Emperor. It's definitely not a noble job, but it'll pay the bills at the orphanage Sagi calls home. (See, he's really a good guy!) Predictably, though, the plan goes horribly awry, and by the time Milly stumbles upon the pair, the party is buried in political intrigue. One faction wants to revolutionize the entire world, which consists of a series of floating continents, by mechanizing everything. They'll stamp out the rainbow of flowers that overrun Anuenue, burn down the thick forests of Sadal Suud, and evaporate the fluffy clouds that envelop Diadem. Sagi sides with those that would preserve these natural resources and the powers of the heart, a common magical force that manifests itself in delicate, ethereal wings that blossom from a person's back. (The villains would rip these out, too.) The heroes in the first Baten Kaitos title faced a very similar struggle.
But there are unfamiliar elements, too, because ruthless machination isn't civilization's only enemy. At regular intervals in the story, hideous monsters materialize. These gigantic ogres have horns on their heads and nasty tentacle-like whiskers, and they go completely berserk. Sagi and company, however, don't want to fight them. That's because each one triggers a painful episode for our protagonist, at which time the group is transported to what seems to be a different dimension. In this reality, Milly and Guillo are present (they're the exclusive members of the battle party), but they are invisible to the unfamiliar inhabitants. With Sagi, though, not only can everyone see him, they treat him like family. Plus, they call him by a different name. The people appear to be refugees fighting against a popular, powerful cult, but who exactly are they? It's like a new, separate game that begins without any point of reference. Each time the crew leaps here, another excruciatingly small piece of the puzzle is revealed; it's odd, disorienting and wholly intriguing.
The best part of Origins is how it weaves together not only these two disparate universes, but the major events of the first game as well. Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean introduced a few simple truths. Geldoblame, the power-hungry Emperor of Alfard, was scheming to resurrect and harness the evilest of all Gods, Malpercio. The opposition was Kalas, the immature hero, and his spirit guardian, a concrete role filled by the player. The guardian is hosted within the body of its partner, but we learned that close bond was not at all absolute. Origins pokes at these ideas. Almost immediately, it shows us Geldoblame as a young, dutiful government aide as well as a helpful ally and the name Malpercio isn't heard from his lips. Also, the player is once again cast as a spirit guardian, obviously for Sagi, and you have to suspect that relationship. Certainly, Origins can be enjoyed on its own; secrets and backstabbing always lurk over the horizon. It has some dreadful imagery, like the villain who happily stands atop a tidy pile of corpses, the bodies of his faithful followers. But starting out cold is not recommended, because so many of its most powerful shocks and grim revelations rely directly on prior knowledge.
While the plot thickens, though, the gameplay noticeably thins. The dungeons in the first game were never large, but they presented puzzles and mazes that were clever, both visually and mentally. My favorite was a series of room with a looking glass theme. In one area, the screen was fractured like an irregular security camera system. Your character would run away from you in one small frame, only to reappear coming straight towards you in another. A later chamber had a mirrored floor, and the goal was to guide the hero's reflection which was not attached to his feet to the exit on the other side. In Origins the areas are still compact, but the tasks are completely mundane. To crawl through a cave, Sagi pushes rocks. To navigate an exotic rain forest, Sagi collects items. To escape an antiseptic ship, Sagi flips switches.
It's a definite disappointment, but not as much as the stripped-down battle system. Only the most basic tools persist. The main characters fight with Magnus, cards that hold different attacks, armor, healing items, and status changers. Turns roll around based on a timer, and each one gives Sagi or his friends the chance to play a series of Magnus from their hand. Cards are immediately replaced from the randomized deck, but a separate clock provides only a few seconds for each discrete move, meaning you'll have to process new information quickly. In Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean, the fighting party was pulled from a pool of six available adventurers, each carrying their own specialized deck. Magnus were tagged with at least one Spirit Number, but eventually possessed up to four. Cards could be played in any order up to nine in a turn but additional damage bonuses were awarded for using the numbers in certain combinations or sequences. There were also penalties for dealing attacks with oppositional elemental properties, just an additional detail to muck up the quick decision making required. One final important aspect: characters could act when attacked, either to defend or to jettison useless Magnus in hopes of a better draw for the next offensive turn.
Origins just doesn't provide the same room to maneuver. The best aspect it carries over is the clock, keeping the pace hectic. However, Origins' three heroes share one deck, even though finishing attacks and equipment are limited to one qualified member. With the dissolution of defensive tactics, there are many empty offensive turns because a combatant basically has no cards to play. Magnus posses a single Spirit Number now, generally zero to six, but they can only be dispensed in ascending order. Damage bonuses are gone, as are penalties; elemental properties work on enemy weaknesses and provide graphical flair. Instead, the whole emphasis is on teamwork, and a move called a Relay Combo. One person will start off this combo by building up to a special attack, and the next two repeat the process in succession. The trick is that these special attacks draw from a limited gage, and the next character can only continue the relay by playing a specific type of card. These conditions appropriately limit the opportunities for this critical technique.
The problem with all these changes comes back to your influence and control. The longer Relay Combos blow through almost twenty-five cards. With only seven viewable in your hand at a time, the remaining two-thirds are bestowed based solely on the game's munificence. It will be plenty generous the manual even notes that it will sometimes pick the best card for the current sequence. Your management really comes down to deck assembly and discards. Enemies are merciless since you can pack as many healing and reviving Magnus as you want. You have to decide whether to use, save, or dump these items as they are dealt to your hand. But attacking is always the most fun, and it's often reduced to playing the next card off the deck.
It's frustrating at first. Because of you anemic Magnus and abilities, it's a struggle to survive, much less impress. Eventually, though, you adapt and grow. You get over it. I'm not sure that's true for all the standout moments in this game. Some twists you'll see coming being Baten Kaitos there's a lot of them but it's brilliant how they absorb and distort so many of the first game's core points. That's the big reason that Baten Kaitos Origins, shoveled out at the end of the GameCube's life-cycle, should not be overlooked and forgotten.
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 03/17/08
Game Release: Baten Kaitos Origins (US, 09/25/06)
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