Review by threetimes

"A great game which respects your intelligence and rewards your investment."

Having played and enjoyed the first Baten Kaitos game I was very much looking forward to this next installment and it does not disappoint. The game is currently only available in Japan and America, and was developed by tri-Crescendo and Monolith Soft, and published by Nintendo for the Gamecube.

The game takes place in the same world as the first, but some 20 years earlier. We get to meet some of the same characters, visit the same areas; and the battle system using magnus cards is similar. There is no doubt that experience of the first game will enrich your enjoyment of this one, although it is not necessary to have played it. But be warned. This is not a game that holds your your hand. You are plunged into the middle of the action and there is no explanation of how or why or even a tutorial. However the combat is intuitive as are the menus, and you find that you can function quite well. As the game progresses you begin to understand and appreciate the clever refinements of the combat and magnus card system. Of course there are detailed explanations in the manual, but to be honest, it was a relief just to get on with things, and not be told how to fight or talk to people or move around. You feel that the developers respect the intelligence of the player, and I, for one, am grateful for that.

The story seems fairly familiar at first. Sagi, a young Spiriter, is a member of an elite group who have a mission to destroy the emperor, a mission which goes wrong. But very quickly the game throws a surprise at you, and Sagi, and the player, are left confused about what is going on. This is highlighted by a dramatic cut scene which replays in Sagi's memory. Again, this is clever stuff. You really are not sure what is real and what is fantasy, since the whole world is fantastical and Sagi has wings ...oh another neat trick to aid the player. Sagi has luminous "wings of the heart", as they called, and so going up and down steps or cliffs is simple: he half jumps/flies. Following this event Sagi finds himself caught up in the political ambitions of two powerful leaders vying for supremacy after the death of the emperor. The story has a degree of sophistication: the candidates for the post have to be elected by the people and make election speeches to the crowd. One represents the force for change and the increasing use of mechanical technology, and the other is suspicious of this change and wishes to maintain the supremacy of the magnus and wings of the heart. There is also a significant part to the plot where Sagi has a completely different name and identity, and we discover that deeper and more malevolent forces are at play

Your allies are unusual. One is a Paramachina called Guillo, who is a friend of Sagi's and a talking mechanical puppet,. The other is a spirit which the player can name. This spirit is the avatar of the player and has to respond to questions and make decisions. Depending on your replies you can influence the course of the game and the cards that are drawn during battle. After some adventures a third ally, Milliarde (Milly), joins your team.

Everything about the world of the game is taken for granted. The lack of explanation is realistic, because it assumes that you are familiar with wings, and mechina, and magnus, because this is your world. There are no tedious explanations or tutorials, and yet it is not hard to understand what you should do, though quite why you are doing it is not so clear at first. There is a degree of freedom to go where you like, and you travel on a tagged path between locations and so once you have been somewhere it is easy to return. For example, initially the path lies through a desert, but if you want to retrace your steps you have the option of just moving your cursor on the over-world map from a to b. There is also a battle arena or Colosseum which is accessed fairly early on and you can do the usual thing of fighting for prizes.

Now for the meat of the Baten Kaitos universe. The key feature of both the Baten Kaitos games is the use of magnus cards for battle and quests. If the idea of a card based system is off - putting let me explain how this works. Sagi can draw the essence of an object and make it appear on a card. So for example, early in the game he can draw the essence of stale water from a barrel and seal it onto a blank magnus card. He can then use the card magnus for stale water to put out a fire. These blank cards are called quest magnus and are severely restricted in number. Quest magnus can be mixed together to create new magnus cards, and some magnus will change over time. Fruit or food will decay, ice will melt, fresh water will become stale. The battle magnus on the other hand are plentiful and unrestricted in number and are not subject to change, though they can be upgraded and improved using quest magnus. For example, a quest fire magnus can be used to improve the quality of a fire sword attack. Multiple cards of a particular attack or protection magnus are stored and sorted into battle decks. This means that you could have a deck that specialises in fire based attacks to deal with ice enemies, and another deck that is ice based. Only one deck can be in play at once, so before battle it is a good idea to select the appropriate deck. All information on every monster and enemy encountered is recorded for easy future reference so the task of selecting a deck is not difficult. This might sound complicated, but actually it is quite straightforward and fun to use.

One thing I love about the battle system is that you have to keep alert. The characters face their foes in what seems like a typical turn based battle system, and there is an active time bar, so you have to wait for the next character to attack whist being pummeled by your foes. However when you implement the attacks a sub-screen with cards in a line appears at the bottom of the screen and once you select an attack the next possible attack card glows and if you select it quickly enough you can build up a combo involving all three characters and mete out massive damage. Cards are used for normal attacks and elemental attacks, as well as healing, armour and status effects. At the end of every battle you are returned to full health. This is brilliant as it means you never have to worry about carrying healing items in an inventory, or having to remember to heal your characters before the next fight. Enemies appear on screen, so there is no loading for battles, and you have the option of avoiding fights if you want. However the fights are not always easy, and the battles can continue for a while until you work out the best strategy to use against enemies that can put you to sleep, stun you, or freeze you. Armour cards will help you protect yourself from elemental attacks and other cards can cure specific ailments, or resuscitate an incapacitated ally

The design of the game is superb, with a beautifully coloured and original world. Each town or city is unique and populated with a manageable amount of people all of whom you can talk to. What is especially nice is that the people are individuals with interesting things to say. It is clear that they are going about their own lives and that the world does not centre around your characters. You might be told, for instance, to get out of the way, or be attacked, or questioned, or simply act as a witness to an ongoing argument. Often a character will want something, and when this happens their desire for something is highlighted in your discussion and then automatically recorded in your quest log, for future reference. This is where the clever part comes in because you can chose to try to fulfill the requests by experimenting with finding and mixing magnus cards to produce something that they want. It can range from a gold bar to a pillow; something to restore a child's heart, or some special air. These quests are not all mandatory, so it is up to you if you want to do them or not. But of course they do yield some useful rewards. The system is both imaginative and fun to implement. If successful you are rewarded with cards that are of use in battles. You can also find extra cards throughout the game world, and buy them at the occasional shops.

The sounds and music in the game are excellent. They match the surroundings so well that sometimes it is just a joy to look and listen. Two of the three main characters voices are what you might expect: the typical 17 year old young man, and feisty girl. Guillo, on the other hand speaks in a voice that is a combination of male and female voices that sounds suitably strange yet familiar. Guillo is sarky and quick witted and he/she and the girl, Milly provide some comic moments with their acrimonious banter. All the voices are excellent including those of minor characters and most scenes are voiced except those with some of the townsfolk. The music is composed by Motoi Sakuraba and it is original and striking. Each town or dungeon area has its own specific music and some of it is strange and haunting and sometimes dissonant, in a way that echoes the events or locations.

Baten Kaitos Origins is truly an impressive and original game which will please all fans of the first game, and should make some new ones. Although the card based battle system came in for criticism when the first game was released it has not been rejected but rather improved, and this results in very entertaining and involving game play. My only complaint is that the lead character, Sagi, is rather dull compared with everyone else in the game, and the story, whilst interesting, lacks the emotional appeal of some other games. However, even his character has a nice angle in that his relationship with his mother is very well portrayed as one of genuine affection and respect. The game comes on two discs and there is a lot to do and enjoy. This is a game that amply rewards your investment of time and money. Buy it now.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 11/27/06

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