Jul 012015

Hi Sparky!

Baten Kaitos immediately restores the player’s agency, lost to Kalas, as you join Xelha. Without you, the story cannot continue. You find Xelha trapped in the Imperial Fortress with Meemai, and it is only through your intervention that she finds the strength to blow up the door of her cell (wait, what?) and escape.

This section of the game is structured oddly, as if the game itself has to recover from what just happened. We don’t get another real dungeon until the Imperial Fortress, and our protagonists have to spend a lot of time talking to each other to set everything straight. Given that a dead god is being resurrected, it’s about time that someone figure out which of the legends involving him are true, and which are not. Of course, this falls to us.

As instructed by Corellia and Ladekhan, we accompany Xelha to the four continents minus Sadal Suud, where our friends are trapped. They’ve been bound to weird Y-shaped crosses and are guarded by monsters, apparently so their power (which rivals that of Malpercio?!) can be fed by the respective continents. Each visit to the Cracks hearkens us back once again to each continent’s “theme”, matching it to a hero from our party.

Sure, Gibari, whatever you say.

Sure, Gibari, whatever you say.

It’s a weird segment, but important later. Melodia’s plan seems to backfire, we escape, and we’re now carting around the energies of four continents with us. Cool!

Our next stop is Wazn, where Xelha finally gets some plot love. Not merely the pendant-wielding damsel in love with the hero, Xelha is queen of the ice lands, witch of once-great power. Her high status still requires that we trudge through a tedious mountain of snow and winds that never go our direction to get to her homeland, but that’s a small price to pay for the beauties that are Cursa and Kaffaljidhma.

I love Wazn, because the designers obviously wanted the player to be in awe of its beauty just as the characters are. They set up the reveal very nicely, by covering it with blowing snow and wind, allowing Xelha to clear the way and reveal a pristine, sparkling ice castle covered in ornate detail. There isn’t a room in Kaffaljidhma or Cursa that isn’t completely stunning.

Ooooh, pretty. But cold.

Ooooh, pretty. But cold.

Modern graphics in games have come a long way into the realms of realism, but I’m thinking of what you said in Mira. Not only do games rarely portray absurd environments anymore, but there are few really beautiful, fantastical ones. Kaffaljidhama was designed with such exquisite detail and care, like a painting, or a set for a ballet. It really is too bad we’ve largely resorted to accurately rendering brown ground, green trees, white snow.

For all its beauty, Wazn’s events have the distinct odor of filler. You run up and down the stairs of the castle a few dozen times on various fetch quests, and Xelha must obtain the only item that can save Kalas through a battle that should be epic, but really takes about two minutes and relies entirely on random chance.

Though Xelha’s backstory is thoroughly explained in Wazn, her persistent love of Kalas is not. In fact, the entire party is under his spell! It’s thoroughly bizarre how they want to rescue him, when the betrayal was set up so deliberately and chosen so completely by Kalas. Yes, he’s probably mind controlled by Malpercio or Melodia now. But…didn’t he choose that in the first place?

Yet rescuing Kalas is top priority for everyone. No one even directly mentions destroying Malpercio. For all his horrible attitude and nastiness and desire to see the world burn for his own wings, Kalas managed to make five of the most stupidly loyal friends manageable, one of whom is madly in love with him in spite of never having an intimate moment with him.

The other major highlight in Wazn is the emphasis on the trifecta of land, ocean, and sky. We have the Earth Sphere and the Ocean Mirror, setting us up for the third item we’ll encounter next week. Xelha is told it will soon be time to “release the ocean”, revealing the witches to be the people of the ocean. The islanders represent the sky, obviously, and we’ve heard hints of the Children of the Earth. These hints are offered again during the climactic scene at the end of the Imperial Fortress, as a part of Xelha’s prayer for redemption. More than ever, we sense that how things are now is not how things were, that humanity was the cause of this disunity, but it will not remain. To spite Malpercio’s reign of destruction, a kind of redemption may be at hand.

We return to the continents with full intent of taking on the Imperial Fortress, saving Kalas, and ending the battle. In the Lava Caves, everything lined up nicely to deceive us into believing it was the final battle. Here, there’s another mild attempt at endboss fakery that falls slightly flatter the second time. The Imperial Fortress is the longest dungeon we’ve conquered so far: full of elevator puzzles, soldiers using the toilet, and Malpercio’s demon army. That, the epic music, and the double battle at the end almost make it a plausible finale.

First we take out a mutated Fadroh wielding a highly inappropriate beam out of an eye on his… let’s just say the monster design just keeps getting weirder. Next, we fight Kalas in a truly difficult match-up to save him from himself. Then comes a long, tense scene in which everything goes to pieces.

Melodia reveals that our return has been part of her plan all along and harnesses the energy of the five party members, coupled with the power of each continent, to birth Malpercio into this world. Xelha attempts to use the Ocean Mirror to break the mind control on Kalas, which mostly works, though his body still must obey her. When every bit of defiance the party has left in them is exhausted, Kalas breaks the spell. The darkness of Malpercio has obviously shown him more than he ever wanted to see. Knowing now the cost of his betrayal, Kalas rips out his new wing and returns to his broken body, but fully in control of it. The will of a mortal thwarts the power of a god, and Kalas is redeemed and “grounded” in a way that mirrors the ultimate redemption of the world.


But Kalas is exhausted and hurt. This time, Mizuti steps in, heralding the next segment of the game. She uses her strange powers as one of the Children of the Earth to make Malpercio gush green goo and force Melodia and the god into retreat. After a timely rescue and a more detailed recap of Kalas’s past, the party regroups in Mintaka, and Kalas is welcomed back into the fold.

Kalas’s return does make me wonder if Xelha knew the entire time that he would betray them, but also that he was ultimately good. We’re never told what her nightmare in Wazn was, yet it was enough for her to set off on her journey. Early in the game, she always looks at Kalas rather slyly when asking him to travel with her awhile longer, and there are several moments between the two that almost turn into serious conversations, but don’t, as though Xelha wants to say something she can’t. This could be attributed to awkward romance, but I’m not so sure. There’s something about the way she tries to speak to him in Balancoire, reprimands him in Azha, and finally her call to “Wait!” right before Kalas’s big reveal that hints at her knowing more than she lets on. If that’s true, her persistent faith in (and stupid crush on) Kalas makes sense too. If she knew his darkness so well, she should also know his light.

What do you think? Does Xelha know more than she seems to, or is she just bonkers over Kalas? Do you think the second “ending” effectively fakes the player out? And, most importantly: are you ready for Mask City next week?

Hi Rebekah,

Xelha’s rescue missions and the return to face Kalas are a crucial part of Baten Kaitos, and they’re also a part where it doesn’t quite accomplish what it sets out to do. In the aftermath of the shocker in the Lava Caves, the game starts undermining almost everything you were led to believe about its characters and world. It also tries to move the emotional focus. The twist that happens in the Lava Caves is largely an attack on you, the player, and all it requires for impact is for you to care about yourself. In this segment the game needs you to care about the characters.

That’s a problem because the game is also very busy in this part teaching you that you don’t really know anything about these characters. You didn’t know anything about Kalas, and you know even less about the other members of the party, especially Xelha. Her escape from the Imperial prison is an incomprehensible series of events. She suddenly gains the strength to blow open her cell, which is a surprise, but the real shocker is finding a hole blown in the wall of the fortress and three bizarre-looking women and a dragon waiting to rescue her. Baten Kaitos doesn’t explain this for a while. Instead we find ourselves almost immediately back in Anuenue tasked with picking up our remaining friends.

I actually like the mildly tedious process of hopping into the dimensional cracks and taking down the element-themed enemies, and not just because it gives me a great opportunity to farm snapshots in the Lava Caves. For one thing, Baten Kaitos is gentle about it: only two of the cracks are hidden in dungeons. Also, this quick tour of locations previously visited helps build up the conceit that this time, we really are headed for the final confrontation, if not in the Imperial Fortress, then immediately afterwards. By the time we finish this segment, we’ll have revisited almost every continent, and seen the empire of Alfard toppled. The desperation and hopelessness of the NPCs in Mintaka is a well-done contrast to their preceding haughtiness. By the time we get to that point, we’ll have also gone to Wazn, apparently leaving only Cor Hydrae on the map. That seems to set up the endgame nicely!

This fakeout is, as you point out, kind of a hard sell. Baten Kaitos has faked us out once already, and as a powerful man once said: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice… foolmah… won’t be fooled again.” We know enough to be wary of the game’s tricks. Still, the game structures this very much like an endgame, with a preliminary boss in the form of Fadroh. It’s unfortunate that this fight provides most of his characterization, because the obvious sexual references of the boss design seem like they could play off the “pretty-boy general” trope in an interesting way.

I know what you're wondering, and the answer is yes, he does fire a laser out of that eye in his crotch.

I know what you’re wondering, and the answer is: yes, he does fire a laser out of that eye in his crotch.

Baten Kaitos completes the design illusion by giving us a forgiving savepoint right before the seemingly crucial encounter. Then it throws another curveball. All this work we’ve been doing has actually helped Melodia!

Once again, though, it’s something you totally see coming in retrospect. Corellia says a couple of times that the true power of the End Magnus could only be unlocked by a power of almost equal magnitude. And what does leveling up in an RPG mean besides acquiring power? All those visits to that church, where we prayed to achieve higher and higher classes and levels, gaining power comparable to that of a god… And after all, didn’t we take down several guardians? Didn’t we wipe the floor with Giacomo, Ayme, and Folon, a trio firmly established as the world’s baddest dudes? Didn’t we topple Geldoblame after he absorbed the power of Malpercio? We’ve been getting stronger all along, and Baten Kaitos cleverly cracks the fourth wall to acknowledge this and make it part of Melodia’s plan.

The other would-be surprise here is that the Ocean Mirror can’t save Kalas; it can only straight-up kill him. Unfortunately the impact of this moment is blunted by inartful staging—Barnette spilled the beans a while earlier. Despite the fact that it should be fresh in our memory we get to see that monologue replayed for us in an encounter already gummed up by flashbacks. We could have done with just one viewing of this scene, and better-chosen flashbacks here generally (we seriously have to see Xelha ask Kalas if he’s from Mira, at this moment?).

There’s some good stuff going on here, too. Kalas ripping his new wing off is a powerful moment, where he abandons an ideal body in favor of a better heart. Xelha’s pain and confusion at the prospect of killing him is compelling. All of this, however, is dramatically undercut by the voiceover, which is kind of a disaster throughout this scene. Probably a lot of this is due to bad voice direction and audio mixing, but it certainly doesn’t help that some of the dialogue is a much better fit for a storyboard than an actual living moment. The writing (or the translation) has to take a lot of the blame here, because we emerge from this battle without really understanding why Kalas changed his mind.

We end up asking this question a LOT during this part of the game.

We end up asking this question a LOT during this part of the game.

Of course, the rest of the party doesn’t understand it either and it doesn’t seem to bother them all that much. It is kind of remarkable that everyone accepts Kalas back into the fold more-or-less immediately, considering what a dick he was for the whole preceding adventure. I don’t find that unbelievable, though, so much as an indication that almost everyone in the party has been keeping an important secret from everybody else. In this small segment of the game alone we find out that both Xelha and Mizuti belong to legendary magical societies. Xelha in particular keeps her secret an absurdly long time under the circumstances.

We also see that even though Kalas apparently doesn’t remember it, Savyna was present the night Georg’s home was attacked (and didn’t lift a finger to save him and his brother). Now there’s a rough flashback… I had forgotten that it shows an adorable little boy covered in blood. Hard as it is to watch, this sequence does a lot to get Kalas back into the player’s good graces. Kalas’ positive interactions with Fee and Georg show us his good side, and Fee’s end reveals the moment that drove Kalas over the edge.

Kalas really does care about someone, at least.

Kalas really does care about someone, at least.

The other character whose motivations get pretty well explained here is Xelha. I agree that Cursa and Kaffaljidhma (gesundheit!) are uniquely beautiful locales, but also that Wazn is dullsville from a gameplay perspective. Narratively, though, it explains a great deal about Xelha’s actions and demonstrates that even more of the game’s events have been orchestrated by powers outside the party than even Kalas’ betrayal would indicate.

It’s amazing how much changes in our perception of the world and the party during this comparatively short segment of the game. Wazn, a rumor up until now, proves to be not only real, but a major player in the world, having created Anuenue’s shield and manipulated Savyna into joining the party. Xelha turns out to be an immensely powerful magical queen, not just some innocent caught up in a plot too big for her. Most importantly, in the short term, we learn that the Taintclouds cover not a dead world, but one where the Children of the Earth still live. And Mizuti is one of them.

Also, we ditched the slugboat and we’re riding on a rad dragon. Now that we’re riding the ultimate way to fly, it’s finally time to visit the actual ground. Onward to Earth!

Jun 252015

Hi Rebekah,

Mira is weird.

The strangeness begins on the way there. As our slugboat travels down the rainbow road to Mira, it gets shot down by the Goldoba and crash-lands in an alternate dimension where Baten Kaitos is a shmup. Who should appear to lead us out of this strange predicament but the weirdest member of the party, Mizuti, who shows up in a skull-decorated boat, singing a perhaps unintentionally creepy song.

After we shmup our way out of trouble, we come to my favorite continent. I love Mira, all the more because it seems like the kind of place videogames can’t bring themselves to portray anymore.

I’m also currently playing the latest Witcher game, and while its graphics are certainly accomplished, they seem to have been bent solely to the purpose of recreating a specific misremembrance of medieval Europe. This is sort of endemic to games in the HD era and Western games specifically. As the ability of computers to render virtual worlds realistically has increased, the magic seems to have drained out of those worlds. Instead of fantastic landscapes, we keep getting settings that are drearily plausible.

That certainly doesn’t describe Mira, a continent that, even in the generally bonkers setting of Baten Kaitos, stands out for its sheer absurdity. Whoever came up with these locations didn’t really care if they made sense or could exist in any plausible reality. The village of Parnasse, made of pastry, would quickly come to have the world’s worst mold problem, never mind the structural issues that would arise over time as hungry children and/or Gibari consumed the walls. What the hell is even going on in Reverence with its papercraft landscape and angry bubble people I couldn’t possibly say.

oh shit its a town made out of candy

Seriously though, what the hell is going on here.

But that doesn’t matter! It doesn’t have to make sense; it just has to be engaging.

Mira also stands as a strong argument for the fixed-landscape POV in games. Reverence would probably be unworkable with the over-the-shoulder camera that has become the default, and the great dungeons here would be impossible. The Tower of Druaga riff in the Mystical Garden of Detourne would be hard to pull off as smoothly. Coccolith, my favorite dungeon in the game, couldn’t execute it’s fractured-mirrors approach without having an external and distant point of view to work with. But these are interesting and inventive dungeons I always love to revisit, even if Coccolith gives me a headache.

Oh lord.

Oh lord.

Isn’t it odd, though, that Duke Calbren, ruler of the strangest continent in a world full of flamboyantly dressed leaders, is just some guy in a suit? Events make an ally of him and his granddaughter Melodia, whose voice may be just a little familiar.

Melodia volunteers to sneak the party into Alfard, the Imperial continent. It’s no competitor to Mira, of course, but the golden steampunk city of Mintaka and the twisted pillars of Azha each have their own unique grandeur, supported by Sakuraba’s wonderful score.

Alfard is where we get to see one of the best-executed twists in videogames. What defines a great twist for me is that you don’t see it coming, but once it comes, you realize you always saw it coming.

Baten Kaitos stages the twist really well, too. The moment comes after the disc swap, so it seems plausible that you’re reaching the end of an unusually short JRPG. It first does away with a major plot point and secondary antagonist, as Kalas and company infiltrate the Goldoba and defeat Giacomo, Ayme, and Folon in combat in one of the game’s hardest boss battles. Giacomo’s apparent death and the destruction of the Goldoba bring us full circle to the events of the first continent. They also seem like the culmination of our protagonist’s personal arc, getting that out of the way just in time for us to end Geldoblame’s plans once and for all.

That confrontation is staged like a finale. Geldoblame absorbs the power of the End Magnus, transforms into the biggest, creepiest boss yet, and then gives a stiff challenge in battle thanks to his instant-death power. Then at the end, Melodia saves the day by bringing the army to destroy the monstrous Geldoblame…

I take it back; the makeup looked great! Please put it back on now.

I take it back; the makeup looked great! Please put it back on now.

Only Melodia has been the mastermind all along and Kalas betrays everyone. In a fourth-wall cracking speech he declares that the game is over and kicks you out of the world. The scene even ends with the sound of a CRT powering down, as if the game has just turned off your TV.

It’s a shocking scene, and because of the expert staging, the first time I hit this moment, I almost believed that really was it. For a moment I thought that I’d screwed up a choice somewhere along the way, the game was over, and I’d have to retrace my steps to find the spot where I’d gone wrong.

As shocking as it is, though, the moment makes sense immediately. Kalas has always seemed a little off, like he didn’t belong in his role. As I’ve mentioned, pretty much everyone in the party has a JRPG ready backstory. Even Mizuti, odd as she is, set out from her obscure village on a heroic journey to save the world. As you’ve said, it’s never really made clear why he sticks with the group or why they want him to. Kalas, with his bad attitude and personal mission to wreak bloody vengeance on the people who killed the mad scientist that raised him, doesn’t seem like he belongs in an RPG.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I’ve seen that backstory many times, but it usually belongs to a villain.

And Baten Kaitos comes back around to exploring Kalas disability–or perhaps more importantly his disfigurement–in these continents. His black wing is mentioned almost immediately on arriving in Mira. Although he had friends there, several residents of Balancoire clearly believe his single black wing represents a moral defect as well as a physical one. Even in Azha, his winglet is a mark of shame, tying him to the hated Imperials. Little as I like seeing a disabled person made a villain, Baten Kaitos at least tries to portray this as a reaction against the cruelty of a world that sees a deformity and not a person. Hence, his desire for angelic white wings, even if they can only be bought at the price of his soul.

You don't think the price was a little high?

You don’t think the price was a little high?

Of course, shortly afterwards, you connect with Xelha and the story continues, as she resolves to save her friends… including Kalas. Girl, he is not good enough for you.

So what do you think of Mira? Are you as creeped out by the horrible hand-spider-things as I am? Were you able to keep a straight face during the OTT melodrama of Lyude’s homecoming? Does this game’s big twist impress you as much as it does me?

Hi Sparky!

Ah, yes, Mira. I’m glad I’m not the only one who delighted in its strangeness. You covered its eccentricities pretty well: the unique dungeons, the impossible towns…all somehow made more glorious by the style and limitations of the GameCube. Well said.

To tell the truth, I wish we spent more time here. For being the oddest and most interesting of the eight main areas, it doesn’t get much screen time. Though I’ve had quite enough of Detourne (the Hero’s green outfit blended in with the foliage and it took me an hour to remember he was there), our visits to Parnasse, Reverence, and Coccolith are cut painfully short. Heck, Reverence hardly serves a purpose at all. Walk in, meet Witch Two, walk out. Which is sad, as I’m sure you and I could go on all day about how eye-bleedingly bizarre it is. The completely useless disco room is my favorite.


What is even going on here.

Well. This certainly is something.

Another great feature of Baten Kaitos that is especially evident in Mira is the wide variety of gameplay styles represented. At core, Baten Kaitos is a typical RPG, at least as far as structure goes. It has towns, combat, dungeons, puzzles. And yet, we’ve already played a tactical strategy game with the troops in Diadem, we have to play a space shooter game to get to Mira, and Detourne offers a weird arcade-style maze. There’s more in our future, too. I’m not looking forward to Zosma Tower.

As I journeyed through Mira, I honestly couldn’t get over how utterly obvious it is that Kalas is the issue in this party. You put it perfectly: you don’t see it coming, but once it comes, you realize you always saw it coming. Contrary to Diadem and Anuenue, where the “hero” was awkwardly silent in most of our encounters, on Mira it’s a Kalas-fest. This isn’t a surprise, as it’s his home country and I’d expect him to chat up the locals. What is more surprising is that none of the rest of your party seems to care. After all the fuss about Lyude’s backstory, Gibari’s village, Savyna’s mystery, and Xelha’s quest, no one in the party really bothers to learn anything about Kalas.

You spoke about how his physical disability resulted in unjustly poor relationships with some people. Your party doesn’t seem to care how many wings Kalas has; Mizuti and Lyude have zero. In this group, Kalas’s personality is his defect. He has been cold, selfish, and frustratingly indifferent to the plights of others since he first met Xelha. So when the time comes to visit his story, your party members don’t step out to comfort him in his sadness or share in his friendships as they did (and will do, in Lyude’s case) with the others. Even Xelha, in what should be an intimate scene by the river in Balancoire, doesn’t know what to say to him.

With their indifference, it’s no surprise that Kalas is able to fool the rest of the party. By contrast, it’s not surprising he fools us, either. In his hometown, we see that he has friends, people who enjoyed his company. Old and young. Talk to everyone—the only people who don’t greet Kalas warmly are the young men in the cutscene. And with the rest of the party taking a backseat to these encounters, we’re the only ones who see them.

So what’s the difference between how he treats his old friends and his new ones? That’s fleshed out in Mira, too: a fire, a disaster, and a tragic loss that some people, perhaps even Kalas included, blame on him. Yeah… I’d probably turn into a bit of a jerk too. Mira offers the player something he or she desperately needs in order for the betrayal to hit the hardest. For the first time in the game, I have real sympathy for Kalas.

Does Kalas feel this way too?

Does Kalas feel this way too?

But enough about Mira. I want to talk about Alfard. In contrast to Mira, for which all the designers were probably tripping, Alfard is staunchly…normal. Heck, it falls on the Grand List of RPG Cliches. It’s the pure-evil empire with all the technology and rich, oppressive citizens who built their kingdom on the backs of the poor. I can name at least a dozen games that use this trope.

In fact, Alfard is painfully overdone. Everything from the sickeningly bright gold hues, to the elitist kid that runs into Gibari, to the staged speech by a Geldoblame hologram, just screams “We’re the bad guys!” Normally I’d cringe at such heavy-handedness. But in relation to the Big Twist, setting Alfard up this way is perfect. Because, of course, Geldoblame isn’t the real villain at all.

All the finger-pointing toward Alfard’s TOTAL EVIL nature does have a plot victim, unfortunately, and that’s Lyude. I could probably buy the drama of his homecoming if he and Almarde weren’t literally the only decent human beings in the city. How neither of them were killed in all the years they lived there is a mystery to me. Sadly though, what should be a well-written and rather tragic plot suffers for implausibility and bad voice acting. Lyude and Almarde are too good; Skeed and Vallye are too bad; Almarde’s death too sudden, before the audience can bother to care about her. Cue sad pretty-boy wracked with guilt for the rest of the game.

Mad Wolf Unit? That sounds bad.

Mad Wolf Unit? That sounds bad.

Marginally more interesting are the hints we start to pick up about Savyna’s past—Lady Death? We all knew it had to be something sinister.

All told, while the game’s major plot points seem to lead you to think that this is a short RPG, even on my first playthrough I knew there were too many loose ends. Not only are there plenty of unanswered questions revolving around Lyude, Gibari, and Savyna, but Mizuti just popped in and stole the show. I don’t want to be done with the game. I want to know what’s up with Skull Kid over here.

But in the moment, the climax in the Lava Caves does feel like the end, in every way. The feeling of utter betrayal and guilt is something I had never experienced before during my first playthrough. Since Baten Kaitos, other games have dealt with player agency and the fourth wall in a similar way—Contact and Bravely Default come to mind. Baten Kaitos: Origins attempts to mirror it with an affirmation rather than a destruction.

That is HARSH, dude.

That is HARSH, dude.

Even now though, I think this moment is the best. You end the first half of the game not only emotionally affected by actions a character did to you, but are highly cognizant of the fact that you aren’t in control. The story, the characters, the world, are all behind your screen. You are a spectator; a tiny voice that can shout advice and shift cards… but ultimately, you can’t force the characters to listen. And yet, you’re a part of it, too. The characters address you, include you in their plans… and betray you.

Thus painfully aware of both our agency and our lack thereof, we join Xelha to pick up the remaining pieces.

Jun 172015

Hi Sparky!

This week’s adventures take us to Diadem and Anuenue in search of two of the End Magnus. These areas are largely set-up: we acquire three more party members and solidify the main conflict here, while the major systems in the game start to flesh themselves out as Magnus become more available. We start in Diadem, land of the clouds:

Kalas and Xelha land in the quiet fishing village of Nashira, and are introduced almost immediately to Gibari. The fisherman Gibari sets himself apart immediately from the remainder of Nashira with his realism and willingness to help strangers. It’s clear from the dialogue that he has a history with Reblys, the village leader; King Ladekhan, and literally everyone in Sheliak, but for some reason no one comments on this.

Nashira is also home to the first of three Macbethian witches we’ll encounter. Witch One regales us with a bit of mythology: the world of Baten Kaitos apparently used to be like ours—on solid ground, with a huge ocean, and the people didn’t used to have wings.

It’s interesting to think of Wings of the Heart from an evolutionary standpoint, as having both a practical purpose in allowing people living aloft to fly, but also as a manifestation of a person’s inner self. From your last letter, we know that Wings of the Heart don’t serve a practical purpose. People still fly from island to island on derpy deer-creatures, and the islands themselves are navigable without them. Perhaps in a world already riddled with magic, wings were the natural response of people’s hearts to living in the sky? But that’s speculation.

Yep, this slug thing pulling a shell is our boat for now.

Yep, this slug thing pulling a shell is our boat for now.

Anyway, Gibari joins you with his fish wings for some rather unremarkable (if pretty) dungeons as you solve the flooding problem of the Celestial River and eventually reach Sheliak, where the castle is under siege by the Empire. There’s some weird, but intriguing gameplay going on in the castle involving selecting and commanding groups of soldiers into battle, but it’s fairly short-lived and way too easy.

I said last letter that Diadem was one of my favorite continents, but after replaying it, it’s occurred to me how tedious it is. This is likely due to the battles. By the end of Diadem, you’re up to four cards per turn and have a time limit ticking down, but everything still feels painfully slow. Enemies are harder to kill, and mobs of three are common. And even with a wider selection of cards and careful deck-balancing, I was still stuck passing turn after turn because I had no attack cards, or all rotten fruits. Blah.

In spite of this, I found myself delighted by the silly flavor text on the Magnus. I’m not using a guide, but a careful reading of each card often reveals what other Magnus with which that card can be combined. So, experimentation! Do I use the cucumbers first, or the honey? How many Aqua Bursts does it take to revive the dead flower? It’s fun, and often results in better surprises at the ends of battles than mere Chump Change. It’s such a vague system, but for those willing to dig in a bit and explore, combining Magnus in combat is a blast. And with that in mind, the slowness of battles isn’t quite so bad. You need the extra time to set up the cards you need.

But back to the story. Diadem’s adventures conclude with the defection of Lyude to your party. Lyude is an Imperial—by title, the Ambassador to Diadem, but his position is really one of exile. See, Lyude is a kind-hearted, compassionate soul who loves the simple things in life. The Empire, being the Big Bad Evil Technology Country, obviously has no room in it for someone with a heart. So they shipped him and his trumpets out to Nashira to get him out of the way.

Once Lyude realizes you’re on the side of justice and good, he joins your group with a deck full of heavy-handed symbolism: all his Magnus are dark and light based. Normally I’d find that really annoying, but you can’t get mad at a guy wielding a tuba gun. You take him with you aboard your fluffy boat, and set sail for Anuenue.

At least when you get to Anuenue there's a party

At least when you get to Anuenue there’s a party

Anuenue, like Diadem, sports a charismatic leader, pretty dungeons, a gorgeous capital, and a new party member with some crazy wings. We get our first glimpse of Geldoblame, and welcome Savyna to the team for another dungeon culminating in an End Magnus that we actually get to keep this time. Nice.

This game really sets you up to fall hard, doesn’t it? You’re told repeatedly there’s a traitor in your midst, and then immediately proved wrong. Lyude tosses the End Magnus to Folon…but he was under weird mind-control. Some hasty action on Kalas’s part (that jerk never listens to me) results in a confrontation with Savyna at the top of the Celestial Tree, but she reassures you she’s on your side…and you believe her. That leaves Gibari, who’s too boring to be a traitor; Xelha, the quintessential goody good girl; and Kalas, who’s the “hero” and thus totally unsuspicious.

What surprised me most about Kalas during the Diadem and Anuenue sections was what a bystander he is to the story thus far. He may be the “party leader” by default, but he exhibits little to no agency in group decisions. And he’s so fickle! During times of danger, such as the attack on the Mindeer, he shows obvious concern for his party members, particularly Xelha. But when asked his opinion or given an opportunity to speak up on the nature of his mission, he retorts like a child being dragged on “errands” with his parents.

Kalas does not care if your country burns down, Gibari

Kalas does not care if your country burns down, Gibari

Even more bizarre is that in spite of all this, everyone else insists that Kalas stick around. At five party members, everyone can obviously get on fine without him. He contributes nothing unique to the group. But Gibari in particular strong-arms him into staying. Why? We know why Kalas stays—he has ulterior motives. But it seems utterly beyond logic for the others to keep him around (and let him carry the super powerful world-ending item) when he’s such a selfish jerk.

With three End Magnus down, we ship off to Mira. Before we see land, the Goldoba swoops in to thwart our plans, but also to drop hints that we’re about to find out more about our main character. It’s already pretty apparent that every single party member has some interesting secrets, but with Giacomo’s mention of the “Divine Child” and Kalas’s intriguing family history dropped during a conversation with Xelha, it’s clear that our main character might start showing himself as a hero very soon. Maybe.

Most of the meat of Diadem and Anunue is at the end of each continent. What are your thoughts on Gibari, Savyna, and Lyude? Have you found any interesting Magnus combinations I should try out? Does Kalas hate you yet?

Hi Rebekah,

I like this segment of the game a lot, to some extent despite its best efforts, because Diadem and Anuenue are where the world of Baten Kaitos and the party that will explore it begin to take shape. That starts in Nashira, where we get the first version of the myth of Malpercio, a story that appears in many different forms throughout this game and proves to be even more different in the prequel Origins. This time, he’s an ancient god of evil who drank up the ocean and choked on it, poisoning the world and forcing everyone to take off into the sky.

That makes Baten Kaitos a post-apocalyptic story, even though our party members have spent their time so far in relatively pleasant places high above the ruined world. This becomes even more overt as we proceed through these chapters, as our team traverses the poisonous and unfortunately-named “taintclouds” that cover the remains of the earth. The shifting story of Malpercio contributes to the sense that there was an ancient event so cataclysmic few people were left alive to record or even remember it.

With E3 going on and news of Fallout 4 in the air, it may seem a little odd to say Baten Kaitos is post-apocalyptic, but this so common in RPG settings, of both the science fiction and fantasy varieties, as to go almost unnoticed unless marketing is making a special point about it. In Western works this is a historical feature, as RPGs tend to be set in or overtly reference the medieval era, which followed the apocalyptic collapse of the Western Roman Empire. This influence surfaces repeatedly in the invented mythology of Tolkien (i.e. the destruction of Beleriand, the fall of Numenor, and the deaths of various human and dwarven civilizations), from which much of Western fantasy descends. In Japanese RPGs this setting takes on more varied forms but is nonetheless extremely common, perhaps because we dropped an apocalypse on them.

Nashira is also where we join up with Gibari, a hero in the “noble idiot” mold. If he were a teenager, Gibari would, once again, be a more typical JRPG protagonist than the one we got. His strong sense of ethics and complete straightforwardness are a notable contrast to Kalas and Xelha. We’ve discussed Kalas’ personal shortcomings, but it becomes clear during this part of the game that Xelha is holding back some important information too. Gibari has no time for any of that. He’s just going to figure out what the problem is and hit it with an oar until it goes away.

This is actually unusually subtle problem-solving from Gibari.

An unusually subtle bit of problem-solving from Gibari.

Adding Gibari to the party is also the tipping point for something you referenced: the game’s lack of an effective discard feature. With one or two characters in the party it’s almost guaranteed that everyone will get attacked regularly, giving plenty of opportunities to banish junk from the character’s hand. With three in a fight, it’s not unusual for characters to go several turns without taking a punch, thus having to sit idly and throw away an armor every round in hopes of getting the cards cycling. This is a special problem against singular bosses (like the various Iron Beetles) that attack once (or less!) per round. It’s almost a relief to face the Guardian of the Celestial Tree since its two tentacles are at least good for soaking up defense cards and unnecessary utility items.

This is something that the game is just stuck with and it never goes away, although as the hands increase in size it becomes rarer to really get trapped. The game’s demand for constant deck management also grows here. As you noted, just wandering around without paying attention will get you a deck full of blackened bananas and rotten food. Paying careful attention to the text, on the other hand, will have you rolling in high-quality healing items in no time. The card details are can’t-miss stuff in this game, especially for healing and utility items. The text for weapons is less critical, but weapons are among my favorites, especially Lyude’s, which are written like a Jane’s manual from a world where all the shock troops wield trumpets.

Something else you can’t miss but may want to are the animations. You mentioned Xelha’s absurd penguin-run, but Diadem and Anuenue show off some especially janky stuff. The weird, disconnected, slow-mo “fighting” that goes down in the palace turns the leadership mini-game into a kind of comedy. The dancing in Komo Mai is equally screwy. I don’t hate it — actually I think it’s part of the game’s charm — but it definitely screams of work by the JV team.

What’s odd is that the battle animations look fine. Everyone looks loose and ready, the wings move beautifully, and the special attacks come off well enough that they can provide some narrative insight. Xelha’s early specials, for instance, heavily use Meemai, and “powerful magical weapon” is not exactly the role you expect a squidgy whale creature to fill.

Gibari also gains some character from combat, particularly in that sumo stomp he does before his special moves. The style of his wings is reminiscent of fish, yes, but the way the membranes hang off his upper wings also evokes the look of nobori for me. Maybe oars aren’t choice weapons for samurai, but they’re not unheard of for a warrior: Musashi famously used one in a duel.

Then there’s Lyude. He’s higher on the traditional JRPG protagonist scale than Kalas, too, what with his strong sense of right and wrong, pretty-boy looks, and angst. His deck is kind of a mess, as his early elemental weapons are mostly dark-based and his specials use light. Those specials help him seem sort of calm, bloodless, and tactically-oriented, fighting from a distance and taking his enemies down with a light show. Then you get his dark-element special, Sforzando, a special attack where he leaps forward and beats enemies to death with his gun. I’m not sure if Baten Kaitos makes his dark side evident anywhere else, but the up-close physical brutality of Lyude’s dark specials is certainly striking.

As for the Empire Lyude abandons, its presence in the game constantly grows through these chapters. On Sadal Suud the antagonist was really just Giacomo. In Diadem, the full force of the Imperial army shows up, first to take over the fishing village and then to attack the palace and King Ladekhan. It’s not clear why the Empire is so insistent on trying to off the King, since their real interest on Diadem is the End Magnus–once Lyude gives it up to Ayme they book it out of there.

Maybe Geldoblame wants one less competitor for the title of “Most Absurdly Dressed Ruler”. He shows up personally on Anuenue, wearing way too much makeup, an incomprehensible hat, and… wings? I kind of dig the lipstick, makes a strong statement, but those white patches around the eyes have got to go. Here we also get to meet the final member of the chaotic trio, Folon. He reveals that Geldoblame wants to harness the power of Malpercio as a weapon, which is an almost conspicuously boring motivation. But there’s something else going on, because somehow Geldoblame knows Kalas by name and regards him as a serious threat, which is yet another item for the Kalas mystery box.

This situation calls for a Gita Jackson intervention.

This situation calls for a Gita Jackson intervention.

Savyna, of course, also seems to have some past connection to the Empire. At this juncture in the game we still know too little about her to say much, except that she has the most awesome “wings” of anyone: she’s like a peacock that will punch you to death. Even given the limited things we know about her background, however, we can state definitively that Savyna is, like everyone else in the party, a better fit as a JRPG protagonist than Kalas. I say this not only because her cool warrior personality reminds me of Lightning, but also because her “elite soldier who turned against the Empire” backstory is basically reused for the protagonist of Baten Kaitos Origins.

It’s a good thing that the overarching plot heats up so nicely, because the dungeons here are kind of a bore. Again we’re making silly hops all over the place in Diadem, although the Cloud Passage at least looks kind of cool. The mirrored structure of the Palace is no great shakes either. I like the Ancient Library on Anuenue, especially the optional spellbook enemies that you find by trying to get educated. The Celestial Tree is disappointingly small and again is a place that forgets the characters have wings (people who can fly, climbing a tree!). The less said about the Holoholo Jungle, the better.

Seriously, though, navigating in this dungeon sucks.

Seriously, though, navigating this dungeon sucks.

Of course, the parts we’ve played so far are kind of boring and normal. Yes, normal, even though we have winged men in flying ships fishing rivers that circle the sky. If anyone thinks that stuff is weird, the trip to Mira is going to be a real eye-opener.

Jun 102015

I’m pleased to present the start of another letters series! This time I’ll be discussing the lovely and strange GameCube RPG Baten Kaitos with Rebekah Valentine of GameSided. I think we introduce the game and its context pretty well in this first bit of correspondence, so without further ado:

Hi Rebekah,

I’m glad you agreed to play Baten Kaitos with me. It’s been too long since I’ve revisited this game, which has a lot of weird and interesting aspects that I think reward a close look.

A little context may be in order. The Gamecube was the contemporary of the Playstation 2 and the original Xbox, but it was not as powerful as either of its competitor machines . Worse, it used proprietary mini-discs that increased costs for publishers. Opinions vary about the controller… I happen to like the asymmetric button layout, but the little nubbin of the C-stick kind of stinks. As for online capability: if the GC had it, I never knew.

It all added up to a console that lagged far behind the competition, particularly in the realm of RPGs. Of course, the PS2 was so popular for RPGs you could probably build a house out of their game cases without using any duplicates. The GC library, by comparison, is laughable. The games themselves are no slouches: Tales of Symphonia is one of the best of that series, and Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door is delightful. And then we have Baten Kaitos, a game that is absolutely bonkers.

I want a year’s supply of whatever they were smoking at the pitch meeting for this game. It seems like Baten Kaitos was developed by having everybody throw their weirdest ideas into a hat and then drawing them out to write a design document while drunk. “Everybody has wings” “card-based combat” “make money with Polaroids” “dude who fights with a flugelhorn” “people wearing masks” “level up by praying”… okay, we’ve got a game!

To say the least, it doesn’t all work. But Baten Kaitos is interesting in the degree to which it challenges almost every single norm of RPG design. It’s turn-based, but the player’s actions have a timer. Leveling up is something that takes conscious effort and even planning. The player has to make an effort (and get a little lucky) to earn money from battles. In my playthrough the camera didn’t come up while I was fighting the Lord of the Spring so I earned no cash from that fight. Items in the inventory age and transform, changing from healing items to damage items and vice-versa. Woe to you if your bamboo shoots turn into bamboo poles right before a boss battle!

You must photograph your enemies in order to earn any money; most other magnus cards sell for 1g.

You must photograph your enemies in order to earn any money; most other magnus cards sell for 1g.

I hope we’ll get a chance to discuss all of that. Unfortunately, in Sadal Suud most of the game’s unusual systems are just starting to show their shape. The battle system hardly has any of the power and depth it will later establish, and the Magnus Cards as a system for obtaining and using items are just barely showing their interesting features.

Instead, in Sadal Suud, the focus is squarely on Kalas and he… is not exactly ready for his close-up. Kalas is a huge jerk. He’s the kind of person whose reaction to the death of Xelha’s friends is to ask whether she wants their stuff. Here at the start of the game he doesn’t seem to have any motives aside from profit and killing Giacomo.

Kalas: He's not the hero Sadal Suud needs OR deserves.

Kalas: He’s not the hero Sadal Suud needs OR deserves.

One of the interesting things that Baten Kaitos does is establish immediately that you are not “playing as” Kalas. You are, instead, playing as yourself, in the form of a helpful “spirit” that reaches into the world of Baten Kaitos and guides him. Later on this turns out to be an important distinction, but here it helps to soften the blow of Kalas’ jerkiness. Yes, he’s an SOB, but you’re not actually playing as him so it’s not that bad.

One other thing that’s unusual and interesting about Kalas is that he’s disabled. Seemingly everyone in Cebelrai and Pherkad has two wings, while Kalas has only one. To supplement it, he has a prosthesis–a “winglet” created by his grandfather. For some reason the Imperial soldiers are wingless too, but they have jetpacks on their hips. So Kalas has a physical limitation, and a prosthesis, that also makes him physically distinct from everyone in the world.

This turns out to be important later on, but the game does a poor job of selling it because Baten Kaitos constantly seems to forget that its characters have wings. The great offender here is the Nunki valley, where Kalas sort of hops across little stones and narrow gaps like any other clomping RPG hero, when he should just be popping out those wings and swooping around. The weird amnesia about the nature of the world also shows up when Kalas escapes Imperial troops by knocking over a cart of apples. Guys, I don’t want to tell you how to do your jobs, but you have jetpacks.

Why am I climbing ladders and walking on logs? I have WINGS!

Why am I climbing ladders and walking on logs? I have WINGS!

On one level this is just a small disappointment I have with the world-building, but I think it really sells the character short to have the usefulness of wings be such an inconstant thing. Kalas and Xelha fly up to get on the Goldoba, for instance, but Kalas doesn’t think to just fly up to the balcony it’s moored to rather than crawl through a sewer.

Well, at least we didn’t get Yet Another Sewer Level.

We know very little about Xelha at this point, except that like almost every other member of the party she seems more like a traditional RPG lead than Kalas. Naturally, he doesn’t seem to like her very much.

So, what do you think of this opening chapter? Is Kalas as off-putting to you in his initial appearance as he is to me? Do you too wonder how the milk is turning into yogurt and cheese in these cards instead of just going sour?

Hi Sparky!

Thank you for having me. Baten Kaitos is so… delightfully weird. I played this game last in high school, and have fond memories of both its beauty and its…eccentricities. Particularly in light of time and the evolution of RPGs, it’s worth a closer look.

Though the GameCube definitely skimped in the RPG department (allow me to add the beautiful port of Skies of Arcadia to your list, along with Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles), it still had plenty of strong titles in its heyday to warrant some notice. Most of them were your typical fluffy Nintendo games. I remember particularly Animal Crossing, various Sonic titles, Super Mario Sunshine, Super Smash Bros. Melee, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance as the selling points my friends and I rallied around.

In a wider context, the GameCube had some serious problems and marked the beginning of Nintendo’s struggle to simultaneously innovate and retain their audience. That’s no surprise, when the console touts RPGs like this one.

If you get whatever they smoked at the pitch meeting, I want what they drank at the later meetings where they filled out the world. To the crazy universe you’ve already mentioned, they added adorable squishy whale babies, monsters that shoot beams out of eyes on their privates, a city made of cake, upside down dungeons, and a huge sidequest based entirely on an old man’s lechery. Seriously.

Baten Kaitos was and is worth playing simply for all the weirdness. The bizarre can be disorienting, but the surprises are all the more memorable.

Your adventures in Sadal Suud subtly lay the groundwork for everything else you’re about to experience. All you mentioned: wings of the heart, Magnus changing over time… is taught to you by NPCs in Cebalrai and Pherkaad, if you think to ask. For example, one of Quzman’s family members accessible early on needs Pow Yogurt before she’ll sign your Family Tree. You already know you can obtain Pow Milk, after fetching it for a woman in Cebalrai. By now, your bamboo shoots and bananas have probably started turning, so it’s not a difficult leap to discern the origins of Pow Yogurt.

To contrast, the battle system is somehow more boring on the first continent than any typical RPG “Wooden Sword/Attack” starting combo. The time limits don’t appear until after you’ve left Sadal Suud, your cards are painfully limited, and gosh the characters move slow. (click through to YouTube for a little more detail on the battle system at this point)

Still, the tedious start is necessary to gently teach the player the ropes. By the final boss, you’re flinging around nine cards, each with four rotating numbers, and a punishing time limit.

Kalas is awful, and I disagree that not being him softens it. I find that being his guardian spirit makes it worse, because now you can be treated like dirt along with everyone else. You’d think that your relationship with him would net you some respect. Instead, he manipulates you into agreeing with his every stupid decision—a harbinger of what’s to come. Your reward is a better chance at random, superpowered finishers in battle… and unfortunately, losing them isn’t worth the opportunity to snark at Kalas. There’s no payoff for speaking your mind.

Kalas is a jerk, so forming a "healthy bond" mainly means agreeing with whatever he says.

Kalas is a jerk, so forming a “healthy bond” mainly means agreeing with whatever he says.

What should fascinate new players about Kalas, aside from his disability, is that he breaks the typical “average joe from a farming village” stereotype. He isn’t from Cebalrai, and his motives for being there aren’t at all clear. The bits of info he gives you (after he tells you, unprompted, that you must have amnesia) amount to: he’s from Mira, he is interested in ancient ruins, and the bits about Giacomo, Gramps, and Fee. But why is he in Sadal Suud at all? Was he looking for Giacomo? Does this guy even have a job?

The lack of practical wings is indeed a facepalmer, and you pretty well covered it, so let me mention the atrocious voice acting. Every character in this game, without exception, sounds like they are speaking through a length of PVC pipe to someone they think is foreign. I’m not sure if it was deliberate or not (it could be argued that it sounds like they’re speaking through the “ocean”, or that you’re a Spirit technically, or something I guess), but conversation is just painful.

The worst offenders are children NPCs. “I’m Cedr! C…E…D…R! Cedr!” … yup. Thank you for taking an hour to spell your name for me, kid. I’ll be off now.

I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time complaining about this game, especially considering I adored Baten Kaitos when I first played. The beginning is very slow and strange, but there are some wonderful bright spots. The leveling system is unique and challenging, encouraging you to fully prepare before going into a dungeon or boss fight. Similarly, taking pictures for gold, while weird, is an interesting twist. Your battle strategy actually affects your income. It’s one of the many little quirks (recipes being another) that keeps regular monster battles from growing tedious.

Finally, I can’t end this letter without mentioning the exquisite backdrops in Baten Kaitos, or its superb soundtrack. While the character models are a bit vague, the backgrounds for villages, dungeons, and overworld alike have a level of detail and beauty that was rare on the GameCube.

Motoi Sakuraba pairs these landscapes with what I personally believe is one of his finest soundtracks. He balances beautiful, touching melodies, epic orchestrations, tribal chant, and (just because it’s Baten Kaitos) rap music. Rap music that is somehow not at all inappropriate to the action going on. “Chaotic Dance” was so popular, they remixed it for the prequel (it wasn’t as good).


I look forward to Diadem and Anuenue, where the action really picks up. Lyude and Gibari serve as pleasant balances to Kalas the Jerk and Xelha the Penguin (her running animation!), and Diadem is even more beautiful than Sadal Suud, with the Celestial River and clouds everywhere. If not for Mira, it’d be my favorite place in the game.

To Nashira!