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:
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!
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.