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.
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.
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…
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.