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.

kalas_wingrip

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!

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