Jul 162015
 

Hi Sparky!

We’re coming at last to the end…the real end. This final segment is more “end-like” than anything we’ve experienced before, with five character quests, an open world map, and a very final Final Dungeon. Unfortunately, Baten Kaitos tries to wrap its stories up in some bizarre, and often unsatisfying ways.

First, the five character quests are all pretty awful, and somehow all awful for different reasons. Xelha’s dungeon is mostly a reiteration of plot we learned in Wazn, only with adorable teenage Xelha at the helm. The dungeon itself is just a long series of what’s-behind-door-number-3… it’s a monster, by the way. It’s always a monster. The whole thing is dull considering it’s meant to bolster the Ice Queen herself.

Gibari’s challenge is unfulfilling due to lack of plot. You find out upon entering Nashira that Gibari used to be a knight of Diadem. Cool! Naturally, the expectation is that we’ll discover some interesting thread that occurred while he was there, potentially leading to this “mysterious” reason why he left… but no cigar. The information is dropped, then totally ignored in favor of a fishing contest with (in my opinion) the worst scripting moment in the game: a laugh scene to rival Tidus and Yuna’s.

We're going to have to wait for the prequel to get an answer, huh?

We’re going to have to wait for the prequel to get an answer, huh?

Then there’s poor Lyude, who gets a cool dungeon in the form of the Phantom Goldoba. It’s full of spirits, likely brought forth by Malpercio’s darkness, who torment Lyude for abandoning his homeland and family. What’s sad about this one is that it actually could be a cool and tear-jerking moment, maybe, if the voice acting and script weren’t so awful. The way Skeed, Vallye, and Almarde torment Lyude is heavy-handed to the point of being nonsensical, and his “turn” at the end seems to come out of nowhere, as if the developers realized that Lyude really didn’t have much to live for, and pulled a quote off the nearest inspirational poster to save him.

Savyna’s character quest isn’t as bad. We revisit Azha and try to find the hardened soldier some closure in helping the citizens of Azha escape Malpercio’s monsters (to where, though, is anyone’s guess—there’s literally nothing across that desert). Again Baten Kaitos plays with interesting dungeon mechanics, forcing you to take a ton of water into the desert with you just to survive. Two problems here. The first: unless you talk to absolutely everyone and make some logic leaps, the game doesn’t actually tell you you’re meant to carry lots of water, resulting in some awkwardness at the start of the dungeon. The second: The desert is barely a dungeon. You can get to the end without fighting any enemies or having to refill your water supply. Oh, and the boss is just a rehash of Folon, only easier. Dullsville.

Finally, Mizuti. Oh…Mizuti. I was complaining about dungeons being too short and too dull before, but I didn’t mean I wanted the opposite extreme. Mizuti’s quest involves chasing Kee and the Great Kamroh into…ugh, Zosma Tower. Which apparently has four more basement levels, all harder than the top four. Without a guide or a clear view of the entire floor at once, these puzzles can take hours to solve, mostly because of all the time you’ll spend climbing up and down, resetting, and climbing again. Furthermore, Zosma Tower culminates in another fake boss battle like the Ice Queen fight from Wazn. It’s not at all satisfying after all the work you just did in Zosma Tower.

Kalas doesn’t get a character quest, since the journey to the Celestial Alps effectively counted as his, but I do want to point out that in the conversations leading up to Cor Hydrae, I hate how he is suddenly set up as the chosen hero at the last minute. It’s as though they were reading a list of RPG tropes and realized they missed this one at the last minute. Kalas is fine as he is, and already had his moment in the spotlight for cool character development. Anyway, I’m pretty sure the ending would have all played out the same whether he possessed the “Magnus of Life” or not.

With the character quests out of the way, there’s one more thing to do before headed to Cor Hydrae. I wanted to finish Quzman’s family tree. Early in the game, an old man named Quzman in Pherkad asks you to find all his family members, have them sign a family tree, and send them to stand by his death bed so he can be surrounded by them when he dies. I like Quzman’s quest. Each family member has an interesting story and connection to Quzman and the others, and discovering these connections organically as you meet the bracelet-wearing wanderers can be delightful. There’s an estranged wife who’s an abstract painter, parents who can’t agree on how to raise their children, a woman who pretends to have a bad memory to avoid social situations, and a man obsessed with rocks.

Quzman’s quest ties in nicely with the themes of redemption and unification we’ve been hearing all along, too. As we will soon unite all the world on the surface, so too we must gather Quzman’s family from every corner of the world and bring them together. At the end, Quzman dies happy, surrounded by those he loves (and some he probably barely knows).

That's a pretty big family. Good thing this room is huge and mostly empty.

That’s a pretty big family. Good thing this room is huge and mostly empty.

And so to Cor Hydrae and the final plot party of the game. I won’t spend too much time on the dungeon itself: it’s long, with a few challenging puzzles, some big scary monsters, five mini-bosses, and really epic music. Just about everything a final dungeon needs.

Our first encounter with Melodia leads to a predictable rehash of the Malpercio fight in Duhr, where we absolutely trash the evil god, and the world leaders make an appearance to talk Melodia down… and yes, once again, she’s not really evil. We just want her to come home and be the sweet girl we used to know, right? You know, before she died and we used the power of an evil god to revive her… oh. That must be why she’s gone crazy now.

This touching origin story just enrages her all the more, and she merges with Malpercio to create… I don’t know, super Malpercio? It’s bigger and scarier than the last, and we have to beat it atop Cor Hydrae itself. Upon its defeat, we still refuse to just let evil people be evil and Kalas dives inside Malpercio to rescue the real Melodia so we can finally slay the demon god. Melodia returns with a new hairstyle (that makes no sense unless you have fan theories about Origins) and combines her powers with Kalas’s and yours (the spirit’s) to repair the Ocean Mirror, the Sword of the Heavens, and the Earth Sphere. With the three artifacts together again and Melodia removed, we topple the evil god at last.

The ending, in which the continents descend at last and merge with the earth, is actually rather beautiful and sad. Xelha’s prayer throughout the game for restoration and redemption is answered at last. The people give up their wings of the heart, and return to what their ancestors lost, hopefully a bit wiser and kinder than before. It’s a strange story, when you think about it. We, who are stuck on the ground, dream of flying. These people, with the skies open to them, just want to return to the earthly home they left, freely giving up wings to get there.

…but there’s one other thing before we say goodbye to Kalas, and that’s Geldoblame’s giant stupid head sticking up out of the ground. …Yeah.

Xelha runs off on her own to release the entire ocean, which apparently the Ice Queens have been carrying inside them all these years. Kalas suspects something’s up and goes to be with her, quickly establishing the token romantic subplot of the game in its last fifteen minutes, and also explaining why Xelha has been so obsessed with Kalas all this time. As she’s about to release the ocean in a scene rife with some weird sexual tension, Geldoblame’s massive face rises up out of the ground and challenges you to a fight. As weird as this sounds, the sudden interruption of a quiet moment with a black screen and a creepy voice is terrifying if you didn’t expect it, and the crazy white faces popping up all over the screen aren’t much better.

Are you sure he's ready for that kind of commitment, Xelha?

Are you sure he’s ready for that kind of commitment, Xelha?

Sadly (or happily, if you’re just ready to be done), this fight is a joke. Geldoblame is killed instantly if you get a Spirit Finisher, which I obtained in the first turn. He didn’t even get to attack.

Without remarking on the weirdness that just transpired, Xelha releases the ocean and, we presume, dies for it to live (don’t worry, she’ll be back in a few minutes). All the greythornes we’ve met throughout the game combine to form the long, lost Great Whale, and the world is made whole once again. Just in time for you to say goodbye, and return to your world.

There’s a lot going on in the ending to Baten Kaitos—some of it’s pretty nutty, and some of it’s rather beautiful. I think Xelha and Kalas’s argument is some of the better voice acting in the game, and the world building is just phenomenal, especially at the end. But after a game that was all about forgiveness and redemption in spite of even top levels of general evilness, I want to know how everything shakes out. I want to explore this new surface world, and see what all has changed. It really is too bad we never got a sequel. They seem to have learned from their worse mistakes in this when they made Baten Kaitos Origins, and I could only hope a third game would be even better. But that doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

Thanks for playing Baten Kaitos with me, Sparky! I hope your finale adventures were as grand as mine.

 


 

Hi Rebekah,

May time, ever fleeting, forgive Monolith Soft and Tri-Crescendo, because the end of Baten Kaitos shows they mismanaged it. This is not a short game, but so much of its real (finally, really real this time) ending feels rushed and insincere that it almost collapses.

In a sense it’s fitting that the “character quest” dungeons consist almost entirely of compression tricks, because that’s what they’re trying to pull off in terms of the character arcs. The Phantom Goldoba, a straight palette-swap of the ship we visited previously, tries to cram a bit of a character arc in for Lyude, and instead falls into a pit of melodrama. Savyna’s desert quest, using a compression technique as old as gaming itself, tries to wrap up her involvement with Azdar and the town of Azha and whiffs. Unfortunately, what these dungeons mostly accomplish is to illustrate that these characters ultimately didn’t matter all that much to the story.

Gibari fares a little better in terms of dungeon structure, but as you point out his “character quest” is pretty inconsequential. Nothing that happens in it illuminates or develops his character, which has been, for better or worse, prominently and repeatedly displayed ever since he joined the party. Rather, this quest seems to be about redeeming and improving Reblys’s personality, which, this far removed from the previous Nashira adventures, hardly seems relevant. He gets bonus points for the “fishing with logs” scene, though.

Anna has had enough of your shit, guys.

Anna has had enough of your shit, guys.

Mizuti’s dungeon is the most elaborate, but here the developers have the advantage that it’s a 3D space built with a tiny library of textures, all of which were already on disc for the first trip through Zosma Tower. At least the interaction at the end actually manages to illustrate something about her character, and recast her apparently arrogant appropriation of the title “Great” as a means of drawing danger to herself and away from her friends. However, despite the apparent significance of the “Ring of the Magi” it is never mentioned again, and I’m not sure it even shows up anywhere in the inventory.

The worst of these dungeons is Xelha’s, and that’s not just because it’s a repeating-room maze where you have to find which of 10 or so doors is the single way to advance. What this dungeon needs to do is set up something ominous beyond Malpercio, the idea that defeating him means something bad for Xelha. Even if it worked this would be a belated move, but as it is the dungeon gets mired in flashbacks between lil’ Xelha and her mom that create more confusion than foreboding.

This blows a hole in the epilogue. The idea that Xelha must sacrifice herself to give the Ocean back to the world is one that could really resonate, and provide a cathartic moment when a seemingly-bittersweet, Final Fantasy X-ish ending turns around into a happily ever after. Unfortunately, the elements that make FFX work are missing here. The romance feels half-baked and Xelha’s death, rather than being something that the player has dreaded for hours, seems to come out of left field at the last moment. The almost immediate backtracking on her demise makes the whole episode feel like a bit of trolling on the part of the developers, like they wanted to yell “gotcha!” one more time right before the big group-photo ending.

Bye guys.

Bye guys.

And yet…

And yet, that big, goofy, group-photo ending has an emotional impact for me that’s up there with Final Fantasy X and Persona 4. There’s a warmth and wistfulness in that last spiral of petals that matches the low five with Jecht and the sight of Yu’s friends chasing his train. It’s a fond farewell to people I’ve seen grow and become better.

Kalas began this game as a huge jerk, and confronted that side of himself, and come out the other side as a supportive and helpful person. By placing you, the player, inside the world but outside of Kalas, Baten Kaitos helps you feel like you, personally, had a hand in that, and in the other moments of redemption throughout the game (as exemplified by Ayme and Folon’s incongruous arrival).

Redemption is one of the core themes of Baten Kaitos, and it’s displayed everywhere in this finale. Ayme and Folon, and in a sense the Empire itself, make up for some of their previous misdeeds by helping to tear down the barrier. The chatter about Kalas being “Malpercio’s prayer”, awkward and jumbled as it is, suggests that even Malpercio himself can be redeemed. Certainly his habit is to offer false forms of redemption: Kalas’s “beautiful white wings”, Krumly’s chance to escape the taintclouds, the “resurrection” of Calbren’s beloved granddaughter. Yet this stitched-together Frankengod does see a kind of redemption. Once Malpercio is finally defeated and the continents begin to fall, they are gently caught and held up by the sibling gods from whom it was created.

The gods take on the role of tectonic plates.

The gods take on the role of tectonic plates.

The game’s major sidequests also speak to this idea. You mentioned Quzman’s “Family Tree” quest, which I also enjoyed finishing up, despite the minor chore of carrying a rock to his brother in Zosma Tower (again with the Tower!). Quzman admits he has been bad to the women he loved, but the unification of his large, diverse family, (mostly) dancing in a circle to celebrate him, speaks to the value of his life. I also like to finish the Star Map, not only because the finished item is beautiful but because doing so helps redeem both the creator who grew to hate it and the priest who feels unworthy to finish his life’s work.

So maybe it does seem strange that Kalas chooses to save Melodia from Malpercio, but really, he has to do that. Nobody owed him a second chance, either, and he chose to subject himself to Malpercio’s power. The epilogue suggests that his choice will eventually bear fruit and Melodia will try to do right by the world. Everyone deserves a shot at redemption, though, as the last fight with Geldoblame shows, not everyone accepts the opportunity.

The theme of redemption is the most striking facet of a larger theme of change that appears in almost every aspect of the game. As time passes on the world transforms, and so do the magnus cards. Not even the player’s weapons and armor are immune to the march of time, which strengthens some things (the auras) while weakening others (e.g. solar sabers). No one can ever go back; the continents will not return to the sky. But time, ever fleeting, ultimately does forgive: the taintclouds disperse, the ocean returns, the whale is reborn.

Baten Kaitos was released more than ten years ago, exclusively to a platform that was overshadowed in the west by the XBox and PS2. Yet, it has left such an impression that even today Namco occasionally teases the possibility of a sequel. What has kept this game living in memory for more than a decade? It’s hardly a perfect game, after all. We’ve spent the last two weeks deriding the design of its later dungeons, at least two of the six main characters feel kind of superfluous, and the voice acting is legendary for all the wrong reasons. Does Baten Kaitos stick in the mind solely because of its great soundtrack, general weirdness, and shocking twist?

I don’t believe that’s the case, though all of those things matter. Baten Kaitos is a daring game, but it is also very sharply made. Bizarre as its card-based combat seems, it succeeds in giving a turn-based system the snappy, immediate feel of an action RPG, particularly at the higher class levels. Narratively, the game takes a risk by asking the player to throw in with an unabashed jerk, but this pays off because it gives Kalas room to grow and develop as a character, not just level up. Kalas’ arc of redemption carries the story despite the poor audio and tendency to get bogged down in flashbacks. Baten Kaitos is memorable because of the uniqueness of its setting, story, and systems, but it is fondly remembered because of their quality.

As a result, it’s a joy to return to Baten Kaitos, particularly when you can share the experience. I’m glad you joined me in revisiting this wonderful world, and hope we can do something like this again.

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