Jul 092015

Hi Rebekah,

With Melodia and Malpercio hiding out in Cor Hydrae, our intrepid heroes descend through the taintclouds to the hidden surface of the Earth in search of the Sword of the Heavens, and instead find the most annoying dungeons in the game.

The Labyrinth of Duhr is the least offensive of the four we have to suffer through this week. It’s not a terribly intricate maze, though the way the viewpoint sticks to the entry point on each screen makes it a little tougher to figure out. It’s not too hard to muddle through without figuring out how it works; obnoxiously you have to go a fairly long way before you encounter the guy who explains how to navigate properly.

Mizuti’s home of Gemma Village is a wonderful addition, however. The brightly-colored abstract art that covers all the exteriors manages to be different from anything we’ve seen yet, and the design of the spaces manages to add depth to the society. In particular the communal living arrangement evokes the idea of longhouses. The big tomato-head guy who scared off Malpercio is there, and tells us where to get the sword we came here for.

Capella is called the Garden of Death, but the only thing dying in there is my patience. Well, okay, also any of the monsters I happened to bump into, but mostly my patience. It’s only a three-screen dungeon, but it takes half an hour to get through just because of how slowly Kalas wades through the ocean of mud. The high point of this locale is that you don’t have to run back out of it when you discover that Sir Krumly stole the sword.

Capella: it looks just how you feel.

Capella: it looks just how you feel.

The quest for that artifact eventually takes us to Zosma Tower, a particularly obnoxious block-puzzle dungeon. The idea of carrying fire in the quest magnus to light the torches isn’t a bad idea intrinsically, but the game hands out quest magnus like they’re diamonds, so there’s no guarantee you’ll have the four free magnus to carry all the fire you need. If you don’t, you must either sacrifice something or travel all the way back down the tower to get more.

Again, possibly not a big deal, but Zosma Tower is one of the places where you really notice how the game constantly forgets that everybody in the party has some capacity to fly. You spend well over half your time in the tower climbing up onto blocks, or worse, climbing down from them. Kalas should be able to fly up or at least glide down. As annoying as that is while you’re trying to solve the puzzle on each floor, it’s positively infuriating when you have to tediously clamber around while going down the tower for another flame and then back up.

The puzzles themselves, meanwhile, aren’t anything remarkable. Again, I feel my patience is being tested more than my ingenuity, as it’s hardly possible to get things really wrong. Only the penultimate room requires any real thought to solve, and that makes the dungeon feel like a big waste of time to me.

Our aesthetic is Q*bert, but even more bullshit.

Our aesthetic is Q*bert, but even more bullshit.

Zosma Tower is also where the game remembers it has bosses. The Agyo / Ungyo fight is neat because the bosses have such precisely opposed strengths and weaknesses. Since those are water and fire, it seems like this is the place for Savyna to shine. Just one problem: Savyna is terrible. At this point in my game she hadn’t classed up to have the larger hands and combos the other characters could deliver. She’s also way behind in terms of level, because I just don’t like using her. Savyna seems to have slightly different timing on her turns than everyone else, and I frequently have trouble extending her combos past three or four hits because I unexpectedly run out of time to play cards.

Instead, I bring Xelha and Mizuti to this fight. Because they draw on the same pool of offensive cards, I like to split them into complementary element sets. For most of the game Xelha has fire, light, and wind while Mizuti has water, dark, and chronos. That means each of them is very powerful against one of these bosses and neither has to worry about opposed elements weakening their attacks.

When we get past this fight we learn that Krumly intends to strike a deal with Malpercio in order to live in the sky. This fits a pattern. For all that the game goes on about Malpercio’s power, Melodia seems to mainly gain advantage through trickery. In every instance she offers her pawns what they want, then betrays them or subverts the deal. Krumly suffers the same fate Kalas, Geldoblame, and arguably Fadroh did. The party’s reaction to him helps, to an extent, to explain why they’ve accepted Kalas back too.

In the massacre at Algorab Village our last hope for defeating Malpercio is again destroyed. We’re three for three on getting these precious magical artifacts broken. Since this leaves us without any obvious way to fight Malpercio, the story takes a detour to explain the mystery of Kalas’ birth. I personally think the “Divine Child” stuff is a bridge too far for this game. Every time it comes up we’re deluged with exposition and backstory, most of which ends up being just a bunch of magibabble. It doesn’t add much to the story for me, and takes up a lot of time. It does illuminate, however, that like Kalas, Georg was a good man with a very dark side.

After Zosma Tower, the Celestial Alps are almost a relief, despite the bugs that block you every few steps. Again, this seems like a problem that could be more easily solved if the characters made use of the wings on their backs. What’s far more annoying is this final fight against Giacomo and his buddies, which is a double dose not only in that each of them gets two turns in a row every time they attack but also in that we have to fight them twice.

This is one of my very least favorite tropes in RPGs: winning a fight only to have the story take control and dictate that you lost it and will have to fight these jerks again (in this case, almost immediately). I came out of the first round against Giacomo, Ayme, and Folon at almost full health, so seeing Giacomo beat the crap out of Kalas doesn’t at all connect to the reality of the battle I just fought. Baten Kaitos Origins abused this trick liberally, which is one of my major complaints with it.

Are those arms a little short? I think they're short.

Are those arms a little short? I think they’re short.

Eventually though, Giacomo bites the dust and Kalas gets a new winglet. We still don’t have any idea how to get into Cor Hydrae, but the game is giving us unambiguous signals that we’re about to set out on a final tour of the world. Are you ready to finally give Melodia what she deserves? Do you also wonder why Mizuti’s new mask and Kalas’ new wing look almost exactly like the old ones? Do Larikush’s arms seem short to you?


Hi Sparky!

While this section of the game—a strange, almost purposeless sort of interlude between the appearance of the Big Bad and the character quests leading into the end—can be awfully tedious gameplay-wise, there’s a lot of good in it, too. I love getting to know Mizuti, and Kalas’s reformation is really set in stone here, even before we hit what effectively becomes his character quest (since he won’t get one later, with the others). Kalas is super nice now. He’s even the one who wants to go back and save the residents of Gemma. Yay!

I agree that most of the dungeons in and around Duhr are pure agony, though I always enjoy the Labyrinth. Zosma is tedious and the Celestial Alps, while pretty, try awfully hard to be “unique” with bug walls when it’s really just more of the same. Capella in particular is the most pointless place in the game. Literally the only “mechanic” is that you Move. Really. Really. Slow. It’s actually harder to run into monsters in there than it is to avoid them. And what’s up with the magically pristine house at the end of it that is nevertheless a total wreck inside?

Don't complain. I mean, do you have ANY IDEA how long it took to clean all the mud off this place?

Don’t complain. I mean, do you have ANY IDEA how long it took to clean all the mud off this place?

For all the frustrations of block-climbing and mud-walking, you do pick up some of my favorite Magnus in the game from these locales. Lyude’s Rhapsody, Mizuti’s Providence, and of course, the counter to Kalas’s Fangs of Darkness, Fangs of Light. I love this finisher, as it’s the game once again reinforcing a character’s internal state through gameplay.

What places like the Labyrinth, Capella, and the top of Zosma do right is pique my interest in the world of Beforetimes. Before the Taintclouds, and the islands rose. If I hadn’t played Origins, I’d actually be leaning toward a more “futuristic” universe for the past, almost as though a civilization somewhat more advanced than ours had undergone some sort of apocalypse-sized disaster and had to compensate. Did you see those towers at the top of Zosma? They look like airport control towers, or radio towers.

There’s some evidence to support this theory, too. Larikush’s speech to Kalas about the nature of Magnus as effectively “encoded data” hints at it. Georg and Larikush’s experiments of creating life in a lab are not unheard of ideas today, and with 3D printing we’re already a step closer toward creating miscellaneous items based on data. After all, none of the wizards or magicians in this game actually use real magic. They simply know how to draw forth element-based powers from Magnus and use them to attack. What they call magic, we might refer to simply as technology.

Origins debunks most of this (though not without the magic/technology angle), sadly, but it’s still an interesting thought. The world we are treated to below the clouds is interesting on its own, anyway.

I love Mizuti, and what I love most is how much she stands out, even in her own home. Of everyone in the village, only she, Kamroh, and Kee can hover; she’s the only one with the weird voice; and her dress is beautifully ridiculous. Her name is also the only non-K name you encounter. This is quickly explained away mostly by the fact that she is the most powerful wizard in Duhr, a descendant of the warlocks of old. Powerful enough, even that her parents don’t seem remotely concerned that their little girl ascended to the Sky (which everyone else seems to treat as absolutely off-limits, as Krumly’s plot shows) and went on this grand adventure. In fact, they laugh it off.

Actually, it’s a bit weird how the game treats the function of the Children of the Earth. It’s their job to stay below the Taintclouds, yet Mizuti headed up isn’t a big deal. In fact, she indicates that the Children are well-practiced at busting through the clouds, although no one in the sky seems particularly aware of their existence. Odd.

"Adept" may be pushing it.

“Well-practiced” may be pushing it.

Other than providing Mizuti’s backstory and completing the Sky-Ocean-Earth triad the game rests upon, the storyline in Duhr is largely forgettable. Another artifact is destroyed, Malpercio grows stronger, and we’re still totally okay with forgiving everyone who offers their service to a powerful, wicked god who is trying to destroy us all. Even the battle against Malpercio in Algorab, after two other fake-outs for final boss (and we’re not even done with those!), wouldn’t be memorable but for Mizuti’s temporary costume change. Unfortunately, with her mask off, her voice acting is just as bad as everyone else’s. Put it back on, please.

The return to the sky is a welcome relief. It’s actually the first time in the game we’re given control over where we fly, so I managed to take a few detours and pick up some of Quzman’s family. We’ll be railroaded into the Alps next, but we’ve finally hit that beautiful point of Baten Kaitos where the world opens up to us for sidequesting. It’s lovely to venture back and speak to old NPC friends again—some even have some new things to say about the state of the world with Cor Hydrae at the center.

Visiting Cebalrai especially hits a bittersweet note for me. For the last fifteen or more hours of gameplay, we’ve been dealing with highly-advanced civilizations that were either really angry or terribly powerful, or both. It’s been a long time since we’ve met regular, ordinary people who just want to live their lives. Staging Larikush in Cebalrai, with the swaying trees and running children, has a way of reminding you what you’re fighting for.

And just because you mentioned Larikush’s arms, I’d like to point out that for every somewhat-ordinary looking human model in this game there is one that just blows my mind every time for how weird it is. Larikush is wearing a GIANT bow on his back. Some women are walking around with giant cone-hats. And I simply CANNOT get over the fact that at least one child in every village, as well as one of the witches of Wazn, is dressed up in a fish suit. Why?! Are they…in fashion?!

This chapter wraps up with the dreaded trio fight, Parts 2 and 3, and boy is it a doozy. If you haven’t played the game, Giacomo’s voice in the doorway comes as a total shocker after his “death” on the Goldoba. He also tears your Spirit abilities out of the picture for the first half, rending you powerless to help Kalas.

I have to admit, though, I’m getting really sick of the Kalas/Fee flashbacks. My emotions can only be stirred up by a tragic death so many times, and as you said, there’s some really weird techno-babble stuff going on here. The universe of Baten Kaitos is weird, yes, but Kalas’s storyline before and during the Alps piles new information on how the world works higher than snow in Wazn.

My sadness is tempered by my suspicion that your regrets mostly involve not murdering people.

My sadness is tempered by my suspicion that your regrets are mostly about not murdering people.

With Giacomo’s death comes a sudden, weird attempt to redeem him, Ayme, and Folon in the eyes of the player and, in keeping with this game’s intense desire to forgive everyone, we’re completely okay with this. If the world’s story is one of redemption and unity, it only makes sense that we forgive literally everyone, no matter how heinous their crimes, as long as they have a sad enough backstory.

At least, I guess that’s where we’re going with this.

Baten Kaitos Letters 4

 Letters, Role Playing Games  Comments Off on Baten Kaitos Letters 4
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!

Baten Kaitos Letters 3

 Letters, Role Playing Games  Comments Off on Baten Kaitos Letters 3
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.

Baten Kaitos Letters 2

 Letters, Role Playing Games  Comments Off on Baten Kaitos Letters 2
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.