Fear and Loathing in Novigrad

 Critique, Open World Action Games, Role Playing Games  Comments Off on Fear and Loathing in Novigrad
Aug 122015

I called the emotion Geralt feels in Velen “anxiety” because he’s really fretting about something he hasn’t got anymore, and wondering if he can get it back. This sense of dispossession is shared most specifically by the Bloody Baron, but it broadly afflicts everyone in Velen, whose old lives have been swept away by the war and may not return. Velen is a land afraid that things will not get better. In contrast, Novigrad is defined by its fear that things will get worse, and it attempts to inflict this fear on Geralt.

Velen and Novigrad are shown separately on The Wild Hunt‘s world map but are, in play, completely contiguous. While I believe the game classifies most of the land area as Velen, I myself want to draw a line down the center of the Pontar, a thematic border matching the world’s political and military ones, separating Velen from the northern region, which I’m going to call Novigrad for short even though it includes Oxenfurt and Redania. This definition will serve us because it separates two regions that are dramatically different.

The obvious difference here is that while Velen was almost entirely rural, Novigrad is urban, with most of the population crammed into the Oxenfurt and Novigrad itself. The cities have novelties besides tiled roofs and cobbled streets—rich people exist in this region, not just as a singular well-off Baron but in numbers great enough they become their own class of people and have whole districts to themselves. And beyond the cities, Novigrad has vast fields planted with wheat, grapes, and other produce. The Novigrad countryside is not a vast wilderness with broken settlements chopped out of the trees but a land of plenty dotted with estates. In this region misery is not a constant guest, and its tone is correspondingly lighter, without the constant massacres of Velen.

Martin Feuille's Farmstead

Novigrad has its share of beggars and slums, but the region as a whole conveys a sense of wealth. This matters because you can’t really be afraid of losing what you haven’t got. And losing what they have seems to be a pressing concern for the region’s people. Instead of Velen’s string of human tragedies, Novigrad fields an array of quests centering on property. These range from the small scale of a woman hoping for help with her stolen chickens, to the weighty and dangerous matter of Dijkstra’s stolen millions. In between, we have petty thieves, frightened beekeepers, rat-afflicted grain dea  lers, and at least two “haunted” houses.

The Wild Hunt puts Geralt in the same straits. His property is literally threatened in one quick sidequest, where he makes the mistake of selecting the wrong drinking partners. The region’s main quests, however, put the threat to something more precious. Velen aired Geralt’s anxieties about characters who had been absent from The Witcher games; Novigrad directly endangers characters who have been there since the (player’s) beginning. Dandelion the bard has been around since the first game, and Triss Merigold has been a potential love interest across that span of time as well. Triss is endangered simply by being in Novigrad, as the game drives home by having Geralt witness the outcome of a witch hunt when he first tries to visit. Dandelion is in trouble because he tried to help Ciri, but saving him means putting Triss at risk or even letting her get tortured.

The stage-setting is pretty effective. The Wild Hunt convincingly paints Novigrad as a more prosperous region than Velen, and by contrast with its southern neighbor establishes the stakes that have driven the people here to extreme behavior. The segment also does a solid job of centering fear, justified or not, as a motivating force in the region. In the main quest, Dijkstra’s fear of the consequences of failing as the criminal underworld’s banker drives his desire to recover the money more than the greed for his portion of it, and assuaging the doppler Dudu’s fear of being captured is an essential step. A major sidequest concerns a man who wants to inspire fear in those who criticize the church of the Eternal Fire, and of course throughout this chapter the fear of that cult motivates the actions of Triss and her compatriots. The game backs up the paranoia of the local populace by putting in quests built around disguise and deception. These tricks can be magical, as with the thieving doppler or the vampire serial killer, or more practical in nature, such as the children disguising themselves as wolves or the Bertram colluding with then betraying Little Red’s bandits.

The game also wisely emphasizes the symbol of the Eternal Fire, because while fire is dangerous when out of hand, when controlled it is a signifier of safety and comfort, freedom from fear. As if to comment on this, Novigrad features minor quests where the safety and comfort of the campfire is subverted by theft and violent confrontation.

When it tries to make fear bear more specifically on Geralt, however, the Novigrad region falters. The game’s structure protects us from any worry about Dandelion. His voice speaks reassuringly to the player on every loading screen and in every entry of the game’s codex. Because of this it’s difficult to muster up any worry that the quest can go wrong. Having Dandelion essentially narrate everything is not a bad conceit but it doesn’t play well with trying to motivate a major quest with the fear that he won’t be alive to write things the player has already read.

Also, Dandelion is incredibly silly as a person, and this speaks to a tonal problem. Novigrad, despite all the horrible things happening there, is often funny. Even the tragic bits (an innocent mage was burned to death) often come with silly bits tacked on to them (he used stinky cheese to see the future). The main quest is full of this kind of thing, from following Dandelion’s day planner (full of women, natch) to Dijkstra’s troll guard to Geralt’s ludicrous performance in the play used to calm Dudu’s nerves. The improved circumstances of Novigrad relative to Velen give it a lighter tone overall, and the abundance of humorous quests, and humorous aspects to serious quests, pushes back against the sense of threat the main narrative needs.

The game’s tone works a little better when it comes to threatening Triss, because The Wild Hunt does take the step of killing characters Geralt knows when he first arrives in Novigrad. However, this only ends minor characters from a Witcher story and preceding game.  Of course The Wild Hunt is the final installment of a trilogy and so it has the option to kill major characters, but it hasn’t yet established that it’s willing to do so. Also, the Witcher games have made something of a habit out of pretending to endanger Triss so the threat of this part needs something to add credibility, and that’s just not present. It’s an ingredient that’s absent from the setting, too: for all the soldiers parading around, The Wild Hunt never even pretends to have the kind of dynamics that would bring Nilfgaardian forces across the river.

Very few open-world games successfully build narrative tension; the whole concept of being free to go anywhere and do anything works against it. Despite its mostly effective stage-setting in Novigrad, however, The Wild Hunt has more than just genre philosophy working against it when it’s trying to threaten the relationships Geralt already has. The region’s gentler nature and humorous touches work against the sense of danger, even as the game’s framing and unclear stakes seem to specifically inure the threatened characters. As a result, Novigrad seems less than the sum of its parts. The Wild Hunt simply never succeeds in making fear as real the player as it is supposed to be for Geralt and the people of Novigrad.

Aug 032015

The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt is a very large game, perhaps too large. Consequently there’s a lot to say about it, especially as regards its main plot and the three principal areas where that plot plays out. Of these the first the player encounters is Velen, a contested part of the continent where the armies of Nilfgaard have fought their way to the river Pontar and failed to cross due to opposition from the northern armies of Redania. Velen also happens to be the best of the three main story areas.

One reason I like Velen best is that The Wild Hunt has a serious case of mechanical stagnation. The prologue section in White Orchard introduces the basic methods of playing the game, but these tools really develop and interact with each other only after Geralt makes it to Velen. As the game goes on beyond that point, enemies get harder and sometimes more numerous, but the game never grows much deeper or more complex. The character progression system is too obstructive too offer many new gameplay permutations in a given playthrough, and too obfuscatory to guide the player to them anyhow. Geralt gains a few new tools here and in other sections, but the game seems to forget in fairly short order that he has means of seeing ghosts, breaking illusions, or detecting magic. As a consequence Velen was the only area where I felt like I was really developing as a player; the rest of the game was just executing, at a more or less constant level, on what I already knew.

Velen, however, also stands on its own merits, as a well-constructed locale where a broad theme interacts fruitfully with a particular stage of the story.

A Dismal Land

The one word that captures the core of the Velen territory is “misery”. The game’s prologue in White Orchard brushes against the poor lot of soldiers, but Velen truly speaks to the misery of the land and people that war passes over. Velen is a region in crisis, sorely lacking in food and comfort. The fields that still exist are infested with monsters; the towns that once farmed them stand ransacked and empty. Only a few towns have retained any sense of normality; for every peaceful hamlet tucked away in the woods, it seems there’s at least one like it that has been overtaken by cannibals or ghouls. Even in the relatively nice towns, people are starving. They send their children into the swamp, to follow a trail of treats to the Crones.

It’s telling that the people here worship the Crones. These are possibly the best antagonists in the game, as they manage to parlay fairy-tale grotesquerie—wearing someone else’s ears, a taste for child’s flesh—into malice that’s more threatening and disturbing than the titular Wild Hunt. Any people who see the Crones as their best hope for mercy must have been at the end of their rope for some time.

The central bogs of Velen

The central bogs of Velen

The land itself even seems kind of miserable. Velen’s landscape is dominated by swamps and bogs. The largest of these, Crookback Bog in the east, serves as a nexus for several of the region’s storylines, but it’s hardly alone. Fyke Island (another nexus), the Frischlow region south of it, and the shores of the Pontar are also major swamplands, and there are smaller ones throughout the region. Even in our world, swamps are seen as dismal locations, and ours aren’t teeming with drowners, wraiths, necrophages, and fiends. The Wild Hunt accentuates the feeling of misery and dismay by filling the swampland with the shattered wreckage of human dwellings. Burned and decaying dwellings are a frequent sight throughout Velen thanks to the war, but the ones in the swamps are particularly affecting, shattered and sinking into the mire like the hopes of the people who once lived in them.

The quests that move Geralt through this dismal place largely deal in tragedy. This isn’t to say that there’s no attempt to leaven things with comic relief, but most of the time if Geralt is picking up a contract it means something deeply awful has happened. In some cases all, or almost all, of a town has been killed by men or monsters. Tragic love stories lie behind many of the region’s missions, from Midcopse and Blackbough to Fyke Isle. It’s possible for Geralt to mistakenly turn some of his adventures into even greater tragedies, unleashing a plague or releasing a spirit to slaughter a town.

A notably large portion of the trouble, even when it involves a monster, is man-made. Envy between classes causes the tragedy of Fyke Island, while jealousy among individuals leads to a sad tale in Blackbough and at the Reardon Manor. The greed of the people in Byways and Honorton provokes the ire of monsters that destroy these towns, and something similar seems to have happened in Frischlow. In some cases the collisions between humans and monsters happen on their own, but all too often in Velen the humans are the authors of their own demise.

The Bloody Baron

Nowhere does this prove more true than in the major questline concerning the Bloody Baron Philip Strenger, a local lord that Geralt soon learns hosted Ciri for quite a while. Cameron Kunzelman has done a pretty in-depth examination of this questline, so I won’t go into many of the mission’s practical details here. However, I came out of Velen with a more positive view of this quest than Kunzleman and I want to go over some of the reasons why.

Kunzleman very astutely points out that the Bloody Baron’s story has a rhythm and melodramatic tone similar to police procedurals, especially the modern techno-procedurals in the vein of CSI. The Bloody Baron tells Geralt a story, Geralt goes and finds evidence that this story is incomplete, then the Baron is forced to adjust and tell (more of) the truth. This actually has several benefits. The first is that it puts one of the game’s core frustrations into the form of both story and play. As Geralt repeatedly emphasizes throughout this quest and many others, he needs as much information as possible in order to make the right decisions as a monster hunter. Repeatedly, however, in both this quest and elsewhere, he, and by extension the player, is given too little to go on. Throughout The Wild Hunt Geralt and the player are called upon to make decisions not only without knowing the ultimate outcome, but also often without even knowing the immediate stakes. The Baron’s stinginess with the truth puts the player and Geralt into the same position.

This stinginess also helps to characterize the Baron himself. It’s worthwhile to note that the Baron has the most at stake throughout this quest. While bad things can certainly happen to the Baron and his wife Anna during this storyline, there’s almost never a sense that the wife and daughter are in any immediate danger. The Baron wants to have them back, and he’s risking a great deal to try and make that happen. It’s not just the truth of his own story that he’s withholding, it’s the story of Ciri. This puts him in the position of angering a deadly warrior, and more specifically of hindering Geralt in a task he was set to by the monarch at whose pleasure the Baron serves. The Baron is risking literally everything he has by forcing Geralt to look for Anna and Tamara.

In light of this, his reticence seems not to make any sense. Strenger clearly wants his family back and is willing to go to great lengths to do that, so why interfere with the investigation? The behavior speaks to a core of cowardice in the man. He recognizes that he has done great wrong but he lacks the guts to acknowledge what he has done and accept the consequences. Even though the miscarriage is clearly relevant, Strenger won’t bring it up until Geralt forces his hand, because he believes himself to be directly responsible for it, which is close enough. In truth, he’s indirectly responsible, as he was such a monster Anna chose to enslave herself to the Crones to pay for an abortion rather than bear his child.

Through Geralt, the player gets to choose where the Baron goes from that point. He can force the Baron to confront his misdeeds in the form of the botchling, and if his choices leave the Baron with any hope at the end of the quest, Strenger does the best he can to fix things. Yet Geralt can also create a scenario where repairing the family is impossible, an outcome Strenger does not have the courage to face.

This isn’t just relevant to the Baron. Another thing that the procedural setup does here is reinforce the idea, established in White Orchard, that Geralt is a CSI-esque professional. It’s typical for those shows to center around dispassionate, “scientific” individuals who establish character traits mainly from hairstyles, actorly tics, and a few seconds of dialogue here or there in each episode that only build into a personality over the course of a 100+ episode syndication run. Geralt, with his limited apparent emotional range, seems to match with these expectations (and certainly this is consistent with the beliefs of most people in The Witcher’s world). In a typical Western RPG, where the interior of the character is supplied entirely by the mind of the player, this would be an extremely useful presentation. But that’s not what’s going on.

The challenge for CD Projekt Red is that Geralt is an existing character with canonical desires, and while the player is given the opportunity to choose how Geralt reacts to his emotional connections, the player does not get to define them. As a result, it’s necessary to establish what his connections and anxieties are. Of course this could be done with endless internal (or, as is typical for this game, audible) monologue, but I think it’s more fruitful to view the Bloody Baron’s quest as a way of displaying Geralt’s entanglements and anxieties externally. This quest is a mirror of his own situation, perhaps even one that’s a bit too on the nose. Anna’s choice to flee Strenger and serve the monstrous crones and Tamara’s decision to abandon her life and take up common cause with strangers parallel Yen’s avoidance of Geralt and service to Nilfgaard, and Ciri’s alliance with an unknown elf with mysterious motives.

The clearest reflection of Geralt’s anxieties, however, comes when the Baron finally breaks down and tells the whole story. In this exchange, the Baron reveals that the roots of his present unhappiness—his drinking, Anna’s anger—lay in the years he spent away at war. His family began to break down in his absence, and after that his presence became unbearable. This is the worry that Geralt the character, and thus the player, needs to be processing. He has been separated from Yen for some time, and the strained conversation he’s had with her in Vizima clearly indicates that their relationship, like the Baron’s, has been weakened by their infidelities. Ciri, too, has been away for years, and he has already been struck by the fact that she is now grown up. Has she also grown away? If the Baron’s normal family, bound by ties of blood, couldn’t come back together after years apart, can Geralt’s family, freakish (by the world’s lights) and held together only by the choices of its members, keep from fracturing? In this light, Geralt’s decisions to reunify the Strengers or let them fall apart represent his own desire for absolution or condemnation, and thus give the player the option of stating, through play, how Geralt feels about himself.

The Benefits of Misery

Its bogs and swamps make Velen a naturally miserable land. It’s also supernaturally dismal, thanks to the creatures those places attract and its disturbing would-be deities. To this brew humanity has added war, starvation, and the slowly sinking wreckage of shattered hopes. This broad sense of gloom speaks more specifically to Geralt’s worries through the region’s numerous tragic love stories, and focuses precisely on them through the Bloody Baron’s quest. The swamp, the Crones, and the self-destructive nature of man play weave their way into both the broad arc of that story and its grace notes (e.g. Gretka). The player’s interaction with the various characters and events of the quest chain allows him not only to express judgments about the world, but also to explore how Geralt feels about his own situation, be it condemnation or, perhaps, a whisper of hope. This complex interplay of location and plot makes Velen the best region of The Wild Hunt, and one of the most compelling locales of recent role-playing games.

Baten Kaitos letters: Finale

 Letters, Role Playing Games  Comments Off on Baten Kaitos letters: Finale
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.

Baten Kaitos letters 5

 Letters, Role Playing Games  Comments Off on Baten Kaitos letters 5
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.