GameCube console owners who have been waiting for a new RPG in Japan finally have something to sink their teeth into with Namco's Baten Kaitos. The fully featured RPG developed by Xenosaga's Monolith software was recently released in Japan, and it features a unique battle system based on cards, graphics near the quality of Final Fantasy X, and a strong story set in a unique world. We recently spent some time with Baten Kaitos to see if the promising game is as good as it looks.
The story of Baten Kaitos begins with the main character, Kalas, waking up in a village after having been rescued during his long journey to avenge his family's death. There, he meets up with the heroine of the game, Xelha, and gets caught up in an incident that may change the fate of the world. What's unique about Baten Kaitos' setting is that the people in this world all have wings, and they live on floating continents rather than directly on Earth. The setting is also nicely complemented by subtle cloud effects. We expect that you'll discover why humankind isn't living on the ground and that you'll find the answers to other mysteries, such as why Kalas is missing a wing, as you progress through the game.
Baten Kaitos consists mainly of a world map and a field. The world map, which is used for moving from one location to another, is only about the width of one screen, and it feels a lot like Namco's old Dragon Buster map. There are no enemy encounters in the world map screen. Once you reach a location, the screen turns to the field, which includes towns and dungeons. The towns are used for gathering information and for going into new events, as well as for purchasing cards, since the battles in this game are based on cards. Leveling up is also done in the towns. You'll have to go to the church and exchange the experience points you've earned for levels. In the dungeons, you'll have to reach your objective by defeating enemies, solving puzzles, and finding ways around obstacles. The battles in the game are not random encounters. You'll be able to see your enemies on the field screen. There's a way to avoid battles roughly half of the time, which can be useful, since the game doesn't always give you an option to retreat from a battle, but it's not guaranteed.
The battle system in Baten Kaitos is based on cards, but the rules are simple, and it actually plays a bit like poker. Each of the cards has a number stamped on its corner, just like traditional playing cards. By picking up a number of cards and creating a poker-style hand, such as a flush (all cards of the same suit) or a straight (all card numbers in sequence--one through five, for example), you can inflict more damage on your enemies or reduce the damage they inflict on you. In addition, the cards also have natural elements associated with them, such as earth, wind, or fire. You can take advantage of the elements to inflict more damage on an enemy, by attacking an enemy of darkness with a card containing the element of light, for example. Or you can use the elements to reduce enemy attacks, such as by using a card with an element of water when an enemy attacks with fire. Neglecting to keep in mind the elements can lead to disaster, however, because if you attack an enemy by using cards with opposing elements in the same combo, they cancel each other out, and the damage inflicted on your foe will be miniscule.
Another interesting aspect of the battle system in Baten Kaitos is that there aren't any standard battle menus. Instead, there's a set of random cards placed at the bottom of the screen. All the actions in the battle, including using items and fleeing, are done by picking the cards. At the beginning of your turn, you'll pick a card that will send a character off to attack the enemy. You can continue to pick a few more cards in real time while the character is attacking and try to create a special hand to inflict more damage than usual. The result of your hand and the damage you inflict will be shown on the screen after each character's turn. You'll be able to decrease the damage received from enemies by choosing cards such as helms and armors and trying to make a special hand of these cards when the enemies attack during their turn. The characters can select only two cards per turn at the beginning of the game, but the maximum number of selectable cards will increase up to nine as the game proceeds.
You'll also be able to create new cards by combining existing cards into new cards. Most of these creations can be discovered by accident, but the combinations are logical in hindsight. For example, using an egg card with a fire card will create a "sunny-side up" card, using a cheese card with a wine card will create a "cheese fondue" card, and using a strawberry card with an ice card will create a "strawberry sorbet" card. Some cards also change their form in real time with the internal clock of the game; for instance, a bamboo sprout card will turn into a full bamboo card and an ice card will turn into a water card over time.
The battles feature a unique twist in that you won't receive any money for defeating enemies. Instead, you'll have to take Polaroid pictures of the enemies and sell them to the shops in the towns. Photos of strong and rare enemies tend to sell at a higher price, and the quality of the pictures makes a difference in how high they can sell. However, just aiming the camera and taking the picture doesn't work for all of the enemies. For example, an enemy that consists of fire is extremely bright, and you won't be able to take a focused picture with the use of the camera alone. You'll have to pull out an attack with an element of darkness and combo it with the Polaroid shot. Likewise to the way items change over time, the image in the photo is blank right after it has been taken, and it becomes clearer as time passes.
While the battle system in Baten Kaitos offers a fresh take on combat, it seems to have a few problems. For starters, the target cursor is set to the enemy by default, even for healing items, which are meant to be used on your side. Selecting targets is also a bit cumbersome--you'll have to repeatedly hit the L or R button to cycle through them. Further, the cards that appear during combat are completely random, so you aren't guaranteed to be able to do what you want, such as to run or to heal. This could be a hurdle for RPG players who haven't experienced card battles before, since it doesn't give you full control over every situation. The fact that there's quite a bit of luck involved should test the skills even of veteran players. The randomness of combat makes it vital to customize your deck of cards on the field menu screen prior to going off to battle, since victory strongly depends on the combinations and elements of the cards. You wouldn't want to keep water element attacks in your deck when fighting with a sea monster, for example. The game encourages you to do this by giving you the option to recustomize your cards and retry fights if you lose a battle against a boss.
Baten Kaitos should be an interesting game for Game Cube owners who have been waiting for a new RPG, considering its unique gameplay and rich graphics. A word of warning to potential importers: The game is strongly language dependent, so anyone thinking of buying the import version is going to need a good understanding of Japanese. While there hasn't been any official word out of Namco as to whether the game will come to the US, we expect that it will be a likely candidate for a US release given the lack of RPGs on the GameCube.
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