Aside from Zelda and Paper Mario, there are so few RPGs for the GameCube that any self-respecting RPGer could be forgiven for not owning one. Baten Kaitos, however, should change that. This is a game that, had it been released on PlayStation 2 would rival Kingdom Hearts' graphics, Shadow Hearts' interactive combat, Final Fantasy X's plot twists and Suikoden III's side quests.
There are several things that make Baten Kaitos stand out in the RPG crowd, and the first is how it looks. The colourful pre-rendered backgrounds and marvelously detailed environments and characters make for sumptuous viewing. The second is how bad the voice acting is. A handful of the characters are merely average, but the remainder are overwhelmingly dreadful. They are so bad, in fact, that I suggest you make use of the option that allows you to turn them off. The dialogue boxes show the facial expressions anyway, so you won't be missing anything. The next thing you will notice is the role of cards, or 'Magnus,' and this is what makes Baten Kaitos such a winner.
The cards are not just for combat, but that's how you will be using them the most. The cards are actually the 'magna essence' of an item that is stored on the card for use at a later, more opportune, time. Anything can be stored on a card; weapons, armour, elemental spells, food, drink, flowers, clouds, jewelery, stones, pretty much anything really. Some are used in quests, some in battle and some change over time. Milk becomes yoghurt and then cheese, buds become flowers, which then wither and die. Ice and snow melts, bamboo shoots become fishing rods and nourishing food rots. If you fail to keep a sharp eye on the cards you hold for combat, what can heal you today will poison you tomorrow.
In your final party of six you have two magic users, and each of the other four has their own weapon of choice, making - apart from the two magicians - each character's 'deck' is unique and usable only by them. Each has his own 'finishing move', which is a devastating attack that is used as the final card in that turn. As your characters level up, the number of cards they are able to 'hold' and 'play' increases, ending at 7 and 9 respectively. As you 'play' a card, another immediately replaces it in your 'hand' until all your 'cards' have been 'played', then you miss a turn while you 'reshuffle' and then begin again. Sound easy? Great, now it becomes complicated.
Each card has up to 4 'spirit numbers' and which represent an element. Bonus points are gained by 'playing' a 'full hand' made up of a 'straight' or two, three or more of the same 'spirit number'. The elements also gain you a bonus, or not, depending on what element the enemy is. If he is fire and you 'play' fire, you'll receive a lower score percentage than if you 'play' any other element. If you 'play' water you score a higher percentage. If you 'play' opposing elements in the same 'hand' they merely cancel each other out. Got it now? Good. But there's another complication.
All this happens within a specified amount of time. And it's very short. While I found the idea of using cards in combat intriguing and challenging, I felt it was made needlessly more difficult by not allowing the cursor to loop.' Instead of continually being able to press the control stick to the right and going from 1 through to 7 and then back to 1, the cursor stops at the final card, 7, and to get to 1 you have to press the control stick to the left and come back through the entire deck again, wasting precious seconds. Never the less, this is a small complaint in an over-all 'hands-on' combat system that is as challenging as it is fun and addictive.
Also addictive is the story. At the beginning, we are introduced to Kalas, the principal character, and we learn that he has a Guardian Spirit, that's us. Occasionally Kalas will turn and speak directly to us to ask our opinion, we can disagree or agree with him, of course, but the more we mirror his thoughts the closer our bond becomes, and that helps in combat.
After naming ourself we learn that we are on Sadal Suud, one of five floating islands, which was created, like the other four, by an evil god, who when he sucked up the oceans and left islands floating in the sky. But the evil god, Malpercio, later fell to the power of Spiritual Heroes who bound him in five 'End Magnus' and placed one on each of the islands so they could never be found and rejoined. Now the story proper begins, with Kalas waking in a doctor's house. We learn that he was brought here after being attacked in the forest by Rock Cats. But despite his Spirit Guide loosing its memory, Kalas heads straight back into the forest after a quick look around the small village of Cebalrai. Soon after entering the forest, Kalas comes across Xelha, another adventurer, and together they fight and kill the huge animal that has killed her two companions. Unwittingly, they unleash one of the End Magnus, but before they can figure out what it means and lay claim to it, representatives of the Empire - the rulers of the floating islands - march in and take it, kidnap Xelha and once more Kalas is left laying unconscious in the forest. And thus the adventure begins.
The fabulous graphics of Baten Kaitos is matched stroke for stroke by the mesmerising musical score, which is forever in tune with the action and the setting on screen. Each of the islands has a visual style and a soundtrack of its own. Tropical trees bending in the rain is perfectly matched with swaying wind instruments. Wistful violins seem blown in on billowing pink and purple clouds, and keyboards rush and swirl along with a swiftly flowing river. Everything visual is precisely paired with sound from opening FMV to closing credits.
Baten Kaitos is an RPG that the GameCube can be proud of adding to its meager collection, because, despite its small flaws, this is an extremely enjoyable game. And in case you wanted to know Baten Kaitos is Arabic for 'belly of the whale' and it is situated in the constellation of Cetus, in which another star, Mira, wavers in and out of view. The whale figures prominently in the game and the island of Mira is constantly wavering between two dimensions. This goes to show that a lot of thought has gone into the creation of this game - and it shows.