Baten Kaitos Origins
Baten Kaitos Origins was, if you'll recall, my iconoclastic #1 pick from E3 2006. As usual, I was right; it's a spectacular game that improves upon its predecessor in many respects and nags and taunts me to rate it a 5. I can't do it, though; while the game is lacking in any major flaws, it does have enough minor flaws that I must in good conscience relegate it to the 4.5 zone. Hey, this job may not seem hard, but it does carry with it some pretty heavy moral choices.
The primary way a video game interacts with us is visually, and any game that's just a chore to look at is going to be taking it pretty hard in the final ratings. This is not a problem the Baten Kaitos games have to worry about; I don't know that I've ever played a game that's more enjoyable just to look at than the first Baten Kaitos, and the sequel measures up admirably. I'm serious: if you have eyes or know anybody who does, you should probably at least rent one of these games just to look at it. The visual design is so consistently strong that it's really impossible for me to choose a highlight to call attention to, and there aren't particularly any parts that miss. Play begins in a Dank, Stinky Cave, and, as tends to be the case with Dank, Stinky Caves, it's not all that attractive. It does, however, look as good as a Dank, Stinky Cave really could, and it sets up an admirable contrast for when you get out of the cave and into the world proper.
I called out the sound as a weakness of the first game; this has been remedied here. The sound is a bit stronger overall, and there are no moments where the background music seems totally inappropriate for the action on-screen. Much of the music you'll hear will be familiar to you if you played the first Baten Kaitos, but there are plenty of new pieces as well. The voice acting is no better than in the first game, which means it's in the "mediocre" range. The game does kindly provide a toggle for it, however, and I suggest you use it; say what you will about me and voice acting, but when the text in the box reads "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!!" I'm glad I turned it off. There are some moments when the voice acting plays regardless of the setting you choose, but it's not a big deal - honestly, half of my issue with voice acting in a dialogue-heavy game is that it takes me a lot less time to read the lines than it takes the actors to say them, so I'm either waiting for them to finish before I scroll the boxes or I'm cutting them off. If it's just little snippets of voice, I'm much less likely to take issue.
The gameplay here is an interesting subject. As far as combat is concerned, it sure looks like Baten Kaitos, and it sure sounds like Baten Kaitos, and it sure plays not one whit like Baten Kaitos. There are still cards and you still build decks, but that's the end of the similarity. If you've played the original Baten Kaitos, you're likely to make a lot of mistakes early on while you get used to the new combat model. The game knows it's odd, though, and the difficulty and complexity are pitched quite low at the beginning to ease you in. By the time you're playing 24-card combos you'll have gotten plenty used to it, I promise. As with the first Baten Kaitos, the system is refreshingly different while not being weird-for-the-sake-of-weird; you can tell a lot of thought went into the mechanics, and they integrate nicely with the world. The changes to the battle system in fact resolve a lot of the issues with the first Baten Kaitos; the amount of luck-of-the-draw randomness is reduced, for example, and you won't find yourself with a constant shortage of basic attack cards.
Story-wise, this is one of the most intelligent, well-written (and -translated), genuinely original games I've ever played. The game takes a well-worn premise - the cost of progress and technology - and presents it more cleverly than you're thinking. This is a game with enough sense and integrity not to take sides or become preachy; it may be about the problems with industrialisation, but it's not lecturing you about them the way lesser games often do (I'm looking at you, Final Fantasy VII). The characters don't generally act like stock characters following their scripted behaviours, either; every action, reaction, and emotion in the game seems genuinely believable and human (with one exception of any significance). There are many unexpected and surprising moments to be found here, and quite a few interesting characters, along with several moments of genuine emotion. The ending in particular is perfect, especially in its treatment of the Milly and Guillo scene. More I will not say, except to note that the very last scene sets up a perfect lead-in to the first Baten Kaitos (this is a prequel, after all).
I mentioned, however, that the game has its flaws; this I will not ignore. The most noticable flaw is that, with all the fancy graphics and neato visual effects, there can be considerable slowdown during battle. This wouldn't be a major issue for most RPGs, but this one requires you to move fast, and the slowdown can lead to the wrong cards being played. It's not a huge amount of slowdown, and it's not constant, but it will spike sometimes if you're playing cards rapidly during an especially fancy special attack. The second-most-serious flaw would be that it is possible to become "locked into" the endgame; there is a point after which you can't do anything but proceed into the ending sequence, and the game allows you to save after this point (with no warning). Third would be that there are a few (not many) puzzles that are just plain annoying; the worst of them is trying to knock a fruit off of a tree in Holoholo Jungle (you'll know what I mean). On the whole, these flaws aren't severe, and the game does a lot to redeem them; I was convinced when I finished it that it was a solid 5, but upon reflection I realised that I couldn't overlook the problems it does have.
So, not quite perfect, but very close. Baten Kaitos Origins is one of the best RPGs you're likely to play anytime soon, and at $40 rather than $50, it's a steal. I'm happy to see Nintendo picking up the publishing of the series; perhaps interest from the Big N means a bright future for Monolith (no, not that Monolith) and tri-Crescendo - preferably one that includes more Baten Kaitos games.
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