My brother bought a copy of Eternal Sonata the other week, so taking advantage of the 'multiplayer' mode, I played it with him. Despite being about Chopin and girls in frilly dresses who are dying and can use magic, I noted that certain aspects of it were similar to another game I had played ages past: Baten Kaitos. So of course, with the memories of that game in my mind, I tracked down a copy and bought it.
There's nothing really special about the story, and indeed, it's typical Japanese RPG fare. Perhaps the point that stands out the most is that you don't play as the main character per se. Instead, you play as a Guardian Spirit assigned to the main character, Kalas, at the beginning of the game. Oh, and you're a Guardian Spirit with amnesia.
Kalas is on a typical quest, to avenge the deaths of his grandfather and brother when he rescues a girl named Xelha from death by giant monster. As it turns out, Xelha is on a quest to warn the world of an evil scheme to resurrect an evil god who was thought to have made the ocean disappear. They begin tagging along together, meeting interesting folk and whatnot. Did I mention Baten Kaitos takes place in the sky? Personally, I'm a sucker for games/movies/etc. that take place in the sky, so I forgave any weaknesses in the plot because of this.
The thing I like the most about Baten Kaitos (and indeed, I think this was the main selling point) is that its combat system features a unique turn-based card battle system. Unlike those Japanese RPGs which involve hammering the confirm button over and over again, the player's success in Baten Kaitos relies heavily on quick thinking, card management, and a good amount of luck.
The cards, known as Magnus in the game, come in several different flavors, such as offensive, defensive, equip, and quest. The tricky part of this system is that some Magnus will evolve over time. This can either be advantageous or disastrous. For example, while a common item such as a 'Cedar Tree' may be useless for a fair bit, it will eventually turn into 'Cedar Tree Sap,' which can heal up to 380HP. On the other hand, several healing items will rot.
Of course, there are several opportunities to gain new Magnus of every type. To ensure your success in battle as the game progresses, you must obtain Magnus that have higher offense and defense ratings and ones which can heal more HP.
Leveling up does not happen automatically. To gain levels, you must access the Church via the blue flowers scattered throughout the game world (which also act as save points). The Church not only allows you to level up your character but also allows you to increase your class, should you have the special Magnus required to do so. A character's class is important as it determines how many cards appear in his/her hand at once and how many cards he/she can play in any one round.
Another high point of the game is its stunning graphics. Baten Kaitos was released in 2003 yet playing it now, I'm still awestruck at the quality of the visuals. Everything looks fresh and clean, with just the right amount of visual effects to 'wow' you, but never causing you to shut your eyes in fears of being blinded. The character portraits are well-drawn and the color schemes for the various locations in the game are chosen with utmost care to convey the appropriate atmosphere to the player.
The musical score does an equally impressive job of feeding emotion into the game's world. Composed by Motoi Sakuraba (a JRPG soundtrack veteran, considering he also composed the music for Star Ocean, Valkyrie Profile, and Eternal Sonata), the tunes are memorable and are likely to stay with you long after your game session has ended. In fact, one of the main reasons I began wanting to play Baten Kaitos again was because the battle theme in Eternal Sonata sounded so similar.
However, I can't say such positive things about the voice acting. It is worth noting that Baten Kaitos contains a rather good plot twist in the middle of the game but unfortunately, this scene is ruined by the worst voice acting I have ever heard. The voice acting in the rest of the game is not as bad, ranging from amusingly corny to slightly cringe-worthy. As a result, it's somewhat embarrassing to play if there are other people in your immediate vicinity.
Despite the laughable voice acting and the somewhat atypical JRPG storyline, there is a lot to love about Baten Kaitos. It must be commended for having unique gameplay, gorgeous graphics and a wonderful score. And while it is not a game that will appeal to the masses, I have no doubt that it will always be remembered by those who played it as one of the most memorable games they have ever experienced.
Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Blood, Fantasy Violence, and Mild Language.