Developer Monolith Soft has recently been carving its own notable niche in the world of console role-playing games, and is best known as the creator of the PlayStation 2's Xenosaga series. Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean is yet another RPG with yet another long and unwieldy title, and it's a beautiful game with a captivating world, a unique art style, and a card-based battle system that draws on the possible combinations of several hundred cards that can change over time. The battle system has a flaw or two, but the lavishly detailed world of Baten Kaitos is a great place to go for a nice fairy tale.
"Baten kaitos" translates from Arabic as "the belly of the whale," and it's also the name of a star in the constellation Cetus (the whale). The world of Baten Kaitos is one where humanity is scattered across a handful of islands floating high in the sky, where tales of the lost earth and oceans below are relegated to legend. The people who live here grow a set of wings, called "wings of the heart," that are said to vary in form depending on the spirit and character of each individual. You'll be experiencing this world through the eyes and ears of a blue-haired youth named Kalas, who differs from his brethren in that he has only a single wing--his second wing is a mechanical one crafted by his grandfather. However, unlike in games where you assume the persona of the main character or otherwise just sit back and watch, you play here as a guardian spirit, an otherworldly soul who has bonded to Kalas. It's an interesting twist on things, as your bonded human and other characters in the game will routinely break the fourth wall, turning periodically to speak to you directly or to ask your advice. Your involvement primarily manifests itself in agreeing or disagreeing with Kalas, and the more your responses match his mind-set, the stronger your bond will become, which can have an appreciable effect in battle.
Otherwise, it's traditional RPG fare, as you meet a mysterious girl named Xelha and wind up in opposition to a plot by an evil empire to resurrect a dark god. A variety of characters will fall in with your cause, like a cheerful knight-turned-fisherman, a disaffected exile from the empire, and a powerful masked wizard. The stories of your party members aren't delved into very deeply; the game concentrates more on forwarding the main narrative and less on histories and motivation. Aside from an interesting wrinkle or two, you'll probably be able to mostly predict where the plot is going, but it's still an enjoyable ride, thanks to the well-crafted lands and cultures you'll be visiting, the personality of your party members, and all the "magnus" that you'll discover.
Magnus are cards--more precisely, they are the "magna essence" of items that can then be magically stored on cards and used. Anything inanimate can be stored in a magnus, from weapons and armor, to elemental spells, to explosives, trees, glasses of beer, fishing poles, clouds, and much, much more. Some magnus can be used only in battle, some can be used only outside of battle, and some are stored and used only as quest items. As if that weren't enough, many magnus will change over time while they're in your possession. Hang on to a tasty fish for too long, and it will rot. Keep milk for long enough and it will turn into cheese. Edible bamboo shoots will change into bamboo spears that can be used as weapons. The grapes that you used as a healing item will change into rotten grapes that can poison you, then into a restorative wine, and then into vinegar. That probably sounds complicated and sometimes inconvenient--and it sometimes is. But usually, battle magnus change only over an extended period of time, and since you're constantly gaining new magnus from monsters and buying them in shops, you can manage your stock pretty easily. It's also interesting (if occasionally frustrating) to see what your magnus will turn into, and many items can be acquired only by manipulating the magnus yourself, like letting wheat turn into tasty beer. But by far the most important thing you'll be doing with your magnus is fighting with them.
The enemies who dot the islands of Baten Kaitos are all visible onscreen in their respective areas, and you can learn to slip around many of them if you're not inclined to fight. Each character has his or her own "deck" of magnus (which you'll have arranged ahead of time) to call on during battle. When it's that character's turn in battle, you'll be dealt a certain number of cards from your deck randomly, and you can play anywhere from zero to nine cards, depending on that person's class level. If it's an offensive turn, you'll be able to use any of your weapons and items on your foe. If it's a defensive turn, you'll be able to use your armor or parry with weapons, if applicable. Playing a card causes a new card to be dealt into your hand automatically. Since you're dealt magnus at random, your ideal deck will be a mixture of weapons, armor, healing items, and spells, allowing you to chain attacks, defensive maneuvers, and healing techniques together in an effective way. Cards don't disappear once they're used, no matter what class of magnus they are, so that doughnut you used to heal in this battle will still be in your deck for the next, and if you use your whole deck during a single fight and reshuffle, it'll still be there. Still, not everything is always doughnuts and happiness.
There are a couple of issues that crop up in battle periodically. Since you're being dealt cards at random, there are times when you can end up getting a glut of a certain type of magnus, like all armor items. If you don't happen to get attacked (and so don't use those cards at all), all those armor cards are still in your hand for your next turn, so you're not getting dealt anything new to attack or heal with. You can only discard a single card per turn if it's not being used for something, which means you can end up in a situation where a character is locked out of acting for a few turns because of the hand he or she has been dealt, while the others are in serious trouble.
Also, there isn't any kind of persistent display in the interface to show your party's hit points--the health meters show up only when you start a turn. This means that in the few seconds you have before you choose your first card in a turn, you'll have to take your eyes off your cards, see if someone needs to be healed, look back at your deck, hit the right trigger button to select a party member instead of an enemy, and move the cursor to select a healing item. The time you have to select cards decreases as you advance, and sometimes you can't even tell immediately whether a given turn has your character on offense or defense. The game uses different sound effects to let you know whether you should be attacking or defending, but at higher levels you'll often fail to defend against the very first hit of an incoming assault because you simply cannot react fast enough. You'll get into the habit of trying to leave your cursor on a defensive card when ending an attack turn so you'll be able to react quickly when the enemy comes for you, but even that can be unreliable. For all its versatility, the interface often requires you to mentally keep track of certain things, since you need to watch the cards in your hand to select moves, and as such it can get a little unwieldy.
There's a good amount of strategy you can use in battle, though. Many cards are imbued with a specific element, like light and dark, or water and fire. Enemies often have weaknesses you can exploit by directing weapons and spells of a certain element at them. If you happen to use two cards of opposite alignment, however, the effects will cancel each other out, so you have to choose your actions carefully. Each character also gains magnus that are essentially "finishing moves" that you can use after you've played a certain number of cards in one turn. These moves are very powerful, and you can get the upper hand quickly if you manage to play several of them in a row. In addition, there are powerful special moves that are available only to Kalas that trigger randomly depending on your rapport with him. The closer you're bonded with him, the more often these special cards pop up (they'll appear in your deck at the very end of your turn). When you can keep up with the brisk pace and wealth of information being thrown at you, battle is a satisfying experience.
Interestingly, you won't level up as you gain experience in the field. The only place you can level your characters in the game is at a church that you can reach only through a certain kind of save point that's prevalent in cities and towns. It's an odd mechanic that at best is merely inconvenient, and at worst means that you have to backtrack out of a dungeon area to level and strengthen your party. The game balances this somewhat by making all enemies in a given area roughly equal in strength, so if you can manage the initial foes well, you will likely be able to handle the boss as well. Also, the characters will give audible cues at the beginning of a fight that will let you know if they're strong enough. If someone says, "Walk in the park, baby," at the start of a fight, you'll be mowing through foes. But if someone says, "This doesn't look good," that's a good cue for you to level up before plunging much deeper.
Prerendered environments are known for allowing for greater (if static) detail in scenes, and while many of the towns and cities in Baten Kaitos encompass only a few rooms, they're all positively bursting with some amazing intricacy, color, and quality. And they're not all completely static--one city bubbles at the edges with misty, billowing cloud, another is rich in deeply red tropical flowers that wave in unseen breezes, and yet another is made entirely out of spun sugar, marzipan, and dollops of whipped cream that positively glisten. There's much variety in the places you'll visit, with each island having its own unique character, from a hollowed-out desert mining town to a picture-book village. The dungeons are similarly diverse, and there's even one area that's an ode to Namco's classic Tower of Druaga arcade game. In contrast to the exceedingly rich 2D environments, the 3D character models aren't as impressive, and the game has a bad habit of making some of the environments so grand that the controllable characters are dwarfed to proportions that can make you squint. Still, the character models both look and move well in the field and in battle, and the portraits you'll see while characters speak do a nice job of conveying emotion. As an added bonus, they're not drawn in the traditional anime style. No unreasonably big eyes and mysteriously vanished noses here.
The game's soundtrack is perhaps not as varied as its visuals, but the music that is present does a great job of setting mood and tone for the island nations and unfolding events. There's a fair amount of voice work in the game as well, and the delivery tends to be solid on the whole, if a bit slow. The one interesting point about the voice work is that it's actually slightly distorted--all the voices sound as if they're being funneled through a short cardboard tube or being read by someone with blocked sinuses. Ostensibly this is because you, the guardian spirit, hear everything through Kalas' ears and a dimensional shift. While you eventually learn to tune the distortion out (and it's a minor effect), you'll still be wondering why the voices sound a little odd when you can hear everything else just fine.
All in all, the game is a little longer than what is normal for the genre--the two-disc adventure tops out at around 50 hours. Like in many RPGs, there's a wealth of side quests you can choose to engage in that will require some magnus hunting and some leisurely strolling around, among other things. There are far worse things than leisurely strolling around the detailed and mystical lands of Baten Kaitos, and if you're willing to put the time in to wrap your hands and your mind around the card-battle craziness, you'll be rewarded with a unique adventure.