Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings Feature Preview

We take an exclusive look at the localized version of Namco's upcoming GameCube RPG.

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Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings is the upcoming GameCube role-playing game from Namco. The game, released earlier this year in Japan, is from developer Monolith Software, which is best known for its excellent Xenosaga games. The title is the second part of an impressive, and welcome, one-two Namco RPG punch for the GameCube that began in July with Tales of Symphonia. We recently had the chance to take an exclusive look at the localized version of the game to see how the leap from Japan has treated it.

An ancient evil threatens the world, and only you can stop it.
An ancient evil threatens the world, and only you can stop it.

For those unfamiliar with the game, Baten Kaitos is set in a world made up of floating islands. The existences of both the oceans and the earth have faded into memory as folks have moved on up to their deluxe digs in the sky. The game's story tells the epic tale of two young people, Kalas and Xelha, who both set out with individual agendas but wind up on a singular adventure to save the world. In Kalas' case, the order of the day is revenge, as the young, winged man sets out on a mission to avenge the deaths of his brother and grandfather. Xelha's motivation is a bit broader, but it already involves coming to the rescue of the troubled world.

The story unfolds in patented RPG fashion, with an amnesiac Kalas being nursed to health after a run-in with some unfriendly critters in the woods. As he regains his strength and familiarizes himself with his surroundings, the young man sets out to explore the world and crosses paths with the lovely Xelha. Unfortunately, the game's major trouble starts when the pair teams up and inadvertently releases an ancient evil that threatens the world's existence. D'oh! Will the pair's quest send them on a journey to strange, new places? And will it involve fights against hordes of enemies, including boss characters? Absolutely. Is it fun? Oh, yeah.

Despite its fairly standard setup, Baten Kaitos is an engaging RPG thanks to several unique elements. First and foremost, the game's card-based battle system presents a wonderfully complicated but accessible new wrinkle on standard RPG combat that winds up being very fun. Combat follows the traditional turn-based approach that's a staple of the genre, but here you'll rely on "magnus cards"--which hold everything you need for combat, healing, exploration, and earning money--because they contain the essences of objects. When in combat, you'll use these cards, which feature elemental affinities as well as number values that come into play when forming combos. These combos come in offensive and defensive flavors. Offensive cards range from swords you'll use to hack at your foes to magical attacks. The key to successful combat is using the right mix of cards to dole out damage. You'll need to keep tabs on the elemental affinities of your cards and your enemies. If you do so, you'll know that hitting a fire-based enemy with water or ice is a smarter move than trying to do so with a fire card. The game's combo system revolves around creating chains of cards based on their number values. These numbers can be added to attack values to inflict bonus damage on your enemies. Defensive cards include objects that block damage, such as hats or pieces of armor, and healing cards that restore hit points to your party members. Lastly, a final type of card that doesn't fit into either category is the camera one, which lets you take pictures of your enemies. This ability is more than just a fruity diversion in combat, because the pictures taken will serve as your primary means of earning cash in the game. The only hitch to combat when you first start the game is that the number of cards you can use during a turn is fewer than what you'd expect, and your selection of cards also leaves a lot to be desired. However, you'll do fine if you're careful. Once you start to get yourself more cards, you can begin fleshing out your deck. After this, you can level up so that you can wield more cards. Then you can really start kicking some tail.

The card-based combat system is complicated but accessible.
The card-based combat system is complicated but accessible.

As we mentioned, the cash system in Baten Kaitos differs from most other RPGs, because the only thing you'll earn from defeating enemies are other cards and additional experience. If you're looking to earn some bling, you'll have to work your photographic skills by taking snapshots of your foes in combat. Once your pictures have been developed, you can sell them to vendors for cash that can be used to buy more cards.

The game's system for leveling up takes an equally unorthodox approach, because the experience you'll earn is just stored. To level up and boost your stats, you'll have to visit churches in the game so that priests can buff you up. You'll access churches by teleporting to them from magical plants that you'll find in your travels. Yes, magical teleporting plants.

Pick A Card

Another unique element in the game is the Magnus card system--and how it will come in to play outside of combat. The basic school of thought on the cards is that they hold the essences of items that you'll release when you need them. Once you get yourself some blank cards, you'll be able to use them to soak up the essences of all sorts of items that you'll encounter in the world, which you'll probably need for a variety of reasons. In some cases, you'll need a particular essence to complete a side quest for an NPC, whereas in others, you'll need a specific essence to get past an obstacle, such as fire. However, you may need explosives to clear trees and rubble from your path. The unique system is actually a logical way to explain how you'll hold all the stuff you'll accumulate in your travels, as opposed to the magical "sacks" typically seen in RPGs that hold a grip of items but remain tiny and manageable. The twist to the card system is that some essences will change over time, in some cases spoiling or losing their effectiveness. You can use this to your advantage by combining essences to create all-new cards. This may seem a bit complicated, but it's not really difficult once you get the logic down, which is explained to you a few times over the course of the game. Eventually, you'll be card-slinging like a pro.

The game's visuals are very easy on the eyes.
The game's visuals are very easy on the eyes.

The graphics in the game are one of the many highlights to be found in the compelling package, thanks to rich 3D interpretations of Asami Fujita's character designs, as well as the game's lush environments and stunning computer-generated sequences that move the narrative along. The visuals will break down into the standard archetypes you'd expect from an RPG. You'll explore towns and interact with folks from a close-up view that lets you appreciate the detailed environments that are enhanced by little touches, such as animation flourishes. The field screen pulls the action back and lets you negotiate the prerendered backgrounds, which include the same types of animated highlights as the towns, albeit on a smaller scale. Finally, combat brings you in close to the action and makes use of a dynamic camera. The overall quality of the visuals is refreshingly high, and it presents a fine showcase for the GameCube hardware's considerable muscle.

The audio in the game is initially a mixed blessing. On the positive side of things, the game has an impressive and varied score that features many strong music tracks. The sound effects are well done and help set the game's tone. On the downside, the voice acting features some annoying moments of overemoting that are questionable. Thankfully, you can switch off the voice to spare yourself any lasting trauma.

Keep an eye out for Baten Kaitos in November.
Keep an eye out for Baten Kaitos in November.

Based on what we've played, Baten Kaitos appears to have a lot of appeal that should be welcomed with open arms by most RPG fans. The game's high production values and meaty play present a potent combo that's hard to resist. While the battle system and some of the more idiosyncratic elements of the gameplay may give some players pause, they shouldn't dissuade anyone from trying it out. The rich story is cool, and it's up to the quality of Monolith's work on the PlayStation 2. Anyone looking for a substantial RPG for the GameCube should keep an eye out for Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings when it ships this November for the system.

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