Baten Kaitos is sumptuous in almost every conceivable way.
Gameplay: If one were to attempt to sum up Baten Kaitos' story, they would likely only succeed in making it seem derivative. For indeed, the basis of the game does revolve around stopping an evil entity and their bid to realise a sadistic goal - but then what game doesn't? So banish the apprehension over rehashed conceits, for there are few to be found in Baten Kaitos. The game takes place on, for the most part, five floating islands, though more manifest the further you progress. The reason for these islands hovering in the sky is that the Earth and ocean below have been lost long ago, their presence relegated to widely-discussed legend. Kalas, the dynamic youth who spearheads the game, is determined to find the aforementioned ocean as a promise to his deceased relative. Yet the story soon arcs away from this underlying plot and instead becomes concerned with the saving of the World from the clutches of a crazed creator. Your role in the game is quite interesting, as you play the 'guardian spirit' assigned to Kalas. The part is confined to answering a question now and again, though ultimately it's pleasing to see such an idea. The other party members are all very different to one another, offering an amalgamation of views for any given subject, and I find them all to be memorable and truly likeable, Lyude being the most so in my opinion.
Much of the game is played out as would be expected of any RPG - travel to myriad towns and interact with the locals in order to find out the information necessary for you to proceed, or brave dark forests teeming with hostile creatures in order to find an item. Baten Kaitos, however, notably omits the ability to walk across a world map and find a location for yourself. Instead, an overview of that island's areas of interest is presented to you, and you walk Kalas over a linear path to the desired area. It has the effect of speeding up proceedings, though whether or not that's a particularly pleasing thing is down to your personal preference. What makes Baten Kaitos truly unique, however, is its intrinsic battle system, based on 'Magnus' cards. Given how frequent battles are in RPGs, it's nice to see a system veer away refreshingly from the normal. Baten Kaitos does this with aplomb; the battle system is simply fantastic. The magnus cards needed to build a deck can be found as loot from enemies after fights, given to you by NPCs, or in treasure chests (usually located in dungeons and outdoor regions). Magnus cards are of six elements: light, dark, fire, water, wind and chronos (time). Somewhat strangely, the elemental pairings contradict each other, so, for example, if you were to attack a water-elemental monster with a fire card, it would do either +30% or +80% damage, depending on the enemy's degree of weakness. Pokémon this clearly isn't. Magnus also have 'spirit numbers', these ranging from 1-9. Early on in the game, magnus only have 1 spirit number, though as you progress, you'll find ones with up to 4. Their purpose is in creating either ascending, descending or same-number combos, which ultimately do more damage to enemies depending on how large your combo is. A battle is split into two phases; attack and defence. When all of your characters have finished tearing chunks out of an enemy, it is their turn to gain a small matter of retribution. Your job is to throw out defensive magnus in order to effectively prevent their vehement motions. Elemental issues, as well as combos, still apply here. Overall, this renders the battle system very frantic indeed, yet unquestionably strategic, making for perpetually eventful and thoroughly enjoyable fights. I haven't even mentioned the fact that some magnus can age over time, leading to either useless items or the opposite. The game clearly gives you a lot to sink your teeth into.
As for the 'gripe' the GameSpot reviewer cared to point out - well, I don't feel it's an issue at all. Indeed, you can only level up your character and their class (Class up items allow you to hold more magnus in your deck, and are often found in dungeons or outdoor locations - some you really will have to search with a fine-toothed comb for) at the church, but I always found the required blue save flowers to be in plentiful supply, wherever I ventured - be it a town or a dungeon.
Graphics: Although pre-rendered backgrounds are nothing new to the RPG genre, the way Baten Kaitos simply makes them its own is quite breathtaking. The locations which you traverse are all vibrant - full of life and colour, and will likely bring a smile to your face on innumerable occasions. They are extremely diverse, an example being of how Mintaka - a heavily-industrialised, imperial city differs to Pherkad - a city over-run with clouds and archaic cobbled streets. The initial five islands really are a joy to travel through, feeling more like a sojourn than a duty-enforced journey. The character design is also top-notch, with Mizuti in particular standing out, but once again, the scope is broad, with the characters' clothing being indicative of the nature of the island from where they hail. The enemy design is where I unfortunately feel the need to take a mark off, for although for the most part the enemies look excellent, some designs are rehashed - a boss I fought towards the end of the first disk has its design appear later for another boss, then again towards the end of the game for a standard enemy. I'm possibly being a bit pedantic, as one could witness such recycled designs in many an RPG, though it certainly does bring the overall high standard down a tad. On a more positive note, the effects in battle are all delightful, with magical flares and sword swipes depicted pleasingly.
Sound: Now this is one area where it really does come down to the individual's preference. I've read many a review in which the writer seems to think Motoi Sakuraba's work insipid, so I feel the need to vindicate my love of his rousing compositions. Sakuraba's work is often synthesised, e.g., in Tales of Symphonia, but that's a style I happen to adore, and I feel he truly can cover all bases with his skillful work. Not a tune in Baten Kaitos feels out of place, or as if it may have been an afterthought. I believe music to be just as important, if not more so, than graphics in creating an atmosphere in a game, and Sakuraba certainly hasn't disappointed me here, but has instead incited me to purchase the OST. The sound effects are also of a very high quality, and I feel that the same thing can be said for the voice acting, although seemingly many beg to differ. The somewhat distorted edge to the voices is done in order to further attempt to immerse you in the role of the guardian spirit, and although irritating at first, you'll likely soon not realise it. An issue primarily, but not a big enough one to deprive Baten Kaitos of a perfect 10 in this department.
Value: There is no denying that this quest is lengthy; it personally took me 60 hours to finish the game, including the completion of the three main side quests comprised within. That's most certainly not something to scoff at, I'd say ^_^.
Overall: Baten Kaitos is an RPG with a difference, that difference being the unique and immersive battle system which will cause you to run around in search of your next potential victim. Everything else in the package is finely woven together to create a truly praise-worthy game in every sense. An excellent achievement by tri-Crescendo and Monolith Soft, this game will always have a lofty position in my 'favourite RPGs of all time' chart, and deservingly so. If you're very much on the periphery as to whether or not you think this game suits you, I would whole-heartedly recommend a rental. Ultimately, you won't find too many finer RPGs than this.