The world of the GameCube role-playing game Baten Kaitos is one where continent-sized islands hang magically in the sky, high above the clouds and the mysterious world below. Baten Kaitos Origins tells the story of this bizarre universe from its very beginnings, serving as a prequel to the original game. There are plenty of familiar faces and places for series fans, but to fully enjoy this game, you'll have your work cut out for you--the magnus card-battle system returns with some new complexity, and the foes you face can be oppressively difficult. But for those who relish an old-school level of challenge and stat-building, Baten Kaitos Origins is a lengthy RPG with lots to see and do.
Blue-haired teenager Sagi is the hero of this tale--a "spiriter" boy with a unique ability to commune with a guardian spirit. That guardian spirit is you, and you'll be able to influence your young charge by choosing certain options for him or throwing in a comment every now and again. He has signed up with an elite military squad from the powerful empire of Alfard, ostensibly to get revenge for the servitude the empire enforced on his rural home of Hassaleh Island. Conveniently for the spirit of vengeance, Sagi's group soon gets assigned to a clandestine mission to assassinate Alfard's emperor, Olgan, as part of a deliberate coup attempt. But things get interesting when Sagi and his companion Guillo (a gangly marionette with battle capabilities) burst into the emperor's palace only to find that someone has beaten them to the stab--they've been set up. They escape Alfard with the help of Milliarde, a spunky girl with significant magical skills, and the three of them are soon swept up in trying to prevent the aggressive empire's expansion.
The game's story benefits from concentration on the three key players, though there are plenty of supporting personalities to add to the experience. Characters like Giacomo and Gibari from the original Baten Kaitos show up, albeit younger, and fans will get to see some of the formative events in their lives. The game periodically switches you to an even earlier timeline, and you'll get to see some of how the world transforms from an ordinary landmass into the scattered airborne islands of the present time. The narrative itself runs hot and cold. Some developments are obvious and telegraphed from the start, but there are also some cool, major plot twists. The script flows naturally, and the voice acting is mostly quite good, with only a few delivery issues here and there to mar things--which is good because there's quite a bit of spoken dialogue.
There's also a whole lot of fighting. Baten Kaitos Origins uses a card-battle system based around "magnus"--cards that are imbued with the essence of powerful attacks, magic, healing items, and more. You'll bring a deck of magnus into battles with you, and the abilities on those cards will be the ones you'll use during the entire fight. When you face off against foes in turn-based battle, a selection of cards will be dealt to you in a line at the bottom of the screen. You can choose to either use or discard them, and each time you remove a card from play, another card from your deck will replace it; the used cards are shuffled back into your deck for later. Each card has a "spirit number" that affects the order in which you can play it. So a weak attack card will have a spirit number of 1, a medium attack is 2, a strong attack is 3, and a special attack is 4 or higher, and you can chain these in order. When you play cards, you'll accumulate something called "magnus power," which lets you use your most powerful abilities. As you level up and grow stronger, you can have up to seven cards in your hand at a time, and you'll be able to discard multiple cards at a time.
Upon using a card, the next available cards in your hand will flash, so figuring out which cards you can play takes no time at all. A casual mastery of the card system will not get you past the game's bosses, however, because they're all pretty much ruthless and have a number of devastating attacks. To beat your toughest enemies, you'll need to choose character abilities intelligently, save good cards in your hand, build up magnus power, and perform relay attacks and "EX combos." Relay attacks enable you to chain up all three of your characters' attacks into a single giant combo blow (when you're able to do this, a card in your hand will flash "relay"). EX combos are combinations of cards from a single character that will produce a special attack, which will sometimes also grant a bonus effect, like increased damage or increased speed. Knowing what these skills are and saving the proper cards in your hand to set them up is to your advantage, but there are issues.
One issue is that the cards are dealt at random, so it's quite possible to end up in situations where you take massive hits but can't get healing item cards in time; or your hand gets clogged up with cards you cannot use, and you'll have to continually flush it. You'll have to micromanage your card deck for certain fights to ensure that the balance of attacks, special abilities, and healing items is enough to allow you to win. Luckily, if you die during a boss battle, you're always given the option to try again, and you'll be able to adjust your deck before you do so. But there's another problem--and that's level. The characters will gain experience and go up in level as you progress, getting more health points and access to better card options. However, it's possible to make it to a boss and still be hopelessly outclassed, without enough health to survive. The game is set up so that grinding levels at certain points is unavoidable.
The game's dungeons and other fighting areas are set up to accommodate this grinding, which is both good and bad. It is good because you'll need to improve your characters for later bosses, but it's bad because the areas feature restrictive paths, lots of monsters, and puzzles that necessitate a lot of backtracking to gather the proper quest magnus to allow you to proceed. For the most part, the game is good about giving you hints for when you need a particular item to move on, and because you can turn many of the items you see around you into cards, you can grab what you need to solve the puzzles. There are a few spots in the game where the means of progression isn't all that obvious, though, so you'll have to be prepared to do some sleuthing and experimentation to keep going. The game's prerendered backgrounds, while detailed, can sometimes obscure people you need to talk to or paths you need to take to progress. Move deep into some cities, and your character will be so far from the fixed viewpoint and so indistinct that you might have to squint to see where you're going.
3D models run around in this fixed, 2D world. Visually, the characters aren't all that detailed, but the environments fare a bit better. The cities and towns definitely look the best, whether it is Diadem Island's castle, wreathed all in billowing pink clouds, or the glittering brass of the empire's capital of Mintaka. In fact, most of these cityscapes are recycled directly from the original Baten Kaitos. The dungeons and other outside areas tend to be blander and almost too busy with all their narrow crooks and corners. As far as battle effects go, there are plenty of special abilities and combos to use, and they're all flashy and fun to watch. Each zone has its own musical selection--ranging from the mellow rural village tunes to some metal riffs for boss fights--which does a good job of setting the proper mood.
Lengthwise, it's very easy to spend more than 40 hours on this game during the course of the normal narrative and side battles, though that's not the only thing you can conceivably focus your time on. There are plenty of side quests, with many of the townsfolk and such who have a particular item they covet, which you can bring to them in magnus form. In some cases, you can just bring the item directly; in other cases, you'll have to combine a variety of cards to produce the desired item. For example, one quest requires you to combine water, fire, and salt to make clouds. There's also a battle coliseum where you can fight some of the toughest foes in the game for fabulous prizes. If that's not enough, you can also collect special "Sedna" magnus, which will help restore a colorful, surreal town made entirely out of clay.
Baten Kaitos Origins is packed with content and nostalgia for series fans, along with lots of difficulty and some good old-fashioned level grinding. You need not have played the original game to get a handle on events here, and the story holds up very well if you can survive the sometimes brutal card battles. If your GameCube is lonely, and you're looking for a challenging role-playing experience, consider giving Baten Kaitos Origins a shot.