Even by the standards of JRPGs, a genre infamous for extravagant plot-twists and fantastical environments, the Baten Kaitos series flew high above its contemporaries on wings of surrealist wonder. The two-game series was, along with Tales of Symphonia, one of the big Namco-published RPGs for the GameCube. However, while Symphonia was a surprisingly dark story hidden behind a colorful aesthetic, Baten Kaitos was an unpredictably phantasmagorical fable. In a genre saturated with repetitive “Power of Friendship” stories, this series deserves a Nintendo Switch re-release on the merit of its raw creative energy.
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Baten Kaitos is very different from the usual JRPG faire. Its surface-level plot is simple, being about young heroes fighting an evil empire and their dark god. However, that description fails to account for its bizarre twists, like how said god has been chopped up into playing cards. Or how everyone lives on flying islands because a whale dispersed into magical plushies. Or the part where the heroes escape from a candy prison by literally eating their way out.
Even the means by which Baten Kaitos handles the concept of avatars is unusual. Both games cast their player as a Guardian Spirit, a being from another world bonded to the story’s protagonist. According to legend, such people (dubbed “spiriters”) can sway the world’s future through the power of their pact. Unlike most chosen ones, however, spiriters aren’t necessarily good. It’s the player’s responsibility to nurture the bond between themselves and their partner so they can grasp the spiriter’s otherworldly might.
The Baten Kaitos games take place in a great sky. The earth below was polluted by wicked gods, forcing the people to turn what hospitable land remained into floating islands. Said people get about with magical wings, one of many mystic gifts granted to them by the power of their hearts. Many JRPGs talk up the power of feelings, but rarely is it so front-and-center as in Baten Kaitos. In these games, the strength of one’s will correlates to the potency of their magic. As with spiriters, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. While the games have plenty of noble spellcasters, one of their biggest villains is a wizard so corrupted by his own power as to lack any trace of humanity.
The games’ world is bizarre, but their uniquely dreamlike quality helps sell their more incredulous moments. In an age where modern RPGs interrupt their stories to drown players in exposition, Baten Kaitos‘ relative lack of worldbuilding is surprisingly refreshing. Characters rarely stop to explain how their planet works because, to them, this eccentricity is completely normal. While this can make the game’s abstract scenes confusing, it’s impressive that developers Monolith Soft and tri-Crescendo had enough confidence in their story to let it speak for itself.
Baten Kaitos‘ combat combines card-based and active-time elements. Each character has a deck of magic cards (called “magnus”) that contain the essences of everything from gear to spells to food to Pac-Man. Players chain offensive cards together during their turn to maximize their power, and defensive ones during the enemy’s to mitigate damage taken. As characters get stronger, they can increase the length of their combos at the cost of their turns coming with a time limit.
Like so much else in Baten Kaitos, the battle system is unique system, but takes practice to adjust to. There many multipliers that affect damage based on what numbered cards are used, whether their elements oppose each other and when players use their special attacks. Magnus also has some interesting mechanics outside of battle, with some cards changing form and power depending on how much time has passed. It can definitely be overwhelming for the unprepared but despite its flaws, there’s nothing like it.
In addition to its gorgeously creative environments, Baten Kaitos boasts some of gaming’s most masterful soundtracks, courtesy of Motoi Sakuraba. Fans of his Tales work will recognize his progressive rock stylings throughout the combat themes, with “The Valedictory Elegy” in particular being so good that not even its Super Smash Bros. remaster could top it. Those familiar with Sakuraba’s Dark Souls compositions will adore the atmospheric themes, with tracks like “Soul Poetry” and “Divine White Bell” capturing the humility and terror inspired by gazing into infinity. However, the pièce de résistance is “Le Ali del Principio,” a fittingly unconventional and sweepingly uplifting way to cap off the duology.
Despite all these positives, it’s sadly understandable why Baten Kaitos never took off as a franchise. Its gameplay can be convoluted, and its writing never quite struck the right balance. The first game, Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean, better-explored the series’ imaginative world, but it took too long to shrug off its clichés. Its prequel, Origins, gave its heroes more attention, but this drew focus away from the setting, making it feel less wondrous despite having stronger writing overall. The series might be a beloved cult classic, but nostalgia alone is unlikely to justify its resurrection.
Monolith Soft has moved on to Xenoblade Chronicles, making it unlikely that Baten Kaitos will get another game. That being said, the series is a great candidate for a Switch port. Nintendo’s hybrid console has already given several great titles a new lease on life, and its popularity could help Baten Kaitos find the audience it never had on GameCube. Additionally, Bandai Namco having recently registered trademarks for both games, giving fans hope that remasters or remakes could be in development. Baten Kaitos has been grounded for years, but fans finally have reason to hope that it could fly again.
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