IGN Review of Baten Kaitos: Origins
When it comes to exclusive "killer aps", GameCube seems to have gotten the short end of the stick this generation. While Xbox and PS2 blazed ahead with games like Halo, Devil May Cry, Grand Theft Auto, Metal Gear, and Final Fantasy, Nintendites had to simply confide in a strong line-up of first party games directly from the Big N, as well as a few smash titles such as Twin Snakes and Resident Evil 4 to keep things interesting from third party developers. We've been back and forth on the "quality vs. quantity" debate more times than we can remember, but the simple fact of the matter is that even after a few very solid glory years, the Cube still feels like a ship Nintendo was trying to fly solo. For that reason, games like Baten Kaitos are a serious lifesaver to loyal Nintendo fans. Developed by Monolith Studios and co-published by both Namco and Nintendo, the card-based RPG was received very well by both fans and critics alike. But as a few years have passed and a new system looms on the horizon, is Baten Kaitos Origins destined to have the same impact as the original, or is it "too little, too late" to make a final splash on the old Cube?
To call Baten Kaitos Origins a sequel is a bit inaccurate. While the battle mechanics and overall world are still very similar, Monolith "pulled a Lucas" with Origins, developing a prequel to the original game that outlines how the world became what it was in Baten Kaitos, detailing the rise of heroes and villains alike to better secure the lineage of the game. In Origins, players take control of Sagi, a young spiriter that begins his quest in service of the empire. Due to circumstances outside his control, Sagi is set up in an assassination plot, forcing him to live a life on the run. Rather than going into intimate detail about the story of Origins (something that we'd likely be assassinated ourselves due to spoilers), we'll tackle the question on everyone's mind: Is Baten Kaitos Origins as strong of an RPG as the original? Well, it's an easy question to ask, but a bit of a trick to answer, as Origins makes both additions and sacrifices to the original design in order to deliver something that's both fresh and new, but still familiar to seasoned fans.
For starters, Origins makes use of the same magnus cards to harness the essence of weapons, spells, and items. When it boils down to the basics, Baten Kaitos is a card game with some seriously impressive polish, and much like the original game players will build up decks, find new cards, and do battle against baddies making use of their custom-made collection. As a bit of a change, however, Origins has actually simplified the design, taking out the ability to equip armor or accessories outside of battle. Instead, all magnus are used either for key moments in the game (as solutions to puzzles gathered from virtually anywhere in the overworld), or as "battle magnus" which can be comprised of attack cards, spells, equipment, or attribute boosters.
To keep things simplistic and user-friendly, each character resets to full health and default attributes after a battle, so each bout is self-contained. The lack of multiple magnus classifications will be a bit too simplistic for some hardcore players, but the overall change was for the better, as gamers can worry about each battle as it happens, rather than being paranoid about wasting key items or equipment. If you find the card, it's yours until you swap it out for something better.
At the same time, there's something a bit flawed (or at least annoying) about the entire card battle system as players get farther into the game. During the peak of the game players will have control of three main characters, each making use of generic "attack" cards, but also character-specific special attacks and equipment. Factor in the sheer amount of cards you'll be using (an average deck size is between 50 and 60 cards), divide that between the three playable characters, and then randomly distribute those cards during battle, and you can instantly see where issues begin to arise. Far too often we had power cards or support cards at the wrong time, or began filling our "hand" up with useless resurrection cards that, while needed at a later time, were just taking up space during the opening period of battle. Since the card distribution is entirely random, there will be times when you simply won't get the cards you need, and that can be amazingly frustrating during boss battles or intense areas of the game.
A "discard" function can be used to make card management a bit more simplistic (and actually saves the gameplay mechanic), but when it comes at the expense of what could be a killer blow, it's a tough call to sacrifice a turn just to get rid of a few items you'll most-likely be needing just a few turns later. For some players, this is all part of the game, as a strong deck will have far more "outs" for players to use, where inexperienced players may end up getting themselves in sticky situations based on their deck-building skills. Is it a flawed system? Not really, but it can be frustrating all the same, since no matter how much you plan out your strategy, there's still the luck factor involved.
In fact, nearly every element of Baten Kaitos Origins needs to be handled on a player-to-player basis, as the game is so incredibly niche. You'll either love it or hate it, and the game won't make apologies for what it is. Battles can be amazingly simplistic or entirely ruthless depending on what cards come up, and a good player could take as much time customizing his deck as he does actually exploring the overworld to gain experience. One factor that has definitely helped the formula, however, is the sheer amount of side quests available in the game. We can count over a dozen instances where mini quests were offered in just the opening hours of the game. Some of them we took, and others we didn't. The game is extremely open-ended in comparison to the original, as players can use an air ship to move from world to world, take on fetch quests or "beat the boss" missions to gain new magnus and experience, or simply force their way though the game as fast as possible. Be warned, however, as the game will expect you to do at least a fair amount of nonlinear exploration in order to beef up for fights, and there are a few areas where we regretted skipping over "boring" fetch quests, taking dozens of attempts to beat bosses that, quite frankly, were out of our league. Baten Kaitos is a game that demands coherent players, and has no problem kicking ass when it wants to.
When stacking up to other RPG's on both the visual and audio scale, Origins is again somewhat of a mixed bag, offering some beautiful visuals with some outstanding effects, coupled with a strong musical line-up and boarder-line painful voice acting. On the graphical front, Origins trumps its original inspiration, presenting a beautiful world both in battle and out. It's still far from perfect, as characters still work around scripted movement that looks more robotic than we'd like (walk, pause, turn, walk, stop), but the good far outweighs the bad, as Origins is still visually stunning overall. On the audio front, Origins offers some beautiful symphonic tunes, coupled with the occasional electric guitar riff for boss battles. The mix of classical/modern music could stand to be as hit and miss as the card element itself, but we found ourselves enjoying it on the whole.
The voice acting, however, isn't anything to brag about, and much like the original Baten Kaitos we can see players turning off the speech altogether after a few hours. It has a few great moments, and many of the voice actors deliver solid contributions to the experience at one point or another, but a few of the key players such as Sagi and Milly are a bit too immature in their presentation, making the protagonist players feel more like bickering kids than unlikely heroes. In addition, a two-layered recording is used for Guillo (a humanoid robo-buddy of Sagi), having both a male and female voice talking simultaneously. While some of the lines work well, giving Guillo a haunting sound, the dialogue phases at times, making the character irritating to listen to when the two voices don't quite line up.
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