Baten Kaitos Letters Part 1: The Adventure Begins

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Baten Kaitos Letters is a correspondence with our Rebekah Valentine and Sparky Clarkson of Ludonarratology, and originally posted there. In these letters, we will be discussing in-depth the GameCube RPG Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean as we play through the game together. This week, we begin our adventures in Sadal Suud, introduce the main character, Kalas, and talk about the utter absurdity of some of this game’s conventions. This week, we begin with Sparky.

Hi Rebekah,

I’m glad you agreed to play Baten Kaitos with me. It’s been too long since I’ve revisited this game, which has a lot of weird and interesting aspects that I think reward a close look.

A little context may be in order. The GameCube was the contemporary of the PlayStation 2 and the original Xbox, but it was not as powerful as either of its competitor machines. Worse, it used proprietary mini-discs that increased costs for publishers. Opinions vary about the controller… I happen to like the asymmetric button layout, but the little nubbin of the C-stick kind of stinks. As for online capability: if the GC had it, I never knew.

It all added up to a console that lagged far behind the competition, particularly in the realm of RPGs. Of course, the PS2 was so popular for RPGs you could probably build a house out of their game cases without using any duplicates. The GC library, by comparison, is laughable. The games themselves are no slouches: Tales of Symphonia is one of the best of that series, and Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door is delightful. And then we have Baten Kaitos, a game that is absolutely bonkers.

To say the least, it doesn’t all work. But Baten Kaitos is interesting in the degree to which it challenges almost every single norm of RPG design

I want a year’s supply of whatever they were smoking at the pitch meeting for this game. It seems like Baten Kaitos was developed by having everybody throw their weirdest ideas into a hat and then drawing them out to write a design document while drunk. “Everybody has wings,” “card-based combat,” “make money with Polaroids,” “dude who fights with a flugelhorn,” “people wearing masks,” “level up by praying,”… okay, we’ve got a game!

To say the least, it doesn’t all work. But Baten Kaitos is interesting in the degree to which it challenges almost every single norm of RPG design. It’s turn-based, but the player’s actions have a timer. Leveling up is something that takes conscious effort and even planning. The player has to make an effort (and get a little lucky) to earn money from battles. In my playthrough, the camera didn’t come up while I was fighting the Lord of the Spring so I earned no cash from that fight. Items in the inventory age and transform, changing from healing items to damage items and vice-versa. Woe to you if your bamboo shoots turn into bamboo poles right before a boss battle!

I hope we’ll get a chance to discuss all of that. Unfortunately, in Sadal Suud most of the game’s unusual systems are just starting to show their shape. The battle system hardly has any of the power and depth it will later establish, and the Magnus Cards as a system for obtaining and using items are just barely showing their interesting features.

Instead, in Sadal Suud, the focus is squarely on Kalas and he… is not exactly ready for his close-up. Kalas is a huge jerk. He’s the kind of person whose reaction to the death of Xelha’s friends is to ask whether she wants their stuff. Here at the start of the game he doesn’t seem to have any motives aside from profit and killing Giacomo.

One of the interesting things that Baten Kaitos does is immediately establish that you are not “playing as” Kalas. You are, instead, playing as yourself, in the form of a helpful “spirit” that reaches into the world of Baten Kaitos and guides him. Later on this turns out to be an important distinction, but here it helps to soften the blow of Kalas’ jerkiness. Yes, he’s an SOB, but you’re not actually playing as him so it’s not that bad.

One other thing that’s unusual and interesting about Kalas is that he’s disabled. Seemingly everyone in Cebelrai and Pherkad has two wings, while Kalas has only one. To supplement it, he has a prosthesis–a “winglet” created by his grandfather. For some reason, the Imperial soldiers are wingless too, but they have jetpacks on their hips. So Kalas has a physical limitation, and a prosthesis, that also makes him physically distinct from everyone in the world.

This turns out to be important later on, but the game does a poor job of selling it because Baten Kaitos constantly seems to forget that its characters have wings. The great offender here is the Nunki valley, where Kalas sort of hops across little stones and narrow gaps like any other clomping RPG hero, when he should just be popping out those wings and swooping around. The weird amnesia about the nature of the world also shows up when Kalas escapes Imperial troops by knocking over a cart of apples. Guys, I don’t want to tell you how to do your jobs, but you have jetpacks.

On one level, this is just a small disappointment I have with the world-building, but I think it really sells the character short to have the usefulness of wings be such an inconstant thing. Kalas and Xelha fly up to get on the Goldoba, for instance, but Kalas doesn’t think to just fly up to the balcony it’s moored to rather than crawl through a sewer.

Well, at least we didn’t get “Yet Another Sewer Level.”

We know very little about Xelha at this point, except that like almost every other member of the party she seems more like a traditional RPG lead than Kalas. Naturally, he doesn’t seem to like her very much.

So, what do you think of this opening chapter? Is Kalas as off-putting to you in his initial appearance as he is to me? Do you too wonder how the milk is turning into yogurt and cheese in these cards instead of just going sour?

Next: Voice acting, 'bonding', and the little things