Baten Kaitos Letters: Twists And Turns

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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 visit the land of illusion, traverse a labyrinth of mirrors, and experience one of the most epic twists in gaming. Sparky’s letter is first:

Hi Rebekah,

Mira is weird.

The strangeness begins on the way there. As our slugboat travels down the rainbow road to Mira, it gets shot down by the Goldoba and crash-lands in an alternate dimension where Baten Kaitos is a shmup. Who should appear to lead us out of this strange predicament but the weirdest member of the party, Mizuti, who shows up in a skull-decorated boat, singing a perhaps unintentionally creepy song.

After we shmup our way out of trouble, we come to my favorite continent. I love Mira, all the more because it seems like the kind of place videogames can’t bring themselves to portray anymore.

I’m also currently playing the latest Witcher game, and while its graphics are certainly accomplished, they seem to have been bent solely to the purpose of recreating a specific misremembrance of medieval Europe. This is sort of endemic to games in the HD era and Western games specifically. As the ability of computers to render virtual worlds realistically has increased, the magic seems to have drained out of those worlds. Instead of fantastic landscapes, we keep getting settings that are drearily plausible.

That certainly doesn’t describe Mira, a continent that, even in the generally bonkers setting of Baten Kaitos, stands out for its sheer absurdity. Whoever came up with these locations didn’t really care if they made sense or could exist in any plausible reality. The village of Parnasse, made of pastry, would quickly come to have the world’s worst mold problem, never mind the structural issues that would arise over time as hungry children and/or Gibari consumed the walls. What the hell is even going on in Reverence with its papercraft landscape and angry bubble people I couldn’t possibly say.

But that doesn’t matter! It doesn’t have to make sense; it just has to be engaging.

Mira also stands as a strong argument for the fixed-landscape POV in games. Reverence would probably be unworkable with the over-the-shoulder camera that has become the default, and the great dungeons here would be impossible. The Tower of Druaga riff in the Mystical Garden of Detourne would be hard to pull off as smoothly. Coccolith, my favorite dungeon in the game, couldn’t execute its fractured-mirrors approach without having an external and distant point of view to work with. But these are interesting and inventive dungeons I always love to revisit, even if Coccolith gives me a headache.

Isn’t it odd, though, that Duke Calbren, ruler of the strangest continent in a world full of flamboyantly dressed leaders, is just some guy in a suit? Events make an ally of him and his granddaughter Melodia, whose voice may be just a little familiar.

Melodia volunteers to sneak the party into Alfard, the Imperial continent. It’s no competitor to Mira, of course, but the golden steampunk city of Mintaka and the twisted pillars of Azha each have their own unique grandeur, supported by Sakuraba’s wonderful score.

Alfard is where we get to see one of the best-executed twists in videogames. What defines a great twist for me is that you don’t see it coming, but once it comes, you realize you always saw it coming.

What defines a great twist for me is that you don’t see it coming, but once it comes, you realize you always saw it coming.

Baten Kaitos stages the twist really well, too. The moment comes after the disc swap, so it seems plausible that you’re reaching the end of an unusually short JRPG. It first does away with a major plot point and secondary antagonist, as Kalas and company infiltrate the Goldoba and defeat Giacomo, Ayme, and Folon in combat in one of the game’s hardest boss battles. Giacomo’s apparent death and the destruction of the Goldoba bring us full circle to the events of the first continent. They also seem like the culmination of our protagonist’s personal arc, getting that out of the way just in time for us to end Geldoblame’s plans once and for all.

That confrontation is staged like a finale. Geldoblame absorbs the power of the End Magnus, transforms into the biggest, creepiest boss yet, and then gives a stiff challenge in battle thanks to his instant-death power. Then at the end, Melodia saves the day by bringing the army to destroy the monstrous Geldoblame…

Only Melodia has been the mastermind all along and Kalas betrays everyone. In a fourth-wall cracking speech he declares that the game is over and kicks you out of the world. The scene even ends with the sound of a CRT powering down, as if the game has just turned off your TV.

It’s a shocking scene, and because of the expert staging, the first time I hit this moment, I almost believed that really was it. For a moment I thought that I’d screwed up a choice somewhere along the way, the game was over, and I’d have to retrace my steps to find the spot where I’d gone wrong.

As shocking as it is, though, the moment makes sense immediately. Kalas has always seemed a little off, like he didn’t belong in his role. As I’ve mentioned, pretty much everyone in the party has a JRPG ready backstory. Even Mizuti, odd as she is, set out from her obscure village on a heroic journey to save the world. As you’ve said, it’s never really made clear why he sticks with the group or why they want him to. Kalas, with his bad attitude and personal mission to wreak bloody vengeance on the people who killed the mad scientist that raised him, doesn’t seem like he belongs in an RPG.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I’ve seen that backstory many times, but it usually belongs to a villain.

And Baten Kaitos comes back around to exploring Kalas disability–or perhaps more importantly his disfigurement–in these continents. His black wing is mentioned almost immediately on arriving in Mira. Although he had friends there, several residents of Balancoire clearly believe his single black wing represents a moral defect as well as a physical one. Even in Azha, his winglet is a mark of shame, tying him to the hated Imperials. Little as I like seeing a disabled person made a villain, Baten Kaitos at least tries to portray this as a reaction against the cruelty of a world that sees a deformity and not a person. Hence, his desire for angelic white wings, even if they can only be bought at the price of his soul.

Of course, shortly afterwards, you connect with Xelha and the story continues, as she resolves to save her friends… including Kalas. Girl, he is not good enough for you.

So what do you think of Mira? Are you as creeped out by the horrible hand-spider-things as I am? Were you able to keep a straight face during the OTT melodrama of Lyude’s homecoming? Does this game’s big twist impress you as much as it does me?

Next: Wings don't come cheap