Baten Kaitos Letters: Twists And Turns

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Hi Sparky!

Ah, yes, Mira. I’m glad I’m not the only one who delighted in its strangeness. You covered its eccentricities pretty well: the unique dungeons, the impossible towns…all somehow made more glorious by the style and limitations of the GameCube. Well said.

To tell the truth, I wish we spent more time here. For being the oddest and most interesting of the eight main areas, it doesn’t get much screen time. Though I’ve had quite enough of Detourne (the Hero’s green outfit blended in with the foliage and it took me an hour to remember he was there), our visits to Parnasse, Reverence, and Coccolith are cut painfully short. Heck, Reverence hardly serves a purpose at all. Walk in, meet Witch Two, walk out. Which is sad, as I’m sure you and I could go on all day about how eye-bleedingly bizarre it is. The completely useless disco room is my favorite.

Another great feature of Baten Kaitos that is especially evident in Mira is the wide variety of gameplay styles represented. At core, Baten Kaitos is a typical RPG, at least as far as structure goes. It has towns, combat, dungeons, puzzles. And yet, we’ve already played a tactical strategy game with the troops in Diadem, we have to play a space shooter game to get to Mira, and Detourne offers a weird arcade-style maze. There’s more in our future, too. I’m not looking forward to Zosma Tower.

As I journeyed through Mira, I honestly couldn’t get over how utterly obvious it is that Kalas is the issue in this party. You put it perfectly: you don’t see it coming, but once it comes, you realize you always saw it coming. Contrary to Diadem and Anuenue, where the “hero” was awkwardly silent in most of our encounters, on Mira it’s a Kalas-fest. This isn’t a surprise, as it’s his home country and I’d expect him to chat up the locals. What is more surprising is that none of the rest of your party seems to care. After all the fuss about Lyude’s backstory, Gibari’s village, Savyna’s mystery, and Xelha’s quest, no one in the party really bothers to learn anything about Kalas.

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You spoke about how his physical disability resulted in unjustly poor relationships with some people. Your party doesn’t seem to care how many wings Kalas has; Mizuti and Lyude have zero. In this group, Kalas’s personality is his defect. He has been cold, selfish, and frustratingly indifferent to the plights of others since he first met Xelha. So when the time comes to visit his story, your party members don’t step out to comfort him in his sadness or share in his friendships as they did (and will do, in Lyude’s case) with the others. Even Xelha, in what should be an intimate scene by the river in Balancoire, doesn’t know what to say to him.

With their indifference, it’s no surprise that Kalas is able to fool the rest of the party. By contrast, it’s not surprising he fools us, either. In his hometown, we see that he has friends, people who enjoyed his company. Old and young. Talk to everyone—the only people who don’t greet Kalas warmly are the young men in the cutscene. And with the rest of the party taking a backseat to these encounters, we’re the only ones who see them.

So what’s the difference between how he treats his old friends and his new ones? That’s fleshed out in Mira, too: a fire, a disaster, and a tragic loss that some people, perhaps even Kalas included, blame on him. Yeah… I’d probably turn into a bit of a jerk too. Mira offers the player something he or she desperately needs in order for the betrayal to hit the hardest. For the first time in the game, I have real sympathy for Kalas.

But enough about Mira. I want to talk about Alfard. In contrast to Mira, for which all the designers were probably tripping, Alfard is staunchly…normal. Heck, it falls on the Grand List of RPG Cliches. It’s the pure-evil empire with all the technology and rich, oppressive citizens who built their kingdom on the backs of the poor. I can name at least a dozen games that use this trope.

In fact, Alfard is painfully overdone. Everything from the sickeningly bright gold hues, to the elitist kid that runs into Gibari, to the staged speech by a Geldoblame hologram, just screams “We’re the bad guys!” Normally I’d cringe at such heavy-handedness. But in relation to the Big Twist, setting Alfard up this way is perfect. Because, of course, Geldoblame isn’t the real villain at all.

All the finger-pointing toward Alfard’s TOTAL EVIL nature does have a plot victim, unfortunately, and that’s Lyude. I could probably buy the drama of his homecoming if he and Almarde weren’t literally the only decent human beings in the city. How neither of them were killed in all the years they lived there is a mystery to me. Sadly though, what should be a well-written and rather tragic plot suffers for implausibility and bad voice acting. Lyude and Almarde are too good; Skeed and Vallye are too bad; Almarde’s death too sudden, before the audience can bother to care about her. Cue sad pretty-boy wracked with guilt for the rest of the game.

Marginally more interesting are the hints we start to pick up about Savyna’s past—Lady Death? We all knew it had to be something sinister.

All told, while the game’s major plot points seem to lead you to think that this is a short RPG, even on my first playthrough I knew there were too many loose ends. Not only are there plenty of unanswered questions revolving around Lyude, Gibari, and Savyna, but Mizuti just popped in and stole the show. I don’t want to be done with the game. I want to know what’s up with Skull Kid over here.

But in the moment, the climax in the Lava Caves does feel like the end, in every way. The feeling of utter betrayal and guilt is something I had never experienced before during my first playthrough. Since Baten Kaitos,other games have dealt with player agency and the fourth wall in a similar way—Contact and Bravely Default come to mind. Baten Kaitos: Origins attempts to mirror it with an affirmation rather than a destruction.

Even now though, I think this moment is the best. You end the first half of the game not only emotionally affected by actions a character did to you, but are highly cognizant of the fact that you aren’t in control. The story, the characters, the world, are all behind your screen. You are a spectator; a tiny voice that can shout advice and shift cards… but ultimately, you can’t force the characters to listen. And yet, you’re a part of it, too. The characters address you, include you in their plans… and betray you.

Thus painfully aware of both our agency and our lack thereof, we join Xelha to pick up the remaining pieces.

Michael Clarkson’s work, screenshots, and video have all been reproduced with permission. For more of his work, click here.

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