Baten Kaitos Letters: Beneath The Clouds

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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 descend beneath the Taintclouds to visit the Children of the Earth, and once again fail to beat the Big Bad. Sparky’s letter is first:

Hi Rebekah,

With Melodia and Malpercio hiding out in Cor Hydrae, our intrepid heroes descend through the taintclouds to the hidden surface of the Earth in search of the Sword of the Heavens, and instead find the most annoying dungeons in the game.

The Labyrinth of Duhr is the least offensive of the four we have to suffer through this week. It’s not a terribly intricate maze, though the way the viewpoint sticks to the entry point on each screen makes it a little tougher to figure out. It’s not too hard to muddle through without figuring out how it works; obnoxiously you have to go a fairly long way before you encounter the guy who explains how to navigate properly.

Mizuti’s home of Gemma Village is a wonderful addition, however. The brightly-colored abstract art that covers all the exteriors manages to be different from anything we’ve seen yet, and the design of the spaces manages to add depth to the society. In particular the communal living arrangement evokes the idea of longhouses. The big tomato-head guy who scared off Malpercio is there, and tells us where to get the sword we came here for.

Capella is called the Garden of Death, but the only thing dying in there is my patience. Well, okay, also any of the monsters I happened to bump into, but mostly my patience. It’s only a three-screen dungeon, but it takes half an hour to get through just because of how slowly Kalas wades through the ocean of mud. The high point of this locale is that you don’t have to run back out of it when you discover that Sir Krumly stole the sword.

The quest for that artifact eventually takes us to Zosma Tower, a particularly obnoxious block-puzzle dungeon. The idea of carrying fire in the quest magnus to light the torches isn’t a bad idea intrinsically, but the game hands out quest magnus like they’re diamonds, so there’s no guarantee you’ll have the four free magnus to carry all the fire you need. If you don’t, you must either sacrifice something or travel all the way back down the tower to get more.

Again, possibly not a big deal, but Zosma Tower is one of the places where you really notice how the game constantly forgets that everybody in the party has some capacity to fly. You spend well over half your time in the tower climbing up onto blocks, or worse, climbing down from them. Kalas should be able to fly up or at least glide down. As annoying as that is while you’re trying to solve the puzzle on each floor, it’s positively infuriating when you have to tediously clamber around while going down the tower for another flame and then back up.

The puzzles themselves, meanwhile, aren’t anything remarkable. Again, I feel my patience is being tested more than my ingenuity, as it’s hardly possible to get things really wrong. Only the penultimate room requires any real thought to solve, and that makes the dungeon feel like a big waste of time to me.

Zosma Tower is also where the game remembers it has bosses. The Agyo / Ungyo fight is neat because the bosses have such precisely opposed strengths and weaknesses. Since those are water and fire, it seems like this is the place for Savyna to shine. Just one problem: Savyna is terrible. At this point in my game she hadn’t classed up to have the larger hands and combos the other characters could deliver. She’s also way behind in terms of level, because I just don’t like using her. Savyna seems to have slightly different timing on her turns than everyone else, and I frequently have trouble extending her combos past three or four hits because I unexpectedly run out of time to play cards.

Instead, I bring Xelha and Mizuti to this fight. Because they draw on the same pool of offensive cards, I like to split them into complementary element sets. For most of the game Xelha has fire, light, and wind while Mizuti has water, dark, and chronos. That means each of them is very powerful against one of these bosses and neither has to worry about opposed elements weakening their attacks.

For all that the game goes on about Malpercio’s power, Melodia seems to mainly gain advantage through trickery.

When we get past this fight we learn that Krumly intends to strike a deal with Malpercio in order to live in the sky. This fits a pattern. For all that the game goes on about Malpercio’s power, Melodia seems to mainly gain advantage through trickery. In every instance she offers her pawns what they want, then betrays them or subverts the deal. Krumly suffers the same fate Kalas, Geldoblame, and arguably Fadroh did. The party’s reaction to him helps, to an extent, to explain why they’ve accepted Kalas back too.

In the massacre at Algorab Village our last hope for defeating Malpercio is again destroyed. We’re three for three on getting these precious magical artifacts broken. Since this leaves us without any obvious way to fight Malpercio, the story takes a detour to explain the mystery of Kalas’ birth. I personally think the “Divine Child” stuff is a bridge too far for this game. Every time it comes up we’re deluged with exposition and backstory, most of which ends up being just a bunch of magibabble. It doesn’t add much to the story for me, and takes up a lot of time. It does illuminate, however, that like Kalas, Georg was a good man with a very dark side.

After Zosma Tower, the Celestial Alps are almost a relief, despite the bugs that block you every few steps. Again, this seems like a problem that could be more easily solved if the characters made use of the wings on their backs. What’s far more annoying is this final fight against Giacomo and his buddies, which is a double dose not only in that each of them gets two turns in a row every time they attack but also in that we have to fight them twice.

This is one of my very least favorite tropes in RPGs: winning a fight only to have the story take control and dictate that you lost it and will have to fight these jerks again (in this case, almost immediately). I came out of the first round against Giacomo, Ayme, and Folon at almost full health, so seeing Giacomo beat the crap out of Kalas doesn’t at all connect to the reality of the battle I just fought. Baten Kaitos Origins abused this trick liberally, which is one of my major complaints with it.

Eventually though, Giacomo bites the dust and Kalas gets a new winglet. We still don’t have any idea how to get into Cor Hydrae, but the game is giving us unambiguous signals that we’re about to set out on a final tour of the world. Are you ready to finally give Melodia what she deserves? Do you also wonder why Mizuti’s new mask and Kalas’ new wing look almost exactly like the old ones? Do Larikush’s arms seem short to you?

Next: Weird is relative