Baten Kaitos Letters: The Long, Lost Ocean

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Hi Rebekah,

May time, ever fleeting, forgive Monolith Soft and Tri-Crescendo, because the end of Baten Kaitos shows they mismanaged it. This is not a short game, but so much of its real (finally, really real this time) ending feels rushed and insincere that it almost collapses.

In a sense it’s fitting that the “character quest” dungeons consist almost entirely of compression tricks, because that’s what they’re trying to pull off in terms of the character arcs. The Phantom Goldoba, a straight palette-swap of the ship we visited previously, tries to cram a bit of a character arc in for Lyude, and instead falls into a pit of melodrama. Savyna’s desert quest, using a compression technique as old as gaming itself, tries to wrap up her involvement with Azdar and the town of Azha and whiffs. Unfortunately, what these dungeons mostly accomplish is to illustrate that these characters ultimately didn’t matter all that much to the story.

Gibari fares a little better in terms of dungeon structure, but as you point out his “character quest” is pretty inconsequential. Nothing that happens in it illuminates or develops his character, which has been, for better or worse, prominently and repeatedly displayed ever since he joined the party. Rather, this quest seems to be about redeeming and improving Reblys’s personality, which, this far removed from the previous Nashira adventures, hardly seems relevant. He gets bonus points for the “fishing with logs” scene, though.

Mizuti’s dungeon is the most elaborate, but here the developers have the advantage that it’s a 3D space built with a tiny library of textures, all of which were already on disc for the first trip through Zosma Tower. At least the interaction at the end actually manages to illustrate something about her character, and recast her apparently arrogant appropriation of the title “Great” as a means of drawing danger to herself and away from her friends. However, despite the apparent significance of the “Ring of the Magi” it is never mentioned again, and I’m not sure it even shows up anywhere in the inventory.

The worst of these dungeons is Xelha’s, and that’s not just because it’s a repeating-room maze where you have to find which of 10 or so doors is the single way to advance. What this dungeon needs to do is set up something ominous beyond Malpercio, the idea that defeating him means something bad for Xelha. Even if it worked this would be a belated move, but as it is the dungeon gets mired in flashbacks between lil’ Xelha and her mom that create more confusion than foreboding.

This blows a hole in the epilogue. The idea that Xelha must sacrifice herself to give the Ocean back to the world is one that could really resonate, and provide a cathartic moment when a seemingly-bittersweet, Final Fantasy X-ish ending turns around into a happily ever after. Unfortunately, the elements that make FFX work are missing here. The romance feels half-baked and Xelha’s death, rather than being something that the player has dreaded for hours, seems to come out of left field at the last moment. The almost immediate backtracking on her demise makes the whole episode feel like a bit of trolling on the part of the developers, like they wanted to yell “gotcha!” one more time right before the big group-photo ending.

And yet…

And yet, that big, goofy, group-photo ending has an emotional impact for me that’s up there with Final Fantasy X and Persona 4. There’s a warmth and wistfulness in that last spiral of petals that matches the low five with Jecht and the sight of Yu’s friends chasing his train. It’s a fond farewell to people I’ve seen grow and become better.

Kalas began this game as a huge jerk, and confronted that side of himself, and come out the other side as a supportive and helpful person. By placing you, the player, inside the world but outside of Kalas, Baten Kaitos helps you feel like you, personally, had a hand in that, and in the other moments of redemption throughout the game (as exemplified by Ayme and Folon’s incongruous arrival).

Redemption is one of the core themes of Baten Kaitos, and it’s displayed everywhere in this finale. Ayme and Folon, and in a sense the Empire itself, make up for some of their previous misdeeds by helping to tear down the barrier. The chatter about Kalas being “Malpercio’s prayer”, awkward and jumbled as it is, suggests that even Malpercio himself can be redeemed. Certainly his habit is to offer false forms of redemption: Kalas’s “beautiful white wings”, Krumly’s chance to escape the taintclouds, the “resurrection” of Calbren’s beloved granddaughter. Yet this stitched-together Frankengod does see a kind of redemption. Once Malpercio is finally defeated and the continents begin to fall, they are gently caught and held up by the sibling gods from whom it was created.

The game’s major sidequests also speak to this idea. You mentioned Quzman’s “Family Tree” quest, which I also enjoyed finishing up, despite the minor chore of carrying a rock to his brother in Zosma Tower (again with the Tower!). Quzman admits he has been bad to the women he loved, but the unification of his large, diverse family, (mostly) dancing in a circle to celebrate him, speaks to the value of his life. I also like to finish the Star Map, not only because the finished item is beautiful but because doing so helps redeem both the creator who grew to hate it and the priest who feels unworthy to finish his life’s work.

So maybe it does seem strange that Kalas chooses to save Melodia from Malpercio, but really, he has to do that. Nobody owed him a second chance, either, and he chose to subject himself to Malpercio’s power. The epilogue suggests that his choice will eventually bear fruit and Melodia will try to do right by the world. Everyone deserves a shot at redemption, though, as the last fight with Geldoblame shows, not everyone accepts the opportunity.

The theme of redemption is the most striking facet of a larger theme of change that appears in almost every aspect of the game. As time passes on the world transforms, and so do the magnus cards. Not even the player’s weapons and armor are immune to the march of time, which strengthens some things (the auras) while weakening others (e.g. solar sabers). No one can ever go back; the continents will not return to the sky. But time, ever fleeting, ultimately does forgive: the taintclouds disperse, the ocean returns, the whale is reborn.

But time, ever fleeting, ultimately does forgive: the taintclouds disperse, the ocean returns, the whale is reborn.

Baten Kaitos was released more than ten years ago, exclusively to a platform that was overshadowed in the west by the XBox and PS2. Yet, it has left such an impression that even today Namco occasionally teases the possibility of a sequel. What has kept this game living in memory for more than a decade? It’s hardly a perfect game, after all. We’ve spent the last two weeks deriding the design of its later dungeons, at least two of the six main characters feel kind of superfluous, and the voice acting is legendary for all the wrong reasons. Does Baten Kaitos stick in the mind solely because of its great soundtrack, general weirdness, and shocking twist?

I don’t believe that’s the case, though all of those things matter. Baten Kaitos is a daring game, but it is also very sharply made. Bizarre as its card-based combat seems, it succeeds in giving a turn-based system the snappy, immediate feel of an action RPG, particularly at the higher class levels. Narratively, the game takes a risk by asking the player to throw in with an unabashed jerk, but this pays off because it gives Kalas room to grow and develop as a character, not just level up. Kalas’ arc of redemption carries the story despite the poor audio and tendency to get bogged down in flashbacks. Baten Kaitos is memorable because of the uniqueness of its setting, story, and systems, but it is fondly remembered because of their quality.

As a result, it’s a joy to return to

Baten Kaitos

, particularly when you can share the experience. I’m glad you joined me in revisiting this wonderful world, and hope we can do something like this again.

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

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