BONUS ROUND: Adventures in the Sky, introduction

Despite planning to only post on weekdays, I’ve decided to do something a little different on weekends – namely, an annotated playthrough of sorts of Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean, an RPG on the Gamecube that I’ve always kind of wanted to write about. This isn’t going to be a full-fledged Let’s Play – I won’t be offering any screenshots or videos, for one thing – so it might be better to think of it as a travelogue of sorts: an imitation (because that’s the sincerest form of flattery) of this amazing summation of Final Fantasy XII. Posts will come on Saturday and Sunday for the duration of Blaugust (and quite possibly beyond).

Baten Kaitos is a bit of an odd duck, but at its core it is a game in the mould set by Final Fantasy VII, complete with pre-rendered backdrops and wonky, frequently perplexing character animations that aim to capture the expressiveness of sprites from the 16-bit era but mostly end up eroding the viewer’s patience. By the time of its release, Final Fantasy itself had, for better or worse, moved past this phase; X and XII both made a point of putting the camera at ground level and actually showing their protagonists conversing and interacting, instead of sticking with the gods-eye-view that the older games had used. In a way, then, Baten Kaitos ended up being a swan song for a genre that had already largely died off or evolved.

These days, the game is remembered (when it is remembered at all) for two things: its gorgeous backdrops and its often-terrible voice acting. The English dub is rocky to say the least – while there’s a lot of competent and sometimes even moving voice work there, much of it was clearly recorded in a hurry, with the kind of first-take only-take attitude that’s been the meat and potatoes of Audio Atrocities for years now. The throwaway NPCs are especially terrible, but none of it is ever really in the clear: the whole body of spoken dialogue was clearly recorded on the cheap and directed by someone who was either horribly pressed for time or simply didn’t care. It’s not enough to ruin the experience (though a few heartbreaking moments in the game are heartbreaking for all the wrong reasons), but it’s certainly not the finest hour for Western localisation of Japanese entertainment (to be fair, I have never heard the original Japanese dub, and there’s every possibility that it’s just as patchy as the English one).

The part of the game that grabbed my attention, however, was the battle system. The most basic outline should be very familiar to everyone who’s played a game like this before; your party and the bad guy of the minute line up facing one another and take turns trading blows until somebody falls over. The big twist here is that everything – and I mean everything, from weapons to spells to equipment to food – is represented by playing cards called Magnus. You attack by selecting weapon Magnus, you defend with shield or armour Magnus, you heal your party members with a tried-and-true Wolfenstein-certified roast chicken Magnus, and so on – the fact that everything in the world is at heart a Magnus even becomes a plot point as the game moves on. Cards have numbers in their corners, and you play them by designating one of their numbers – you can pick up bonus damage by playing your numbers in ways that make a straight or two/three/four/more of a kind, which is neat. The game also has an interesting elemental system where two opposed elements that are part of the same attack (fire and water, say) will actually cancel one another out, so you generally benefit from getting a character to focus on one element over another when you construct their deck.

The other neat thing about the game is its setting: rather than being another dull little planet with two or three blob-shaped continents (complete with the contractually obliged frigid northlands), Baten Kaitos is set on a series of islands floating in the sky. The characters even have “wings of the heart” that allow them to fly (though this never has a meaningful effect on gameplay, even in the prequel, and doesn’t seem to have affected how anybody in the world goes about their lives). I certainly can’t blame the game too much for this – it’s a lot hard to design play areas for characters who can fly at will!

At any rate, the outline of the game is pretty straightforward: at its heart it’s a save-the-world romp with a beautiful world and an entertaining cast. It plays with the jRPG formula in interesting and sometimes seriously subversive ways, but it still operates within it. It’s far from perfect, but the game did enough things right to win it – and much of its cast – a place in my heart. I hope that by the end of this, it will be apparent why.

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