It’s not in the cards.
Ah, the prequel. When you can’t go forward, you may as well go back. It’s acceptable to try and cash in on the success of prior iterations, and I suppose something could be said for appeasing fans. But Baten Kaitos Origins, a prequel to the game of nearly the same name, could have been more than another linear RPG with a good deal of side content, and its frustrating adaptation of the card-battle system leaves it a few cards short of a full deck.
This iteration details the events that led to the story of the first title in the series, in case you didn’t notice the word “Origins” in the title. Here you’ll control Sagi, a young ‘spiriter’- a person with a gift that allows them communication with a guardian spirit, represented by you, the gamer. Apparently it’s always been respectable in Sagi’s world to ask yourself questions and get answers. Long story short, Sagi is a member of an elite paramilitary force and gets set up to take the fall for the emperor’s very recent assassination. Following a pretty run-of-the-mill plot peeled from the first game, you’ll learn how some of the main characters got to where they are, were, or will be. Damn prequels.
[image1]The memorable part of the first Baten Kaitos was the Magnus system, and it returns in this iteration with a few changes. What you need to know is that magnus are cards that hold the essence of anything found in the world, and are used in battle as well as for quests and puzzle solving. The quest Magnus work much as before, storing items for use in various puzzles and side quests that unlock more magnus, usually for battle. The battle magnus system is now in real time, (as opposed to attack and defense phases) apparently meant to convey a little more action into the card-based game play, and this is precisely where things go fish-y.
A row of up to seven cards at a time is presented to you in lieu of standard RPG commands. Equipment has also been relegated to the cards this time around, having you play an equipment card that will last a few rounds instead of actually equipping your three characters with items. Each card has a number on it, corresponding to the type of card and strength of the attack. The point is to lay as many cards as possible per character, making big combos which score you points to upgrade your deck size, number of decks, or number of cards you can discard per round.
The problem with the system lies solely in the hand you are dealt. The fast paced card play only allows you a few seconds to pick the next card in a sequence, which boils down to you playing a fairly simple stacking card game while a disconnected RPG battle happens in the background. What’s even stranger is the lack of tutorial for such an unprecedented mechanic – you will be reading the manual just to figure out simple things like targeting.
[image2]You are allowed to customize the bejesus out of your decks, and the game is packed with an obscene number of cards, but any strategy you devise is ultimately left to chance. While that’s very intriguing on paper, some of the surrounding issues bring out its rough spots. At times, boss fights can be frustratingly impossible if your levels aren’t high enough, and although the game offers you a chance to mess with your decks and give an important fight a second shot, sometimes you’ll just have to accept the loss and hope you’ve saved recently.
You’re also allowed to trade magnus with various folks and combine magnus to make more powerful cards, but again it’s up to lady luck whether or not you’ll actually get to use it. Other activities are found in the arena battles (again for cards) or collecting Sedna magnus, which unlocks a crazy little clay village piece by piece.
I suppose the developers expected players to be ravenously side-questing after magnus like good little CCG-ers and subsequently grinding up those levels, but more attention to the difficulty progression when following the linear plot would’ve helped the game’s cohesion immensely. Besides, the idea of gaining levels in a RPG that’s based on cards seems like a vestigial appendage, and to pretty much require a player to do side-quests goes against the definition of the term side-quest.
[image3]So, we’ve got a neat-but-flawed battle system peppered with some stale RPG flaws thus far, but just wait. This mixed theme continues on past the brain into the eyes and ears. The world of pre-rendered landscapes is decent looking, but too many times I found myself wandering around trying to determine which of the nearly identical, mostly faceless people I needed to talk to in order to advance the story. The characters do stand out, in kind of a robotic, jerky way, looking like action figures running across a watercolor. Conversely, the menu jockeying is done very well, with nice collapsing sections and fast, easy deck editing.
But you’ll forget all about the poorly drawn portraits and funky animations once they start spitting some of the poorest voice acting around. There’s no real emotive direction to any of the dialogue, especially Guillo’s, who is voiced by a man’s and woman’s voice simultaneously, except they forgot to speak at the same speed. The music follows suit, and will grate the nerves of the most seasoned RPG veteran. Thankfully, these things can be disabled.
Even though it pushes a new type of battle system, a huge step for any RPG, Baten Kaitos Origins reshuffles the series’ deck and comes up with a hand that I wouldn’t bet on. Unless you’ve got an insatiable love of card games that can’t be satisfied in the real world, you’re better off knocking.