One of the few exclusive, original RPGs available to the GameCube, [i]Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean[/i] brought several unique features to the genre. Most noticeably is its card (“magnus”) based inventory and combat systems, as well as a plot twist or two that had not yet been beaten into the ground by its predecessors. Though the “islands in the sky” setting reminded me very much of Sega’s Skies of Arcadia (Legends) at first, the game’s unique charms and decent plotline let it eventually stand on its own merits. [i]Baten Kaitos Origins[/i], as you might have guessed by the title, serves as a prequel to [i]EWatLO[/i], set twenty years before the events chronicled in the original. [i]BKO[/i] corrects several nagging problems that plagued its ancestor (descendant? stupid prequels…) while sadly retaining a couple, but it at least brings forth some fresh ideas of its own as well.
The game’s plotline centers around Sagi, a fifteen year-old employed in the Dark Service, a special branch of the Alfard Empire’s military. The Dark Service use semi-autonomous devices called paramachina to aid them in combat; Sagi’s “paramachina” is actually a sentient, magic-wielding puppet named Guillo, who has been Sagi’s companion ever since he unearthed it (Guillo’s gender, if any, is never defined) at a young age. Sagi is also what is called a spiriter, meaning his heart has bonded with that of a spirit — in this case, that means you, the guy (unlike [i]EWatLO[/i], you do not get to input your own gender; its masculinity is part of the narrative this time around) holding the control pad. Spiriters are said to contain the potential to change the world… but so do politicians, and the latter are the main source of conflict once again.
On his first big mission for the Dark Service (assassinating the Emperor, no less!), things go horribly wrong for our heroes and they wind up being blamed for the Emperor’s death even though they were beaten to the punch by someone else, then attacked by a huge monster. After defeating the beast, strange things happen involving some massive headaches, before they finally manage to escape the Emperor’s mansion. They’re still on the run from the Imperial Army, however and just when it looks like they’re about to be captured, a young girl (a couple of years older than Sagi) named Milliarde (“Milly”) makes the scene and helps Sagi and Guillo escape. She then joins you as your third (or fourth, if you want to count the spirit you represent) and final playable character.
From there the plot continues on much like in [i]EWatLO[/i], hopping from island to island as you progress through the roller coaster-like story, twisting and turning in unexpected ways until finally reaching its conclusion. All of the locales from the first title return here, save for the bizarre continent of Mira (currently “phased out”, as it does every few years, although there is one town in [i]BKO[/i] that would be right at home there) and the spoiler-ish continent of Wazn; in their place are the thorny island of Hasseleh and the Coliseum, plus an occasional minor area. Oh, there’s also a strange, somewhat familiar second world that Sagi and company find themselves in — but not quite a part of — at certain times for reasons that don’t become apparent until well into the game’s second disc. The shifting storyline will both provide new insight into the plot of [i]EWatLO[/i] as well as turn a few aspects of that story on their ears, all while giving you a look at the previous generation of this series’ world. If you remember the ages of several characters (mostly NPCs, with a couple of exceptions) from the first title, then you should be on the lookout for their younger selves as you play through [i]BKO[/i] — you won’t be disappointed.
Graphically, this game is identical to [i]EWatLO[/i], which while not a bad thing (the first game was very pretty), is meant literally in many respects. All of the major game locations use the exact same gorgeously pre-rendered backgrounds that the first title used for them (and the corresponding BGM as well!); while this was a great nod to continuity and something of an advantage/Easter egg to those who had played the first title, it really stunk of laziness at times, as the designers only needed to come up with a handful of new settings. It also invites the same problem I had with [i]EWatLO[/i], namely that the backgrounds are completely static, resulting in your character scaling as you progress further away from the camera (Sadaal Suud’s main town of Pherkad is a great/horrible example of why this doesn’t work in an RPG). Additionally, the detailed backgrounds make locating NPCs difficult, as the character models don’t really stand out too well (and may suffer from scaling as well), and there’s no on-screen indicator that you can talk to one of them, unlike the “!” balloon indicating an object you can examine. Many of the palette-swapped enemies are also recycled from the previous game, but that’s been an RPG tradition dating back to Dragon Warrior/Quest, so it can slide. At least the characters are well-designed and unique, just as the Kalas, Xelha, Gibari, Lyude, Savyna, and (The Great) Mizuti were in the original; it could be argued that the three playable characters in [i]BKO[/i] are just amalgamations of the six from [i]EWatLO[/i] (Sagi = Lyude + Kalas, Guillo = Mizuti + Gibari, and Milly = Xelha + Savyna), but that doesn’t make them any less solid. The animations sometimes seem stiff and robotic, especially during cut scenes (which use the in-game models, like most GameCube titles), but it’s not a large issue. The special attacks are as eye-popping as usual, although there’s a good chance that you will be too busy selecting cards to even see them initially.
Where [i]BKO[/i] really departs from [i]EWatLO[/i] is in its combat system. While still card-based, the system has received a complete overhaul and will need to be relearned by series veterans; fortunately, I think [i]BKO[/i]’s system is superior. Instead of each character having their own deck, filled with weapons, special finishers, and items, this time around the entire party shares one deck, containing both generic attacks and items along with individualized specials and equipment. You can save multiple decks and swap between them as you see fit (outside of battles, naturally), allowing you to adjust your strategy to your surroundings much more readily. Also, while [i]BKO[/i] retains the use of “spirit numbers”, no card ever has more than one number on it; as a result, you no longer receive bonuses for setting up X of a kind and/or ascending/descending straights. Numbers in [i]BKO[/i] can only increase numerically, starting from 1 or 0 (all 0’s are equipment that modify your attacks/defense) and reaching a maximum number of 6 or 7, depending on the character. All numbers from 1-3 (minus four special cards that only Milly can use) are your generic attacks, in increasing potency as they increase in number; numbers 4-7 are super-powered special attacks that demand a certain amount of MP to use. MP is built up simply by playing cards, so the longer you can make your chains, the more MP you build up, to a maximum level of five. Also, if one character is ready to receive commands immediately after the previous character ended with a special, you may chain the character’s attacks together with a weak (#1) attack to create a Relay Combo and jack up the amount of Technique Points (used to upgrade your deck class) earned from the battle; equipment marked with an R may also be thrown in before the follow-up weak attack without breaking the Relay. Items and strategies (like Escape) do not have spirit numbers and cannot be used in any part of a combo. There is no reshuffling, as used and discarded cards are simply placed back into the deck immediately, eliminating the breaks in action from the first game. Finally, there is no longer a defensive portion of combat — if you have a defensive item equipped, it will soften the enemies’ blows for a set number of hits/time without you needing to do anything.
All of that looks a lot more complicated than it is in practice, especially since the game highlights which cards are legal to play next as you select each one (including specially-indicating which ones can enable a Relay). Also, your guardian spirit may help you out from time to time by placing the exact card(s) you need on top of your deck, allowing you much smoother “draws” and more devastating combos. This is especially true once you gain access to the “MP Burst” ability, which can turn your maxed-out MP meter into an infinite resource for a limited time, allowing you to potentially chain together up to 25 cards for a spectacular beatdown; my record was 23 cards, to the tune of 50 hits and a massive 20,994 points of damage to a group of 3 enemies — and yes, the game keeps track of your longest combo to date, along with a few other statistics.
Other than the combat, the other major advantage [i]BKO[/i] has over the original game is that the voice acting — or more accurately, the recording of that VA — in [i]BKO[/i] doesn’t suck. One of the first things most players did during [i]EWatLO[/i] was to turn off the voices in the cut scenes (you were stuck with the in-battle sound clips either way) because of a horrible echoing that slipped through quality control and made the voices painful to hear. [i]BKO[/i] does not have this problem, and the actors perform well enough to be enjoyable this time around (although they do start out a bit wooden). There’s still a noticeable hiccup when the dialogue is supposed to reference you (Sagi’s guardian spirit) by whatever name you entered, but that’s the nature of the beast. As for the rest of the game’s sound, the score is just as good as ever (of course, as I mentioned, in some cases that’s because it’s the same track), and the sound effects more than get the job done.
One major aspect of the original that has also been tweaked for [i]BKO[/i] is how you create new magnus. In the last game, you needed to include bizarre, often useless magnus in your decks and use them in a specific sequence in order to obtain certain items; this was a needless chore that has been more conveniently divided into two separate functions in [i]BKO[/i]. Your equipment magnus can be upgraded at various shops if you have the proper Quest Magnus, and you can mix certain Quest Magnus together once you acquire an item called a “Magnus Mixer,” which will combine their essences while you battle without taking up valuable deck slots. Of course, your Quest Magnus can and will still change over time and may even be affected by neighboring Magnus in your inventory, but I don’t believe any of your Battle Magnus are affected this time around. Finally, don’t worry about having to use any stupid cameras to earn cash; enemies in [i]BKO[/i] drop money just like in any other RPG, and there are even a ton of “Magnus Pack Coupons” to be found that can be redeemed for ten random Battle Magnus at any store.
The loss of Mira means that [i]BKO[/i] doesn’t have the surprising variety in “dungeon” areas that [i]EWatLO[/i] eventually brought forth, and the re-treading of old stomping grounds might actually cause veteran BK fans to feel like there isn’t as much newness to be found in this title. This is largely superficial, as a lot of this feeling is rooted in this game’s being a true sequel/prequel to the previous title and not just a game having similar mechanics and the franchise name with a new number slapped on the end. After players have grown used to the new combat system, the top complaint is usually that the enemies in [i]BKO[/i] hit a [b]lot[/b] harder than in the previous game, which is the by-product of the revamped equipment system and the fact that you never need to heal outside of combat; your party is automatically restored to full health and status after every encounter (except for a few gauntlet-style fights) without demanding any consumable items from your inventory.
Unfortunately, there are other, more serious problems lurking within [i]BKO[/i]’s coding. Obscure glitches that slipped past testing can result in you being shut-out of certain sidequests if you accidentally trigger them (this is why I was unable to become Champion of the Coliseum, for instance); some sidequests seem impossible to complete even once you do receive them, and many require an insane amount of backtracking and errand-running, which is not a good thing when travel is just as slow as it was in [i]EWatLO[/i]. The new “wing dash” feature helps a little, but not much, as exceeding your time limit results in you moving slower than your normal walking pace until you recover. The wing dash is also a source of great frustration in the final dungeon of the game, as finicky controls will cause you to fall victim to a stupid trap more times than any competent player should normally.
Perhaps the most devastating problem with the game, however, is a [b]very[/b] difficult boss battle that hits [b]immediately[/b] after switching to Disc 2; because the game forces you to save before switching discs, you might find yourself trapped in a no-win situation if you save over your file unprepared. Be aware of this and save to a different slot when you make it to this point, in case you feel the need to level up some more. I took the thing down on my fourth try after radically altering my deck-building strategy, but I never avoided combats at any point and made sure to upgrade my deck class regularly. There was only one point in the game where I felt I needed to level up before taking on a boss, and it came at a point where I had several other missions to complete anyway, so I just made that one the last on my “to do” list.
Overall, [i]Baten Kaitos Origins[/i] is a worthy successor to [i]Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean[/i] in just about every respect, while also standing on its own fairly well. Unlike the [i]Star Wars[/i] movies, I believe that this is a prequel that may actually benefit from being experienced [i]before[/i] the original rather than giving away all of its secrets in advance. It means taking some “downgrades” if you want to continue the story, but both plotlines are independent enough that playing through them in either order will feel “right”, with the references made in [i]BKO[/i] being treated as foreshadowing instead.