Baten Kaitos attracted me because of its card-playing mechanics. I've long wanted to try out one of these card-playing games, being an old collectible card game addict - INWO and Pokémon rule to this day.
I've read plenty of reviews of the game and knew, going in, that I was about to witness bad voice acting, plenty of clichés and boring characters. This was all promptly delivered. Still, the intro cinematic is pretty neat and sets the mood nicely.
One thing I didn't know to expect was the excellent soundtrack. Baten Kaitos sports music up there with the Final Fantasy series, even though it isn't as iconic.
The voice acting is so bad I switched it off. Good for us non-Japanese that there was an option for that. The combat dialogue is miles better than the plot dubs, which is good, because it can't be turned off.
The world did surprise me positively. It's utterly fantastical, somewhat plausible and wonderfully presented. I wouldn't mind another adventure in the same world (I hear a sequel is on the way). Everything is just beautiful and the old-school technical delivery doesn't mar the experience one bit.
The game is essentially prerendered 2D backgrounds with 3D characters on top of them. However, the backgrounds are brought to life with very good, animated effects, which sometimes absolutely fool the eye into thinking it's all 3D. Also, color use is wonderfully bold, filling the eye with bright visions.
Namco's developers do seem the lack the gift of over the top special effects, which make the Final Fantasy battles so memorable. Even the most destructive special attacks lack in visual punch, although there are some excellent effects in store.
Under The Hood
The game follows the console rpg tradition of combat, where combatants stand in two lines and take turns attacking each other. There are no random battles: the enemies can be seen and often avoided, should the player so wish. However, there's no such thing as a physical attack. Each and every attack, defense, weapon, item, booster, spell and power is represented by a card.
The cards are what drew me to the game and I'm hapy to say that they've been integrated into the game in a most excellent way. I really don't see how they could work much better. They are a joy to use and there's apparently endless depth to them. Many, many cards produce hidden effects when used with another card. For instance, a helmet made from a cooking pot (a defense card) plus uncooked rice (a healing card) plus a fire-based attack (...) makes cooked rice, a powerful healing item.
As a great touch, the cards age. So a green banana (a weak attack) becomes a ripe banana (a healing item), which eventually becomes a blackened banana (an attack card). There are lots and lots of different items. I always had something in my inventory which I was trying out with other cards to see if it would produce something nifty.
There's a time limit in combat. As you're trying to make up combos of cards (pairs, straights, that kind of thing) and select cards which work well together, you only have so much time as it takes your character to animate the previous card, typically about a second or two. When an enemy attacks, you only have as much time to choose your defending cards as it takes for the enemy's attack to animate. This time allowance seems too short at first, but you get used to it quickly, and it keeps things on the edge.
Indeed, I never grew tired of the combat, such fun the card mechanic is. Unfortunately, the cards are the only thing which keeps the combat interesting, because the game is simply too easy. As long as you manage to upkeep your rapidly growing card decks (one per character) on a basic level, you'll never face difficulty surviving the encounters. I've been close to "game over" only a couple of times and have had to revive one member of the party (very inexpensively) only twice. It makes me want an option to turn up the difficulty.
The characters don't much engage. You slowly learn about their past, but it really takes an age to develop, and even then they're rather one-dimensional affairs. The motley crew out to save the world does meet the minimum interest standards of these games, but they just don't engage the player. the same can be said of the plot. It propels things from one setting to the next, but I can't say I was ever interested to find out what happens next.
Regardless of the underwhelming plot, characters and challenge, this is one thoroughly entertaining affair, if you're into the whole card thing. The sequel is of high interest to me.
8 / 10