Throwing sword cards at a large man with wings sticking out of his head on the streets of a city made of sweets is the kind of strange I love in my RPGs, so I was beyond pleased to see Bandai Namco bring Baten Kaitos and Baten Kaitos Origins back from the Gamecube graveyard. Both games had a lot of charm that made overlooking their general jankiness pretty easy. These HD remasters polish the visuals, but leave pretty much everything else untouched. That's mostly not a bad thing. The rougher spots, odd pacing, and animations that were dated even in the early 2000s haven't held up well, but these remain two of the most inventive games in the genre.
There’s a rich vein of weirdness running through all of Baten Kaitos, the kind you used to see in classic RPGs – like duck generals in Suikoden, for example, or vengeful cepholopods in Final Fantasy. In days gone by, an evil god named Malpercio ruined the world and destroyed its ocean, so the people took to the skies for salvation and a new way of life. They grew wings from their hearts too, as anyone would (?)
Now, the deranged leader of the world’s largest empire and his highly questionable fashion and makeup sense want to piece the god back together and destroy the world, because of course he does, and it's up to our hero Kalas, a grouchy fellow with just one wing, to stop him.
The god’s pieces lie semi-dormant in five cards scattered across the world, so you’re basically trying to stop a clown-coded person from doing a Yu-Gi-Oh. There’s more going on in the story aside from that – but not much more. Baten Kaitos is better at character moments and big scenes happening in unusual places, such as a military invasion of an island themed entirely after sweets, than it is at telling a rich story.
God parts aren’t the only things in cards. Every object in the world possesses a Magnus, which is Baten Kaitos-speak for a soul, and you can encase that soul in a card to use later.
Your weapons are the essences of swords and magic condensed into card form, and the same goes for quest items and pretty much anything else. Need to deliver some milk to a hapless, thirsty villager? Stick it in a card, and be on your way. Yes, a bucket or even something with a lid would make more sense, but that’s not how we work here.
Silliness aside, Baten Kaitos was ahead of its time in a way. The Magnus system makes you think about the objects around you and their potential uses in a way most games didn’t start doing for another 10 years or more. Take the basic green banana. It’s a weapon in its original, hard-and-unripe form, but it turns into a healing item as time passes. You can cook rice in a helmet using fire to create a potent restorative or combine wind and a swan (don’t ask) to make powerful magic.
There are so many opportunities for how you approach your deck and what you can do with items, and it helps paper over the battle system’s less enjoyable aspects. The roughest part is that for maybe a third of the game, you don’t see most of this customization. Instead, you see basic weapons, limited builds, and tiny decks that make for dull, repetitive battles. It gets a lot better, but you’ll probably want to toggle the “weak enemies” feature on for the first several hours.
Back in the day
Then we come to Baten Kaitos Origins, a prequel, as you might guess from the name. Origins takes place 20 years before the first Baten Kaitos and digs into the political and social conflicts that led to Geldoblame’s eventual ascension. It seems like Monolith and Tri-Ace felt a lot more confident in the world they created. Characters have more – and more interesting – personality, there’s a complex network of struggles and problems that undergird the plot, and it’s all generally just executed in a much richer and more engaging manner than the original.
At the center of it all is a deadly disagreement between political factions in the empire, those who favor an expansionist, industrial policy and those who’d rather embrace “pro-Magination” – a Magnus-first approach. Sagi, the hero of the tale, gets dropped in the thick of a conspiracy after his job – to assassinate the emperor – goes badly wrong. The narrative goes surprisingly deep into the world’s lore, to the point that, not only does the original game feel a little shallow as a result, but I really wish there was a third game to put all of this world building to good use.
Origins restricts your Magnus freedom a bit in battle, shifting the focus away from combos and more toward strategic sequencing. In an evolution of the number system from the first game, cards have to deploy in a certain order to get the maximum effect – weak, then strong, then special, for example.
Each character has roughly 30 combo attacks they can pull off, and if you play your cards right (ha), you can activate a feature that lets you use special attacks at no cost. It’s a deceptively deep system with a pretty high learning curve, and the additional features help mitigate some of the staleness that sets in during the original’s longer battles.
In short, both games hold up pretty well after nearly 20 years, even though the first Baten Kaitos’ weaknesses stand out a fair bit. The remasters add a handful of features, including the very welcome option to decrease enemy HP so grinding is easier, and some unwelcome ones, like no English voice acting and an unreliable framerate on games nearly 20 years old. It’s a barebones collection, from that perspective, and the biggest draw really is just being able to legally play these games again on a modern system.
In an ideal world, the remasters probably would have worked better as proper remakes. Baten Kaitos and Origins’ pre-rendered backgrounds were gorgeous on the Gamecube, and they’re just as lovely now. Some aspects would have benefited from more improvement, though. Character animations, limited dialogue illustrations, awkward battle structures, and wonky localization weren’t great at the time and don’t hold up quite so well. Both games are still worth experiencing, but there are a few more hurdles to enjoying them than there should be.
This review is based on a digital Switch copy of Baten Kaitos I & II HD Remaster provided by Bandai Namco.
Baten Kaitos I&II HD Remaster
- Inventive setting
- Strong story, especially in Origins
- Innovative combat
- Uneven pacing
- Janky animations and rough localization remain untouched