• Baten Kaitos 2: Origins review - Nintendo Gamecube

    'Origins' is a sequel in nature but a prequel at heart; based two decades before the events of Namco’s GameCube exclusive, 'Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean', released in 2004. Although not greatly different from its predecessor, 'Origins' is a beautifully presented and well-refined card-based roleplaying game. It sits proudly next to 'Tales of Symphonia', 'Paper Mario' 2 and the original 'Baten', so certainly deserves your attention.

    It starts with a dream, one that is abstract and mystically styled, likely to arouse multiple views. As the dream fades our hero is revealed: a selfless youth called Sagi. He is born with a mysterious Guardian Spirit, known as a Spiriter, said to bestow omnipotent power. Despite the enticing cinematic and this intriguing concept, 'Origins' starts slow and there is a lot to discourage even the most heartfelt enthusiast, not to mention the cringe-worthy voice-acting (which thankfully can be switched off). But endeavor and toil through you must, because things soon become far more interesting…

    After a freak encounter with a terrible beast, Sagi holds his head and screams, falling to the floor unconscious… He then awakes in a different world where he later learns of a leader called Wiseman, who condemns the frailty of flesh compared to the imperishable immortality of the soul. In his presence, people’s hearts wither as he extracts their essence, leaving a lifeless and empty husk. And then, much like before, something triggers in Sagi’s mind and he releases a mighty screech of pain, which becomes a ringing sound forcing its way into his nightmare, drawing him out, dragging his confused senses back to the surface and reality. But was this just another dream, or does it reveal something much, much more?

    It isn’t necessary to have played 'Lost Ocean' first, and though there is a little to spoil the events impending, it is an intriguing prologue that develops into a story that delves deep into the extremities of mortality, delicately dissecting what it means to be human, what it means to have a soul. Alternatively, for those who already have insight to the world’s fate, who have witnessed the imminent chapters, there are still plenty of catastrophic plot twists that force the player to analyse their original assumptions.

    Much like in 'Lost Oceans', the player doesn’t assume the role of the leading character but rather adopts the role of his Guardian Spirit. There are various instances where Sagi faces the screen and asks questions directly to the player and the response will influence the relationship between the two characters - unfortunately this isn’t as involving as it may sound. Often the choices have no effect on the outcome, and the game’s story follows its linear path regardless. It certainly remains a clever idea, yielding a few crafty surprises (especially as the story unravels), though as it stands it feels somewhat uninvolving.

    Visually, 'Origins' remains almost identical to the first game. That is certainly no bad thing if you haven’t played 'Lost Ocean', considering the sheer splendor of the pre-rendered, yet subtly animated environments. Lights flicker like candle flames causing shadows to dance erratically around furniture and purple mist swirls and shifts in the air like droplets of ink in water. It all looks exquisite artistically, from the fantastical backdrop displaying the loading screen, to the finely detailed artwork bordering the world hub.

    Nonetheless, if you have played the first game, much of the presentation replicates Baten’s original vision. In fact, almost the entire game retreads old ground and reuses the same environments, failing to exert the same sense of mystery and wonder. There are of course a few new areas to explore, but the majority of these are additional corridors or extended routes attached to old (with a noticeable exception being Hassaleh) and they seem a little less striking in comparison. Although the character animations within the battle scenarios have noticeably improved and enemies themselves have received a coat of polish (from ghastly demons spilling their saturated fluids to glistening imperial machinery vaunting its supremacy), the designs remain fairly unimaginative compared to the likes of, say, 'Final Fantasy'.

    However, when you consider 'Origins' is brimming with side quests, some pleasantly subtle and others quite literally huge, it becomes clear where Namco’s time has been spent. There is a Coliseum taunting to be beaten, a village created out of plasticine begging to be rebuilt, dozens of civilians pleading to be helped, and a thousand singular Magnus cards to collect, some only by combining specific types in a specific order in the new Magnus Mixer. It all threatens to double an already 50-hour-plus adventure.

    'Lost Ocean’s' main pull; its unique addition, were these fabulously inventive Magnus cards. By using such a card, the essence of items, equipment and even figurative or intangible properties (like a person’s emotion or spoken word) could be captured and harnessed. This clever system returns in 'Origins' with both additions and sacrifices to the original design, shaping something refreshingly new but comfortably familiar.

    There are two main categories of Magnus cards: Battle and Quest. “Quest” Magnus are used to solve puzzles or store valuable key items required for progression. Many of these can transform over time, disappearing without a trace or changing into a something else entirely. For instance, food can fester beyond usage, whereas water can turn stagnant or milk can mature into cheese. Whereas "Battle" Magnus, on the other hand, can only be used in battle scenarios, consisting of Weak, Medium and Strong attack cards, spells, equipment or artefacts (that modify attributes).

    'Origin’s' card-based battles work similar to turn-based battle systems, wherein having encountered a foe onscreen (thankfully not randomly activated), the pre-rendered screen dissolves away and reveals a three-dimensional plane allowing the camera to shift at ease creating a more dynamic and cinematic experience. In this battle scenario, the player has no direct control over the characters but instead must select a series of cards spread evenly at the bottom of the screen.

    The basic philosophy is choosing cards in ascending Spirit Number (a number displayed in the bottom corner of the cards), starting low and moving up sequentially in order to create a successful combo. Namco has made combo-ing a significant factor this time, adding a “Relay” function that allows players to chain the characters' attacks, which not only looks spectacular but deals some serious damage. The system is skillfully implemented, offering a great deal of interaction with the player by requiring quick reflexes and on-the-spot decision-making.

    There is an element of luck involved however, likely to generate moments of frustration - but it isn’t a flawed system. It prevents any two battles from being the same, keeping the player firmly on their toes. Although initially bewildering, it does become clear that success in battle is due to spending time customising and creating a strong deck, anticipating the next attack and thinking strategically.

    For followers, it will likely take several attempts to understand what works and what doesn’t. For those new to Baten it will take time to discern what on earth is going on, but when it finally clicks, when it finally makes sense, it is oh-so satisfying and works wonderfully well.

    Namco’s decision to focus so strongly on the worlds already created and the mechanisms already established may be initially a little off putting to fans of 'Lost Ocean'. However, it has meant Namco was able to pour their attention in creating a busier, more active and a greatly more involved gaming experience.

    Score: 8/10
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