Baten Kaitos kicks off, as any good story does, with a desire for revenge. The main character, Kalas, is on an altogether too angry quest to kill those that killed his family. Where the complication comes in is when he bumps into the magic-user Xelha, who is on the run from the Empire after hearing their plot to resurrect and ancient evil – so far, so JRPG. Thus begins your trek across the known world, culling monsters and saving cities, all from the viewpoint as a benevolent Guardian Spirit.
Baten Kaitos Origins follows a similarly grandiose tale, albeit one that’s set before the narrative of the first game. Following an honestly far more likeable cast, it opens with Sagi, a new initiate of a military organisation, taking on a high priority mission alongside their seemingly mechanical companion Guillo. Once again you have lost a family member, because I don’t think it could even be a JRPG without someone dying or disappearing before the start of the game, but revenge doesn’t seem the initial motivator for Sagi.
Freshly remastered for the Nintendo Switch from their GameCube origins, both games proceed as typical JRPG fare; rock up to a city, talk to everyone, steal from their houses, maybe find a new ally, get into battles, defeat a boss, solve the cities problems, then onto the next location. To be honest, if this is all sounding tremendously typical of the genre, it’s because it is. In fact, it would almost fall into feeling overwhelmingly average, if not for the absolute wild nature of the mechanics they throw at you – at least in the first game.
Baten Kaitos feels like every conceptually simple mechanic has been tinkered with in some way. You don’t level from defeating enemies, for instance, but instead build a pool of experience points that can be exchanged for levels by praying at a church. However, if you save up and level up multiple times in one go, you will receive a boost to your stat increases, resulting in some tough decisions as to whether you level immediately or hold off for a greater payoff.
Selling items and combat generally won’t net you a great deal of money either, instead the game has a photography mechanic where you take photos of monsters during combat, wait a set length of time for the Polaroid-like photo to develop, and then sell the photos for the largest sum possible – even bosses can be photographed. The cost of this is that the camera will take up one of the slots of your attack combo, resulting in a lower damage output that turn.
Baten Kaitos Origins removes or changes these quirks. You still need to go to the church to increase your class level, which increases your deck size and number of decks you can hold, or you can now add stat-altering auras to your characters to increase speed or give them an inherent elemental affinity. However, you level up and gain money from combat in a more traditional fashion. It makes a lot more sense, sure, but is one part of this still good sequel that makes it a less interesting experience overall.
Then there’s the Magnus – little cards in both games that make up practically the remainder of the game mechanics. These cards trap the essence of other objects, which can encompass every thing from weapons to armour to key items to… mattresses. You build decks for each character, with the maximum number of cards increasing as you level up, taking care to balance offence, defence and curatives for the inevitable battles you’ll find yourself in.
Combat is turn-based, as all good JRPGs are, with your decks being shuffled before each battle and divided broadly into character turns and enemy turns. During character turns you select combos of cards from your deck to attack the selected enemy with (or heal an ally) to eke out the largest amount of damage. During enemy turns you can still act, using the cards in your decks that represent armour pieces to counter the enemy strikes and reduce the damage taken to as close to zero as possible.
Several of your cards will have elemental properties and you can use these to boost damage in combat by targeting enemy weaknesses with elemental attack cards, or alternatively inflict reduced damage being if using an attack that is protected by resistances. The elements in the game exist in pairs (fire/water, light/dark, etc.), which is business as usual, but what isn’t is that using opposing elements together will cause them to negate each other.
If an enemy strikes with a dark attack and you defend with a light affinity armour you can greatly reduce the damage taken, but be careful, because if you accidentally use a water and a fire attack in the same combo string, their damage will cancel each other out and considerably lower your damage output. If you happen to run out of cards, your deck will reshuffle automatically, and you miss an attack turn for that character. This mechanic also affects the enemies, so if you see them reshuffling they are temporarily unable to defend against you.
Another unique factor are the effects that time will have on your Magnus cards. Certain cards will change over time into different cards entirely, often with different effects to deal with. For instance, Milk is a curative item that will change into Cheese, a curative item that restores more HP. Or the Flower Bud, which can defend against or cure paralysis, decays into a Dead Flower and becoming an attack card with a poison effect.
One thing that’s undeniable is that Baten Kaitos is doing a lot of interesting things with its mechanics. Does it stick the landing on all of these? No. Are some of these mechanics frustrating? Definitely. But the attempt alone is more than admirable. Sadly, Baten Kaitos Origins again changes the combat and other systems in subtle ways, leading to an experience that features the same cards but uses them to play Go Fish instead of Poker – and not entirely for the better.
Firstly, there is now one deck of Magnus cards that all of your characters attack and defend from, instead of multiple. This makes strategising easier, as you can prioritise basic attack cards that can be used by anyone and then flesh things out with character-specific cards, but this does takes away a certain degree of uniqueness from the cast. Secondly, in combat you can only act on your turn, meaning that setting up armour during your turn to shore up your defences is crucial.
Thirdly, you can no longer play any attack card during your turn and aim for patterns, so you instead have to play the cards in increasing numerical value. Much like the changes to the level up system, this makes a lot more sense, but feels less dynamic and experimental. There is a new system that allows for chaining combos between multiple characters, which is a fun little added level of strategy, but even this feels more generic in comparison to what came before it.
I will say though that Baten Kaitos Origins does use the Magnus for more puzzle solving elements straight out of the gate, so you’ll be trapping a lot more essences to solve puzzles in the world and to complete side quests and often in interesting and unexpected ways.
One area that’s far less interesting in both games are the visuals, which are honestly rather mixed, even for remasters. The world design is stunning and the menus and UI are all gloriously of their time (in a good way), but some of the character illustrations are hideous in the same way that those hand drawn memes of the 2000s were, and the character models have a disturbing “uncanny valley” element to them of their time (in a bad way). This is repaired somewhat in Origins, but there’s a visual consistency between the two games that results in both looking dated, even with the HD coat of paint.
Luckily, the aesthetic is saved by the music and sound design, which is incredible across the collection. The battle and boss music in particular are gems in both, but the music and – for the lack of a better term – crunchy sound design is great throughout. I will say though, that this game overall looks and runs great on the Switch in handheld in spite of the questionable art design, but staring into the dead eyes of the shopkeepers on a big screen is alarmingly close to watching a horror film.