I never had a chance to play the Baten Kaitos games when they came out on the GameCube. I wasn’t an RPG fan until my late teens, so I probably wouldn’t have appreciated them even if I did have an opportunity to play them. Fall seems to be the season for reviving dormant IPs, and it’s now Baten Kaitos’ time to shine once more.
Baten Kaitos I & II HD Remaster contains exactly that, HD remasters of the first (and only) two games in the series: Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean and Baten Kaitos Origins. Bringing over staff that worked on Chrono Cross to lead the project, and developed by Monolith Soft in the era where they didn’t mainly work on Xeno titles, the Baten Kaitos games are unlike most RPGs out there. Every single thing you do in these games revolves around cards.
First and foremost, your battle system uses cards collected, traded, or purchased throughout the world. Baten Kaitos is a turn-based RPG with a complicated deck builder there for those who adore min-maxing to their heart’s content. Typically I’m not fond of card RPGs, but Baten goes so far in on the concept that I couldn’t help but get invested in it.
Battles play out in an ATB-like style. Your characters build up a bar until it’s their turn, unleash a series of attacks to build a high combo, and then keep going until the battle is finished. In the original Baten Kaitos, the amount of attacks a character can use in a turn is dependent on their class. Because turns are so slow I think it tends to drag down just how fun ATB battle systems tend to be. There’s nothing worse than having 7 cards to play in a turn, picking your attacks, and then killing it in one. You don’t just pivot your attacks to a new enemy, but instead, just sit there and let that entire turn play out. It’s quite slow and punishes proper planning.
Baten Kaitos Origins fixes this, with faster battle animations and a new combo system where you are meant to play card numbers in ascending order. It still doesn’t pivot your attacks to a new enemy if you kill your target, but battles being harder and the combo system being more engaging kept me from ever getting bored like I did with the original. I think Baten Kaitos’ combat is an unfun blight on a very quirky and engaging game, and am thankful that they included plenty of options to modify the experience for those who get bored.
Probably my favorite way the game implements cards though is how they’re used outside of battles. Baten Kaitos might be an RPG, but the game design thrives in the point-and-click adventure era. There are special field cards called Magnus, which allow you to absorb items from the environment and use them elsewhere to solve specific puzzles. For example, if I had a block of ice in front of me I could go into a villager’s house and get a Blaze magnus out of their fire pit. Then when I return to the block, I could use that to melt the ice and continue. That isn’t an exact example from the games, but it explains just what kind of puzzle-solving you can expect from Baten Kaitos. The main story and side quests both utilize this kind of puzzle-solving, so you’re expected to talk to everyone and use your brain.
The stories of these games are hard to talk about without giving too much away, but I think the most fascinating aspect of them is how they’re designed around player interaction. Alongside your two protagonists – Kalas in the original game and Sagi in Baten Kaitos Origins – is a force called a Guardian Spirit. This spirit is bound to them, and occasionally other people can communicate with them as well. You are this spirit, and the protagonists will frequently ask you for your input on the events going on around them. Your bond with your protagonist will affect how efficient they are in battles, based on how often you agree with them. If your bond is high with Kalas, he’ll get more special attacks to appear in his deck. If your bond with Sagi is high, cards you might need in a tight spot will appear more often. Where this becomes interesting, especially in Kalas’ case, is that they’re not always the most agreeable protagonists. Kalas is rude and plain selfish to just about everyone you meet, but if you disagree with him too often battles will be a lot harder. It’s a fascinating dynamic between player and protagonist with real gameplay consequences, I’ve never seen anything else like it before.
If I had to pick which of the games I prefer, I’d probably have to say Baten Kaitos Origins edged out the original. While it’s not as in your face with its eccentricities, it makes up for it by refining and polishing your core set of mechanics. You have a dash on the overworld that can pick things up when you’re trying to traverse in a hurry. Combat has a faster rhythm with its new number-based combo system, and level ups actually happen as a result of battles instead of needing to stop at a church. All of the tedium was stripped away, and you’re left with a much faster and more approachable experience that I think is far more appreciable for newcomers. As a prequel, there are spots that play on your expectations based on knowledge in the original game, but I don’t think it’d be to your detriment.
The greatest thing this remaster has done has touched up the visuals. Not exactly the character models, which look solid in a higher resolution, but the backgrounds look truly stunning in HD. We have a large amount of classic RPG remasters in the previous console generation that seemed to put the bare minimum amount of effort into preserving the quality of the backgrounds. There’s no confirmation, but it almost seems like they kept the original background images. Maybe they were AI Upscaled, but if so it was done expertly. These are the best cleaned-up backgrounds I’ve seen since the remaster of Legend of Mana. They’re stellar.
When the remasters launched, I’d call the performance almost unacceptable. Baten Kaitos Origins seems to have been running and looking good since day one and probably is even cleaner since the first patch. The original Baten Kaitos has a wildly inconsistent frame rate that went all the way from 30-60 on a whim. Outdoor areas were closer to 30, and small indoor areas were usually a locked 60. This is strange since every area in both games are pre-rendered backgrounds. Battles would go from about 33-47 fps, and it felt just awful to play. Since both games have a pseudo-ATB system, your timing matters a lot.
But another issue with timing comes from the QoL introduced here, specifically the speed-up options. You can increase game speeds in both battle and outside to up to 300%, and while that’s great when you are roaming the world problems come up in battles. When it comes to defense in the original Baten Kaitos, you’ll need to pick your defense cards on the fly to block attacks. With the game speed so high, your window to get these blocks in time is almost nonexistent. The QoL menu cannot be pulled up in battles though, so there’s no on-the-fly speed changing. Once you pick one, you’re locked into that speed until your battle is done. In Baten Kaitos Origins, you pick passive defense cards that’ll give you a couple of blocks stocked up, but the speed-up will probably also give you trouble with normal attacks. Since Baten Kaitos Origins is just overall a harder and mechanically tighter experience, I’m sure many will find this speed option not feasible.
We also have some of the usual HD Remaster QoL here, like being able to turn off encounters and kill things instantly. A great option they’ve added in the original Baten Kaitos is the ability to skip the turn battle results screen, speeding up battles exponentially. I still think that the original game is a bit too slow for my liking.
At the current moment, the only major remaining point of contention with the remaster is the exclusion of the English voice tracks from both original games. Supposedly this is because they’d be incompatible with script changes, but from my research these differences are miniscule. Most of the script is the same, but I’ve noticed that the remaster refers to the player as genderless now. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Japanese version always did it like this, which is why that voice track remained. I wish the option would have been available, even if supposedly the dub for the first game is subpar in quality. I’d always heard good things about Baten Kaitos Origins’ localization, so at the very least, we get to read that game’s wonderful script.
Overall (and after some post-launch updates) I’m content with the state of Baten Kaitos I & II HD Remaster. That’s not exactly the tone I was expecting to have during the launch period, so I’m thankful that they fixed it quickly even if I was frustrated that we needed to wait a week at all. These are two very special games that deserved a great re-release, and I’m thankful that I was able to experience them in this fashion. They might not appease every hardcore fan of the original, but I doubt many would be able to deny how good of a steal this is for newcomers looking to experience some cult classics. They are flawed gems, but they’re bound to capture the attention of anyone looking for something truly unique.
Version Tested: Nintendo SwitchReview copy provided by Bandai Namco Entertainment