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Saturday, January 6, 2024

Baten Kaitos Origins

Released as "Baten Kaitos II" in Japan (and indeed this title still appears in the opening FMV), though it was given an alternate title in North America since it's a prequel to the original game.  They seem to have taken some criticisms of the original game to heart and made strides to greatly improve the game's pacing.  Case in point, the card-based combat is now significantly overhauled.  Rather than having a large stockpile of weapons with differing elemental properties, you're now given generic "attack" cards with numbers that go from 1-7.  Attack cards can now only be used in ascending order, and you can use any number of them in a single turn as long as you follow this rule. One also gets weapon and armor cards, which always have a number of "0"; rather than needing to be used at the moment of an attack, these cards remain in effect or a fixed number of uses before deactivating, with armor naturally reducing damage and weapons dealing extra.  However, you can only have one equipment card, weapon or armor, active at a time - using another overwrites the old one and any remaining charges are lost.  Some cards (like healing items) aren't numbered at all and can only be used on their own in a given turn, while special moves are now powered by "MP", a gauge charged as you play cards; using a special subtracts from your total number of filled MP bars.  There are now only three party members and they all draw from the same deck, which cuts down on micromanagement.  Battles move at a much faster pace, with turns activating on a linear time scale and taking longer to recharge after certain actions, not unlike the ATB system from Final Fantasy IV.  You can discard unwanted cards to stop them cluttering up your hand and don't have to lose turns to "shuffle the deck" anymore, which is quite nice.  "Class levels" are now tied to Technical Points earned from battle rather than items doled out at the whim of the plot, and experience levels are applied after battle so you don't have to run back to the church nearly as often.  The annoying element of having to snap photos of enemies is discarded in favor of simple money drops.  Quest Magnus also have a bit more purpose than simply solving puzzles - if you keep certain types in your inventory slots they'll actually boost (or lower) your battle stats and elemental resistances a bit, and can be used to craft new cards in some shops. Fittingly for a prequel many familiar locales from the first game return, though you also see several new ones, and the story, while not as interesting as the first, is a solid one that builds on the fourth wall breaking gimmick of the first game (with the player once again taking the role of a "Guardian Spirit" whom the protagonists directly speak to).  All in all a much better paced and more refined gameplay experience, and the writing, while still solid, is told through a slow-burn story that takes a good while before everything falls into place.  The world building definitely loses something without Masato Kato at the helm, which makes me wish we could get a reworked version of the first game that uses Origins' gameplay design.  It's a shame the game came out so late in the system's life that almost nobody played it, but hey, at least you can get it at an affordable price on the Baten Kaitos HD Remaster compilation now.

Developer: Monolith Soft, Tri-Crescendo
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Released: 2006, 2023
Platforms: Gamecube, Switch

The version on the Baten Kaitos HD Remaster compilation has some QoL improvements like options for disabling encounters and speeding up the gameplay, though like the original Baten Kaitos, it also loses its English dub and has only Japanese audio with English subtitles.  A bit more of a substantial loss this time as the dubbing was actually well-done in this game.