Japanese RPGs weren’t something that the Gamecube was especially known for, so when I went through a copy of Nintendo Official Magazine just over a decade ago I was pretty surprised to find a preview of a rad-looking JRPG. The main thing that drew me towards it was that it looked different to Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles; 10 year-old Sayem was far too cool for those weird peanut-looking people. To me, Baten Kaitos was cool, edgy, and looked like it might even have had the chops to be better than Golden Sun; the first JRPG wee little me ever completed.
After finally being able to buy it (I used up all the ink on my family’s printer by printing ‘PLEASE BUY ME BATEN KAITOS’ over and over again) I was completely taken in. The game kicks off with almost every cliché in the book, but at the time I just didn’t know any better. Your main dude, Kalas, is a young, brash hero with a tortured past, who wakes up without his memory. You, the player, actually accompany Kalas as a spirit, and can talk to him or make decisions. For some reason this also meant that all the voice acting had this weird flange effect on it, making the entire game sound like it was recorded through an empty tube of kitchen roll.
What starts off as a simple premise quickly shifts into an incredibly convoluted plot about an evil emperor and a malevolent god sealed into trading cards, because that’s clearly the best way of dealing with that situation. The characters are all a mashup of your typical JRPG tropes and had one of the worst companions of all time, Lyude. While a younger version of myself absolutely adored Baten Kaitos’ story, it really hasn't stood the test of time.
But it wasn't really the story that stuck with me - it was the world. Instead of having your usual run-of-the-mill huge avatar trekking across the world, Baten Kaitos was a little more focused. Set on several floating islands in the sky, Kalas simply made his own way across several cities and dungeons, with no real overworld. Baten Kaitos instead set itself against beautifully pre-rendered backgrounds, both on the map and inside cities. The developers essentially just used the concept art in the game.
More importantly, I was equally as impressed that Baten Kaitos came on two discs, which for a £40 game was astonishing to me. I eagerly awaited the moment that I had to swap the disc and think: “there’s a whole other half to this that I’ve never even seen!” When that time came, I jumped at the opportunity and had a sense of deep satisfaction for about five seconds. As it turns out, the game makes you save as you swap discs, locking you into all of the second disc's content. Being a naive child, I didn’t think to make a backup save file. The second began with a difficulty spike. A big one. And I couldn’t go back and grind a few levels so I’d be stronger.
I turned the Gamecube off, inserted disc one, sighed deeply and started the game again.
Probably one of the most memorable parts of Baten Kaitos was Motoi Sakuraba's soundtrack. Mixing the traditional traditional fantasy fanfare with ludicrous prog-rock themes and, at its peak, blending the two together in some sort of unholy union. Aside from his work on the ‘Souls’ series, Sakuraba’s RPG themes have been run into the ground with bland, uninspired tracks after writing music for the ‘Tales of’ series for the best part of 20 years. Baten Kaitos is arguably some of Sakuraba’s best work, but to me represents a golden age for the composer. Seeing tracks where’s he’s simply able to let go and embrace his own unique style is much more appealing than hearing derivative, forgettable gunk that populates most of his modern output.
Baten Kaitos was just the type of JRPG I was looking for at the time. I thought the story was brilliant because it had a knockoff version of Final Fantasy X’s Wakka who says “Bastard!” in the intro, and because it came on two discs. The game stands among a few other Gamecube JRPGs like Skies of Arcadia: Legends and Tales of Symphonia which, to be honest, are probably much better games, but Baten Kaitos holds a special place in my heart as the game I played most on the Gamecube. Developer Monolith Soft went on to make a sequel in 2006, but we never saw it come out here in the UK. In any case, I know I’ll probably never have that same feeling of satisfaction or excitement about such a by-the-book JRPG ever again.