Baten Kaitos I & II HD Remaster Review
Released almost 20 years ago, the original Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean and its prequel Baten Kaitos Origins were much-needed boosts to the comparatively lacking RPG library on Nintendo’s Gamecube. Due in part to their unique card-based combat, the series attracted a passionate fanbase that has been crying out for the series’ return, and at long last, Bandai Namco has answered with this release of the Baten Kaitos I & II HD Remaster on Nintendo Switch. While this collection has its share of blemishes, they can’t completely dim the sparkle that these games still have.
If you are not already familiar, the Baten Kaitos games, developed in partnership between Monolith Soft (known these days for Xenoblade Chronicles) and Tri-Crescendo (of Star Ocean fame), take place in a world where the population lives on large floating islands in the sky. The original Baten Kaitos puts you in control of Kalas, a mysterious youth with a mechanical wing who has to deal with the impending revival of an evil god, while Baten Kaitos Origins sees you as Sagi, a spiriter searching for the culprits who framed him. Sagi and Kalas are each paired with a special Guardian Spirit acting as your voice of reason, letting you lend your advice to would-be heroes. With ample surprises and devilish foes, the tales told in this collection were some of the best on the Gamecube.
Having played through the original Baten Kaitos on original hardware earlier this year, I found this new remaster to be a much more comfortable and appealing way to enjoy these games, even with this port's issues and faults. This is thanks in part to a number of the quality-of-life features and options that add in more modern game conveniences, with skipping cutscenes and autosaves as examples. That being said, even with the welcome new options that help remove some of the more tedious elements of the original releases, each positive addition comes with a “yeah, but…” situation that you can expect to contend with.
Arguably, the biggest addition to this collection are the combat settings, accessible via a special pause screen menu, which allows players to adjust the gameplay speed inside and outside combat, allowing your attacks to instantly kill enemies, letting the computer control your party with auto-battle, or simply turning off encounters altogether. These settings can only be adjusted outside of combat (except for the auto-battling, which can only be turned off via a button press), which is a little odd. When you’re in the mood to mindlessly grind a bit on simple enemies, there is no doubt that these settings can streamline the process, but here is where the “yeah, but…” comes in - the auto battler is pretty dumb.
The new autobattle AI is competent enough to know to use offensive cards during your attack phase and defensive ones when you’re being attacked, but don’t expect much past that. This poses a bigger issue in the first game, where you can get additional bonuses depending on the numbers on the cards you play (playing matching numbers, playing in an ascending or descending order, etc.), as well as when dealing with elemental affinities on cards. The computer will play fire cards right alongside a water one, which will cancel each other's damage out, resulting in minuscule amounts of damage done on your side. Unless you have tailored your Magnus deck to be basically idiot-proof, don’t expect the auto-battle feature to be beating bosses for you.
The issues with this are less detrimental in the sequel, Baten Kaitos Origins, due to the refinements and adjustments made in the card battling system itself, most of which come from the changes to how bonuses and elemental attacks are handled. In Origins, you are required to string a series of cards along in ascending order of value. The longer a string, the better the bonus, which helps to force the auto-battler to perform strong combos. That said, it still never attempted to set up the longer counts either by ditching weaker cards to pull better ones that were just out of reach to use. It also shows no preference for maintaining a specific piece of equipment (the primary method of reducing damage and adding an element to your attacks in Origins), and will overwrite what is there simply to add another card on the current attack stack. The functionality just isn’t there to rely on the autobattle to efficiently deal with any enemy outside of the random mobs you feel like grinding on, regardless of which of the two games you use it with.
One of the more popular additions with RPG remasters lately is the addition of a speed-up ‘turbo’ function, a feature that the Baten Kaitos collection has implemented as well, with varying levels of success. In these games, you can set the speed in and out of combat between 2x or 3x the normal speed, with each being able to be adjusted independently. The settings outside of combat I had no issue with, I found it incredibly welcome during those moments I had to backtrack through areas, especially when I also turned off encounters. Things get a bit more troublesome, though, in combat. While it succeeds in doing just what it promises and - you can probably guess where I’m going - this feature also suffers from “yeah, but…” syndrome -, the 2x and especially 3x makes combat almost impossible to control directly.
In combat, as expected, the speed increase applies to the speed of the animations (this is good), but it also affects the timer you are given to act during your turn (this is bad). That means the short window where you have to select your attack cards, set up combos, and choose which enemy to attack or which ally to heal is reduced to roughly a blink of an eye. You may (and that’s a pretty big may) be able to handle it in the early levels when set to 2x speed. However, when you begin to deal with larger hand sizes and the ability to combo with more cards, that all goes out the window, resulting in you having to rely on the new auto-battle setting or else lose entire turns standing there (standing still very fast though). Changing the speed back to normal during your turn to prepare and then speeding back up again during animations would fix all the gripes I have with it, but as it is now, you cannot do this. Unless this change is patched in, the turbo mode will have to remain strictly as a grinding tool paired with the auto-battler, or used exclusively alongside the new No Encounters toggle for backtracking.
From a visual standpoint, Baten Kaitos I & II HD Remaster’s pre-rendered backgrounds remain breathtaking. The improved resolution helps them shine, especially when viewed on the OLED Switch’s screen. The highly stylized and diverse designs of the islands you travel to have always had such a personality. Having recently played the original standard definition, checking them out in the improved resolution was like seeing them for the first time again. Unfortunately, some of the lovely overlaid effects take quite a toll on performance, leading to a very variable and borderline unstable framerate.
I never experienced a drop so extensive that it made the game unplayable or anywhere near it, but from one screen to the next, often you could see a distinct difference in how things were performing. Rarely would the targeted 30fps be maintained for too long, with particular dips occurring in areas with some sort of overlay, such as clouds in the foreground or ominous mists swirling around. Admittedly, frame drops aren’t quite as big of a deal for me as I know they can be for others on the internet. Still, this issue, especially on ports of such old games, is disappointing and should not happen on modern hardware, regardless of their severity.
All of the menus and dialogue boxes have been completely redone and come across clearly even when playing the games in the Switch’s handheld mode. Even the fonts felt right, which seems to be one of the hardest things to get right these days in remasters and rereleases, appearing crisp and easily readable on the solid-color backgrounds of the dialogue windows. The main menus in this collection feel more sterile and generic compared to the originals, but I got used to them quickly.
For all my gripes and “yea, buts…”, Baten Kaitos I & II HD Remaster is still a wonderful collection that has been a long time coming. Would it have been nice if this included an English voice option? Sure. do I want them to release a patch that stabilizes performance and improves the auto-battle feature? Of course! But at the end of the day, I still love that this collection exists. Fans originally fell in love with these games not because of any ‘autobattle’ or ‘turbo mode, or because of the games’ framerates; they fell in love with the characters, the story, the world, the gameplay, the visuals, and so much more. All of these things remain here in the Baten Kaitos I & II HD Remaster. There’s a reason that these games sit comfortably at 88 for Baten Kaitos and 75 for Origins on Metacritic.
The Baten Kaitos games deserve better than this remaster gives them, but for new and returning players alike, it is still a great addition to any RPG fan’s Switch library. Hopefully, this collection isn’t the last we see of the Magnus-slinging series and is instead the beginning of a bright future ahead for the series.