For those of you who don't know it, Baten Kaitos is a Gamecube JRPG. I'll be talking about the first one here, "Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean". You can call it old-school, broken, boring, cliché. Some people hate the voice acting, the character art, the characters themselves.
Still, it's a wonderful game, and will not stop haunting me anytime soon.
I'll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum as I really don't want to break the game for anyone. I would recommend you to play it for yourself before reading anything though, just in case. But we all know no one ever does that, right? Also note that I still haven't played the second game, Origins. It didn't "stick" as much when I started it.
Anyway, you've been warned. So, why do I love that game?
First is the world. Islands floating in the sky, nothing exceptional at first glance. But the locations have a presence, a dream-like quality, that I've never encountered anywhere else. Plus the game is gorgeous, if you're not an integrist of HD 3D graphics and don't mind the quirky and colourful style.
The story begins in a very classic way: evil leader trying to awake an evil power to take over the world. But. This game is all about "but". The characters are your typical archetypes. But.
It seems to play with archetypes more than it adhers to them. It uses the clichés to throw them back in your face at the perfect moment.
The combat system has been written about quite a bit. It's a mix of turn-based and realtime, based on cards. Each character has a deck of cards, that you can curate outside the fights. During a battle, you'll be able to "chain" some of those you get dealt at each turn. And once the first card is picked, your character starts attacking and you'd better be quick enough to pick the next one in time.
There are a few neat tricks added to this system. The pairs and chains, giving damage bonuses depending on the way you combine the numbers present on the cards. The finishing moves, requiring a combo of a certain length and ending it with a powerful spell. And the damage is only dealt at the end of the turn, so you'd better avoid mixing opposing elements, which will subtract damage. The typical case? A gorgeous water combo ruined by a fire finisher.
The exploration part takes place on pre-rendered backgrounds. No random encounters, you can see the monsters in the place you're exploring. No complex dialog trees or game-changing decisions, only "quest cards" used to carry various objects and solve puzzles.
But this is all missing the point. The world, once more. The core assumption is that each thing, living or not, has a soul, a "magnus essence". Those essences can be held in cards, called Magnus. Those are the cards you're using during the fights. Another key part of the lore are the Guardian Spirits. We don't know much about those, only that some humans can bind with them, getting a deeper knowledge and powerful spells for it.
You are the lead character's guardian angel. You're not there. You're only helping during the fights and guiding some of his decisions. If you say something he doesn't like, your relationship weakens, the spells get rarer and the voices fainter in your ears. If you saw some reviews complaining about the muffled sound, that's why. This game plays on the fourth wall in a pretty neat way.
But that's still not it. Somehow this game made me care for its story and characters in a way that Final Fantasy never suceeded at. Maybe because the world is so gorgeous? Maybe because the character art has none of that manga-like fake perfection? Maybe because each character is deeply broken and flawed in its own way? Not that you'll learn why, because this is a game happy with not giving some answers. Loose ends are fine.
Some dialog lines, some places, hint at things way deeper and sometimes darker than you'd think at first glance. I like the game so much that I dug somewhat in reading some fanfics, and it's amazing to see how many different interpretations people can come up with for some things, all making sense. (And don't judge too much, some of those are actually well-written! :))
I would love to start writing about specifics and examples but then I'd definitely get into a very spoilery and long-winded rant territory. No joke, I could probably rant on that world and those characters for days without running out of things to say.
In short: play it. Maybe you'll hate it. But maybe you'll be one of the fews who fall completely for this game.
Note that you might have to perseverate past the first few hours: personally I disliked the main character immensely from the start. But not because he's badly written, far from it: because in real life, I would punch him in the face. Others love him, and hate one of the characters I like the most. To me, this is a good sign of strong characters.