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19. Baten Kaitos
The deck, maintaining it, and the luck of the draw
Developed by Monolith Soft
Battle design by Hiroya Hatsushiba and Yoshiharu Kuwabara
Reason for inclusion:
Since Magic: The Gathering hit it big, card-based battle systems haven't been uncommon either in real-world or RPG settings, but few did it as well as Baten Kaitos and its sequel, which use a deck, customizable by the player, to essentially replace its combat mode's random number generator.
The Baten Kaitos games are strange in many ways. Instead of plain human beings, all the characters sport wings of some type, which is a bit funky. Polygonal backgrounds have been left out in favor of the PlayStation Final Fantasy technique of using pre-rendered artwork for all areas. And then there's the combat.
Combat is bizarre. Every fight the player gets into is played out as a card game. When a character's turn comes up, the player attacks by playing cards from his hand. She can play one card to do some damage, or she can play a sequence depending on the numbers in the corners of the card. Doing so does considerably more damage, but relies on the player having the right cards both in both his deck and her hand. Playing a run requires cards from a wide range of values, and higher numbers are introduced slowly through the game.
I really can't emphasize the card fighting system enough. Characters have little in the way of statistics because the cards are the whole game. These cards, called "magnus", are collected by the player and organized into decks, which can be rearranged any time outside of combat, in a manner that CCG players might appreciate. But combat itself doesn't really play like any real CCG. The game is more a combination of rummy, with its searching for runs, and snap, because battle still takes place in real time. A turn ends when a player can't play any more cards or a very strict clock runs out on his turn.
Perhaps the biggest effect
of the card battle system is that it's possible to get royally screwed
over if you draw a poor hand at the start of a fight. Played cards get
replenished automatically from the deck, but if the player can't play
any cards he only gets to swap out one before the next turn. If the
player has unusually bad draw luck even basic encounters can become
difficult. Hand size extensions earned through the game make this less
likely, but it's hard to ever rule it out completely.
These are very odd games. It's
difficult to imagine it could ever have hit it big in the current marketplace,
yet it forges ahead with its oddness as if it were the most natural
thing in the world. And it is difficult to dislike for having the sheer
balls to replace combat with cards. It's enough to make me wonder, in
fact, if the game could have been made on a more popular system than
the Gamecube. As an exclusive for the tiny purple box, it was probably
a foregone conclusion that the game wouldn't be profitable, so they
just damned financial success and went and made what they wanted to
make. There's nothing like certain failure to loosen inhibitions!