Developer Monolith Soft has recently been carving its own notable niche in the world of console role-playing games, and is best known as the creator of the PlayStation 2's Xenosaga series. Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean is yet another RPG with yet another long and unwieldy title, and it's a beautiful game with a captivating world, a unique art style, and a card-based battle system that draws on the possible combinations of several hundred cards that can change over time. The battle system has a flaw or two, but the lavishly detailed world of Baten Kaitos is a great place to go for a nice fairy tale.
"Baten kaitos" translates from Arabic as "the belly of the whale," and it's also the name of a star in the constellation Cetus (the whale). The world of Baten Kaitos is one where humanity is scattered across a handful of islands floating high in the sky, where tales of the lost earth and oceans below are relegated to legend. The people who live here grow a set of wings, called "wings of the heart," that are said to vary in form depending on the spirit and character of each individual. You'll be experiencing this world through the eyes and ears of a blue-haired youth named Kalas, who differs from his brethren in that he has only a single wing--his second wing is a mechanical one crafted by his grandfather. However, unlike in games where you assume the persona of the main character or otherwise just sit back and watch, you play here as a guardian spirit, an otherworldly soul who has bonded to Kalas. It's an interesting twist on things, as your bonded human and other characters in the game will routinely break the fourth wall, turning periodically to speak to you directly or to ask your advice. Your involvement primarily manifests itself in agreeing or disagreeing with Kalas, and the more your responses match his mind-set, the stronger your bond will become, which can have an appreciable effect in battle.
Otherwise, it's traditional RPG fare, as you meet a mysterious girl named Xelha and wind up in opposition to a plot by an evil empire to resurrect a dark god. A variety of characters will fall in with your cause, like a cheerful knight-turned-fisherman, a disaffected exile from the empire, and a powerful masked wizard. The stories of your party members aren't delved into very deeply; the game concentrates more on forwarding the main narrative and less on histories and motivation. Aside from an interesting wrinkle or two, you'll probably be able to mostly predict where the plot is going, but it's still an enjoyable ride, thanks to the well-crafted lands and cultures you'll be visiting, the personality of your party members, and all the "magnus" that you'll discover.
Magnus are cards--more precisely, they are the "magna essence" of items that can then be magically stored on cards and used. Anything inanimate can be stored in a magnus, from weapons and armor, to elemental spells, to explosives, trees, glasses of beer, fishing poles, clouds, and much, much more. Some magnus can be used only in battle, some can be used only outside of battle, and some are stored and used only as quest items. As if that weren't enough, many magnus will change over time while they're in your possession. Hang on to a tasty fish for too long, and it will rot. Keep milk for long enough and it will turn into cheese. Edible bamboo shoots will change into bamboo spears that can be used as weapons. The grapes that you used as a healing item will change into rotten grapes that can poison you, then into a restorative wine, and then into vinegar. That probably sounds complicated and sometimes inconvenient--and it sometimes is. But usually, battle magnus change only over an extended period of time, and since you're constantly gaining new magnus from monsters and buying them in shops, you can manage your stock pretty easily. It's also interesting (if occasionally frustrating) to see what your magnus will turn into, and many items can be acquired only by manipulating the magnus yourself, like letting wheat turn into tasty beer. But by far the most important thing you'll be doing with your magnus is fighting with them.
The enemies who dot the islands of Baten Kaitos are all visible onscreen in their respective areas, and you can learn to slip around many of them if you're not inclined to fight. Each character has his or her own "deck" of magnus (which you'll have arranged ahead of time) to call on during battle. When it's that character's turn in battle, you'll be dealt a certain number of cards from your deck randomly, and you can play anywhere from zero to nine cards, depending on that person's class level. If it's an offensive turn, you'll be able to use any of your weapons and items on your foe. If it's a defensive turn, you'll be able to use your armor or parry with weapons, if applicable. Playing a card causes a new card to be dealt into your hand automatically. Since you're dealt magnus at random, your ideal deck will be a mixture of weapons, armor, healing items, and spells, allowing you to chain attacks, defensive maneuvers, and healing techniques together in an effective way. Cards don't disappear once they're used, no matter what class of magnus they are, so that doughnut you used to heal in this battle will still be in your deck for the next, and if you use your whole deck during a single fight and reshuffle, it'll still be there. Still, not everything is always doughnuts and happiness.
There are a couple of issues that crop up in battle periodically. Since you're being dealt cards at random, there are times when you can end up getting a glut of a certain type of magnus, like all armor items. If you don't happen to get attacked (and so don't use those cards at all), all those armor cards are still in your hand for your next turn, so you're not getting dealt anything new to attack or heal with. You can only discard a single card per turn if it's not being used for something, which means you can end up in a situation where a character is locked out of acting for a few turns because of the hand he or she has been dealt, while the others are in serious trouble.