Baten Kaitos II

The original Baten Kaitos was something of a surprise. Hardcore, Final Fantasy-style RPGs like this are the bread and butter of the PS2, but the Nintendo audience typically goes in for Zelda style action. But here we are with a sequel - a shocker in and of itself, as support for the GameCube is drying up fast.It's not a slap-dashquickie, either; it'sa gorgeous, playable and refined role playing game that will provide you with dozens of bizarre hours of questing. Can't argue with that.

For those who played the original, it's not exactly obvious where the sequel picks up in relation to it. The setup is much the same, though: you play as the guardian spirit of the game's main character, Sagi.

Sagi, a plucky teen with some sort of secret plan against the government, will sometimes directly address you and ask for your opinion on his decisions; they don't affect the story much, at least at the outset, but it's nice to be asked.

Despite this kink, the story is more than a little conventional: the game opens with Sagi joining the imperial army - but he has his own agenda. Unfortunately, during the course of the first mission, he gets blamed for the assassination of the emperor, and ends up on the lam.

Good for him that he's got an ally in Guillo, a Machinawill - that's the game's ungainly name for what amounts to a psychotic robot ninja. Most Machinawill can't speak, but Guillo dishes out pragmatic advice as easily as asskickings, in a creepy two-tone voice, asimultaneous blend of a man's and a woman's.

The mood is a mix of deathly serious and patently bizarre - the same ultra-fanciful world of the original returns, quite literally in parts; actual bits of the first game are wholesale reused. The world of Baten Kaitos is a chain of islands flying in the sky, each with its own distinct look. Even locations as drab as sewers or barren, rocky valleys are awash in bright colors and subtle details. Of course, if you were uncharitable, you could call the game tacky. Its otherworldliness certainly sets it apart.