Jade Cocoon

    In the rustic forest village of Syrus, there lives a boy named Levant, son of the Cocoon Master Riketz. Since his father's mysterious disappearance many years ago, he and his mother have been the object of scorn, pity, and gossip by the other villagers. Levant lives a simple life, playing the flute that is the instrument of the Cocoon Master and passing time with his friends, among them the young Nagi maiden Mahbu. However, when the Onibubu, or the "Locusts of Destruction", attack the village one day, many of the villagers are left in a deep sleep. Their only hope is a mysterious herb that grows somewhere in the forbidden forests, and the only one capable of surviving the minions that dwell there is Levant. Following in the footsteps of his father, he becomes the village's Cocoon Master, and sets out to obtain the herb.

2 B A Master... Cocoon Master!
2 B A Master... Cocoon Master!

    Aided by Mahbu's Nagi magic and the wisdom of the high priestess, Mother Garai, Levant comes to realize that lifting the curse of the Onibubu is not as simple as it first appeared. Superstition abounds, and even the highest of the divine spirits has taken an interest in the ordeal. The Cocoon Master is the catalyst that will bring either salvation or destruction to the people of Syrus. This is the story of Jade Cocoon, a game which is remarkably more serious than its peers in the typically simple "monster collection" genre.

    The battles play out much like traditional monster collection games, with Levant weakening the forest minions, then using his flute to draw them into cocoons that have to be purified by Mahbu so he can later summon them to fight for him. In addition, Mahbu can spin the cocoons into silk, which can be sold at the town shop for money. Battles are primarily fought by switching between the three minions Levant can carry with him, utilizing special attributes that depend on what sort of enemy he faces.

Mahbu prepares to merge two minions.
Mahbu prepares to merge two minions.

    Sometimes the limit of three seems frustrating, but with only four elemental attributes in the game, and each minion weak against one of them, there would be no challenge to the game if you were allowed to carry more. Even with the limit, the game is a bit on the easy side. Mastering the control scheme is the most difficult part of the gameplay, as Jade Cocoon uses the Resident Evil-like "pressing up moves the character in the direction they're facing" scheme. Thankfully, one of the controller buttons serves the purpose of making Levant run forward, so all the player really has to do is hold it down and occasionally press right or left on the control pad to make him turn, making for more intuitive movement.

    The real complexity of the game comes from the "Merge" system, in which Mahbu uses her magic to combine the different minions that Levant captures. Any one of the hundreds of minions can be merged with any other to take on the characteristics, abilities, and even appearance of the second - and those combinations can be merged with still others. The possibilities are nearly limitless. Unfortunately, often the stats don't seem to vary too much from the original after merging. The game itself describes the stat changes as being similar to the first minion defeating the second, though by merging, they also take on the other physical attributes. Since stats don't really suffer from merging, the player is free to indulge themselves in making the best looking monster they can.

Levant stands before the Beetle Gate
Levant stands before the Beetle Gate

    And speaking of looks, Jade Cocoons boasts impressive character and setting designs from the hand of Katsuya Kondoh, who worked on the acclaimed Princess Mononoke. The anime sequences themselves are few and far between, but like Princess Mononoke, Jade Cocoon's setting is primarily lush forests. Each of the forests Levant enters have a distinct look to them, and the beautifully pre-rendered backgrounds truly give off the impression of discovering a long-forgotten paradise. Subtle tribal drumbeats form the perfect backdrop as Levant explores the forests and the ancient ruins among them, finding exotic treasures and new creatures to tame. When it comes to atmosphere, you would be hard-pressed to find a game that has pulled it off so flawlessly.

    Given the similarities to Mononoke, it is not surprising that Jade Cocoon often receives a common criticism about modern games: that they seem to be more like movies. Although the gameplay itself is not overly sparse, gameplay and plot almost never coincide. Most of the game's action consists of fetch quests -- find a certain person, find a certain item, and return to the village so Mother Garai can tell you what to do next and what has transpired in the village since you left. Play for a half hour, then talk to the townspeople to advance the plot for a half hour. If the gameplay sequences did not exist, very little of the plot would be lost at all.

Please make this game an anime.
Please make this game an anime.

    However, the story contained within the game is remarkable enough that it might make an excellent movie. The plot is initially simple, but the creators of Jade Cocoon gave their world an entire mythology, much of which can be learned by way of the old graveyard caretaker. As he speaks, the player is often treated to FMV sequences, with the screen scrolling across aboriginal murals depicting the legends he shares with Levant. Many of the plot twists are not abrupt or shocking, but come about as the player begins to get a more thorough understanding of the world Levant inhabits. Small curiosities that are easily overlooked at first take on more significance as the story progresses. Rather than an exciting adventure, the story of Jade Cocoon is a subtle mystery to unravel piece by piece.

   Also similar to a movie, even the most mundane characters in the game were given personality. From the shopkeeper and her son to the minstrels in the square, each character seems to have their own life that they've lived, and thus sees Levant - and each other, making for some amusing conversations - from their own unique perspective. Listening to the snide gossip of the women at the silk mill can be infuriating, while the blacksmith and his wife, parents of Levant's best friend Kelmar, are far more gruff and understanding.

    The majority of the characters have their own voices to go with their personalities, and nearly all are perfectly fitting (though one has to wonder why Kikinak sounds like Phil Hartman). The acting is cheesy in spots, but the dialogue itself earns few complaints. Crave's translation is smoother than most, and even when it appears awkward, it often seems to be due more to the uncertainty of the voice actor than the words themselves. And even that isn't much of a problem, for the player can fast forward past the voice acting in almost all cases, or even turn it off entirely and simply read the text.

Levant sheathes his weapon
Levant sheathes his weapon

    Likewise, each character's movements are unique and surprisingly lifelike, though the character models look a bit blocky compared to more recent games. FMV is seldom used for dramatic scenes, but the game certainly doesn't suffer because of it -- rather, the transition from the in-game engines to FMV would likely have been more distracting than anything, as the in-game engine allows for extremely realistic action.

    Due to the linearity of the game, it doesn't have a lot of replay value, except to those who really enjoy making new and interesting monster hybrids. It's unfortunate, because the system for combining minions offers so many possibilities that it's unlikely a player can exhaust them during the relatively short time it takes to play through the game once. Regardless, Jade Cocoon is far from a waste of time, and is worth a rental for any gamer and a worthwhile purchase for those who enjoy breathtaking environments, detailed storytelling, or monster collecting.

Retrospective by Andrea Hartmann, freelance.
Jade Cocoon
Developer Genki
Publisher Crave Entertainment
Genre Traditional RPG
Medium CD-ROM (1)
Platform Sony PlayStation
Released  12.03.98
E3: Jade Cocoon impressions
4 assorted movies
5 anime cells / 9 character sketches / wireframe before and after
U.S. and Japanese packaging