While the first Jade
Cocoon may have failed to set the RPG world on fire when it was
released in 1999, the game managed to garner a small following due
to its distinctive aesthetics, meticulously detailed world, and a
much darker narrative than normally found in ever-cheerful genre of
monster collecting games. Considering the strength of the world that
Genki created with the first game, it hardly comes as a surprise that
the developer would choose to revisit it for a Jade Cocoon 2. What
is somewhat surprising is the manner in which the company chose to
reimagine that world for a sequel. While Jade Cocoon 2 manages to
improve on some of the shortcomings of its predecessor, it also jettisons
much of what made the first game so unique. The result is a serviceable
entry into the ever-growing sub-genre of monster breed 'n' battlers,
but one that ultimately lacks the ambition and character of its predecessor.
Jade Cocoon 2 takes place 1000 years after the
end of the first game, and though the game is ostensibly a direct
sequel, it often feels more like a loosely related side-story. Familiar
faces once again return with little regard to continuity and the events
and settings of the first game are either ignored or long in the distant
past. Katsuya Kondoh, of Princes Mononoke fame, returns for character
design duties, but the overall look has been shifted away from realism,
toward the cartoonish. The Nagi people and their village from the
first Jade Cocoon are nowhere to be found; Levant, the still-living
hero of that game, now presides over the Temple of Kemuel. The temple,
which stands at the gate of the Wormhole Forest, attracts BeastHunters
from all over the land to try their hand at taming the Divine Beasts
that are sealed within.
The game begins when Kahu, a young would-be BeastHunter,
arrives at the temple to earn his hunter's license. During a brief
trip through the training forest, Kahu makes the mistake of touching
a glowing cocoon, an error that earns him a fairy sidekick, an unsightly
tail, and a curse that could ultimately transform him into an evil
beast known as a Kalma. The only means of lifting the curse is through
an ancient ritual that requires four sacred orbs from the four elementally
themed sections of the Wormhole Forest. So, Kahu sets off with his
BeastHunter license in hand and his new sidekick Nico in tow to save
himself and, predictably, the world as well.
Though the story does have its darker undertones,
the mood is kept mostly wide-eyed and cheerful and the ongoing commentary
by Nico adds a bit of sly self-referential humor to what is otherwise
a straightforward and predictable tale. The shift in tone from the
moody, apocalyptic world of the first Jade Cocoon may annoy some fans,
but, if taken on its own terms, it's still a step above the narrative
offered in most monster breeding games. Each of the four forests has
its own set of characters and problems for Kahu to tackle. Only a
few of game's colorful cast stand out as anything other than the usual
collection of RPG clichés, but they still manage to have a fair bit
of personality due to the copious use of voiceovers. The voice acting
never dips below competent, and is often quite good, but it does have
one annoying quirk. At many points it sounds as though the actors
have no idea of the actual context of their lines; the consequent
delivery is often off kilter and the odd rhythms sap a lot of the
punch out of otherwise charming or surprising scenes. While this is
most likely a consequence of the actors being recorded separately,
it should be easily avoidable with decent voice direction.
While the gameplay in the first Jade Cocoon may
have taken a back seat to the story, here the situation is reversed
-- with equally mixed results. The good news is that the first game's
simplistic, one-creature-at-a-time battle system has been done away
with in favor of something more interesting and novel. During combat,
Kahu's minions are arranged in a circle around him and the entire
wheel can be rotated, three creatures at a time, to bring different
monsters in or out of battle. While the actual shape of the formation
is circular, it's much easier to think of it as a square with each
side corresponding to one of the four basic elements in the game.
Only the creatures on the outer side can attack that turn, while the
others will regenerate magic points. Because each of the "corners"
of the formation shares an element, creatures that are positioned
there can act when either of those sides is facing front -- if they
have the proper abilities -- and finding the proper mix of skills
is where most of Jade Cocoon 2's strategy lies.
In fact, arguably too much of the game's strategy
is in the set up for the battles, rather than the battles themselves.
Once you've meticulously placed your creatures and laid out your battle
plan, the actual combat is almost an afterthought. Each turn offers
minimal options -- rotate the wheel into one of its four positions
or use an item. That's it. The simplicity of the battles themselves
is further exacerbated by the fact that each element specializes in
one particular skill. Fire creatures excel at attack, while water
creatures heal. Earth beasts help out with defense, while wind beasts
inflict status ailments such as poison or sleep. The specialization
is less of a problem later in the game, once you begin to get monsters
with multiple skills filling out the corner spots, but early on players
will spend a lot of time cycling through attack, defense, and healing
-- one round at a time. Filling out the corners early on isn't much
of an option; an open space on one of the four main "sides" means
that rival BeastHunters and monsters can strike directly at Kahu.
This is the biggest problem with Jade Cocoon 2:
the artificially enforced learning curve, which is so gentle and extended
that the first dozen hours can practically be placed on autopilot.
Though the battle formation can hold up to eight beasts, Kahu starts
off with a mere two and all the other slots must be earned by passing
advancement tests. Naturally, these can only be passed after considerable
leveling, meaning players must face hours of simple battles before
the game begins to reveal any of its real depth.
It also doesn't help matters that Jade Cocoon 2
shares one of its predecessor's biggest shortcomings: repetitive dungeons.
While the graphic for the game's four main dungeons, and indeed the
game as whole, are sharp, lush, and vibrant, the dungeons themselves
are so poorly designed that the charm of the visuals quickly wears
thin. Each of the elementally-theme forests has a slightly different
look, and each one changes somewhat in its many variations, but they
all come down to the same basic design: open right-angled paths, connecting
enclosed rooms called Ogrevines. Kahu's task in nearly all these dungeons
is the same; find the "keyspore," which opens the Princessvine, which
leads to the next level, which eventually leads to a boss. The game
does attempt to break up the monotony with numerous story sections
inside the Ogrevines, but the division between narrative and gameplay
is so distinct here that it only serves to draw attention to the weakness
of the dungeon crawling.
All of these drawbacks are especially a shame
in light of the fact that Jade Cocoon 2 offers one of the more intuitive
and accessible monster breeding systems around. Once a creature reaches
level fifteen, it can be merged with another. Each monster species
has four increasingly powerful forms, and the more you merge them,
the quicker they will evolve. You can't merge your own beasts together,
however; they must be bred with a Seed Beast captured in the forest.
The base monster keeps its original species, but it will gain the
skills and traits of the Seed Beast with which you merge it. Merging
a fire and earth beast, for example, will result in a creature that
possesses both attack and defense skills. Further traits, such as
increased resistance or mana point regeneration, can be selectively
bred in to your minions over the course of the breeding generations.
Because monsters always level up at the same rate after the merging
process, those generations proceed at a quick and rewarding pace.
RESOLVED TO REBIRTH
The inheritance of traits and abilities is very
predictable, so it's relatively easy to build a monster up to a powerhouse,
but the drawback is that players are never given any incentive to
experiment with new creatures. Part of the fun of any monster breeding
game, including the first Jade Cocoon, is trying out the myriad variations
and combinations, but Jade Cocoon 2 encourages players to stick with
the same beasts -- switching to a new one inevitably will set you
back. The merging system still offers plenty of depth, but forcing
players to use the same monsters seem like an odd choice given the
game's varied and creatively designed bestiary.
Beyond all this Jade Cocoon 2 offers side-quests,
optional jobs, a multi-tiered battle arena, and two-player support
for batting BeastHunters, but it's questionable whether most gamers
will stick around to plumb the depths of these extra features. As
it stands, it's difficult to tell just who Jade Cocoon 2's intended
audience is. Fans of the first game will find most of the elements
that set it apart from other monster breeding games gone, while fans
of that genre in general won't see much that hasn't already been done
in games like Dragon Warrior Monsters, Monster Rancher, and, naturally,
Pokémon. But for those who don't mind wading through the lengthy start
up time and repetitive dungeons, Jade Cocoon 2 offers a lengthy quest,
some charming characters, and just enough depth to get the job done.
Preview by Zak McClendon, GIA.
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|15 character portraits