Jade Cocoon II


    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.


   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.
Jade Cocoon 2
Developer Genki
Publisher Ubi Soft
Genre Traditional RPG
Medium DVD-ROM
Platform Sony PlayStation 2
Released  Summer 2001
E3: Ubi Soft to publish Jade Cocoon
164 screenshots
15 character portraits
Box art