Jade Cocoon: Story of the Tamamayu is the second game brought to us by new US publisher Crave. Despite little international attention prior to the announcement of its US release, Jade Cocoon has built up a healthy amount of anticipation among many RPG fans on the strength of its detailed and colorful visual presentation. Although the finished product doesn't match up to its beautiful visuals in other departments, Jade Cocoon proves to be a solid and somewhat unique RPG.
The story of Jade Cocoon revolves around Levant, a youth who lives in the town of Syrus in the land of Parel. Levant aspires to someday follow in the footsteps of his presumed-dead father Riketz and become a cocoon master. As is customary in Parel, however, a boy cannot become a cocoon master until he marries a member of the Nagi Tribe. The Nagi are an enigmatic people, and their members are possessed of mystical powers.
On the day of a huge festival in Syrus, a swarm of demons fills the sky above the town. These demons are known as the "Onibubu", the Locusts of the Apocalypse, and they are known for destroying entire empires by causing everyone there to fall into an irreversible sleep. Fortunately, Garai, a Nagi woman living in Syrus, is able to use her magic to repel the Onibubu. However, even though Garai succeeds in driving the demons back, many of the citizens of the town fall into the magical sleep induced by the demons.
The Onibubu-induced sleep is strong, but it is rumored that a plant called the Calabas herb can awaken the slumbering victims. However, no one in Syrus knows where the herb lies. The only person who supposedly knows is Koris, the Blue Cocoon Master who dwells deep within the Beetle Forest. With Riketz missing and presumed dead, though, Syrus is without a hero who can traverse the dangerous monster-filled forest.
The village elder, realizing that the time is now for a new hero to emerge in Syrus, summons Levant to his residence. After filling Levant in on the details of his forthcoming mission, he performs a quick wedding ceremony for Levant and Mahbu, the Nagi girl living in Syrus and a childhood friend of Levant. Levant then immediately heads off into the forest to try to save his town.
During the course of the game, the scope of Levant's quest expands, and he learns all sorts of secrets about the world he lives in. Although the event-based portions of Levant's quest are rather pedestrian, Jade Cocoon's storyline is helped immensely by strong character development and distinct personalities in all of the major characters. Rich legends help flesh out the more esoteric parts of the game's story as well.
In addition, the translation is excellent, with very few spelling and grammatical errors in any of the text throughout the game. The dialogue flows very smoothly, and characters respond to each other in a coherent and realistic manner. With Jade Cocoon following the well-scripted Shadow Madness (not technically a translation), Crave is starting to establish itself as one of the top US RPG translators around.
Gameplay is where Jade Cocoon is at its most innovative. In some ways, Jade Cocoon is just like any other RPG out there. Battles are turn-based, and you can almost always see your enemies before they attack. Items can be used to aid you in battles.
However, the similarities between Jade Cocoon and your more standard RPGs end there. Jade Cocoon's gameplay focuses primarily on capturing monsters and using them in battle. As a cocoon master, Levant is a tamer of beasts, not a warrior, and this is reflected in the fact that Levant doesn't get experience points for killing monsters; he only earns experience for capturing them. Captured monsters can also be merged (Mahbu does this for you) to yield stronger (or weaker) monsters, as well as those with differing elemental associations.
Levant can carry up to 3 captured monsters into combat with him at once. Monsters can attack with normal attacks, special attacks often based on the monsters' elemental associations, and magic (also based on the monsters' elemental associations). Monsters earn experience for killing enemies, and they become the key to Levant's strength early on in the game.
Jade Cocoon executes quite well in its gameplay; however, its innovation also proves to be the gameplay's biggest weakness. Fans of more traditional RPGs will likely bemoan the emphasis on monster breeding at the expense of storyline or a lengthy quest. Personally, I thought that the storyline and quest were tied into the monster-breeding aspects of gameplay quite well, though I would have liked to see a slightly more conventional RPG layout as well.
Where Jade Cocoon is at its weakest is in its control. Although the menus are well organized, the control layout is absolutely atrocious. Instead of allowing you to move in whatever direction you push on the directional pad, Jade Cocoon utilizes a control scheme similar to Konami's Silent Hill. Pushing up on the D-pad moves you forward, down moves you backwards, and left and right turn you in those respective directions. This control scheme is horribly inefficient, and very imprecise when you try to move at faster speeds. The terrible control nearly defeats the purpose of allowing you to see enemies before they attack. Any enemies moving with even a modicum of speed are prohibitively difficult to avoid, because Levant is so slow at changing movement directions.
On the plus side, the control is relatively responsive (taking into account the severe limitations of its poorly designed layout). There is also a dash button that allows Levant to move through areas at a quick pace, too.
Conversely, Jade Cocoon is strongest in its visual presentation. The prerendered backgrounds that decorate the area maps are stunning in their detail, and extremely colorful to boot. The level of detail in these backgrounds rivals those of any RPG out there.
The characters are constructed of polygons, and don't look as good as the backgrounds. They are much less detailed and get really blocky up close. They also tend to animate clumsily. The monsters, however, are interesting in their design. It's also great to see that resultant monsters that you've merged have some physical characteristics of their predecessors.
In the battles, the visual presentation is quite similar to that of the area maps, except that everything is constructed of polygons. The characters look quite similar to those of the area maps, but the polygonal backgrounds are much less appealing than the meticulous prerenders of the maps. The textures lack detail, and, like the characters, get really blocky up close. The spell effects, while not spectacular, do look good, though.
The artwork of Jade Cocoon is also worth mentioning. Drawn by Katsuya Kondoh (whose past works include My Neighbor Totoro and Porco Rosso), the character designs and art are near the top echelon of video game artwork. Although the art isn't particularly flashy, it's beautiful nonetheless. Kondoh's art is most evident during the stunning anime FMVs in Jade Cocoon.
Jade Cocoon is also strong in its sound department. The sound effects in combat are pretty solid, especially the thunderous elephant-like cries that enemies give out as they are defeated. The voice acting is even more noteworthy. Nearly every line of dialogue spoken by a major character is voiced over, and the acting is consistently excellent. The voices are generally both emotionally expressive and realistic at the same time.
The tribal-influenced soundtrack is also one of Jade Cocoon's strengths. Slightly reminiscent of Panzer Dragoon Saga's masterful score, the music of Jade Cocoon features strong atmospheric melodies. The frantic drum rhythms of many of the songs fit very well with the forest setting of the game, too.
Jade Cocoon isn't a game for everyone, due to the fact that it focuses on monster breeding at the expense of more traditional RPG elements. However, if you're in the mood for something different, Jade Cocoon does enough things well to merit a solid recommendation.
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