A review of Jade Cocoon, an RPG with so much squandered potential that it hurts.
As a gamer, few things excite me more than stumbling upon a hidden gem. One of those games that while not perfect, certainly has far more to give than its popularity would lead you to believe. At first glance, Jade Cocoon: Story of the Tamamyu fit this mold perfectly; However, around the halfway point of this rather short adventure, the game took a turn that made me re-evaluate my opinion.
The game’s main plot is nothing you haven’t experienced before. You play a silent protagonist (named Levant by default) who is the ‘chosen one’, destined to save his town from an evil curse. In terms of the main story, there is nothing here that will surprise you. In fact, players familiar with genre tropes will likely recognize the true identity of a ‘mysterious character’ within the first five minutes of the game, and will have to drag themselves along until the finale when it is finally revealed.
That being said, the game’s storytelling outside of the main plot line is brilliantly executed. As the game progresses and you travel through its forests, you will often return to town to get the next piece of the plot. During these segments, you can travel around your town to talk to all of the villagers, and in what is sadly a genre rarity, they all actually have something interesting to say. It’s amazing to see how the village evolves over time, at first cheering you on optimistically as their only hope before slowly berating you behind your back, thinking you doomed to fail. Suspicions are raised as time progresses and they begin fighting amongst themselves, and all of this happens with or without the player’s involvement, making it feel like the world is actually alive and time is truly progressing while you are off on your adventure.
There’s a particular conversation that happens about one third of the way through the game where the main character and his wife discuss their insecurities. It’s a very short conversation but it felt very real as they talked about things like village tradition, about how their adult responsibilities were getting in the way of their relationship and how she wishes things were simpler. Out of context it may not seem like a big deal, but it struck me as rather mature for a game like this to be covering such poignant topics. It was moments like these that made the world feel more alive to me than many other RPGs I’ve played and I felt wholly involved in this world because of it. That is, until the second half.
At the game’s midway point, the story takes a sudden twist that for spoiler-related reasons makes the village inaccessible. This creates a situation where all of those relationships and that sense of community is wasted, and it truly feels like the story was just cut halfway through. It’s at this moment that the game continues by making you go through the first three dungeons again before finally reaching the rather abrupt ending. I can’t describe how big of a let down this is after all the effort they put into creating this world, and I think it’s important to note that even with my leisurely playthrough, the game only lasted about 15 hours. The main plot is technically resolved by the end with the metaphorical equivalent of waving a magic wand, but none of the far more interesting story details ever get resolved and that leaves the whole experience feeling very empty.
While not necessarily the most important aspect of the game, the first thing that stuck out to me upon starting was the sound design, and more specifically the voice acting. To say the game’s voice acting is wildly inconsistent would be an understatement, with some characters being extremely well performed and others fairing so badly that I had to reach for the mute button whenever they came on screen. The funny thing is, it wasn’t just the acting that varied, as there even appeared to be large differences in the quality of the recording itself, with some characters sounding muffled and others surprisingly clear and uncompressed. There are a lot of famous and familiar voices in this cast, and it appears to be where a lot of the money went in this game, though most of the more recognizable voices are the ones that seem to least fit the game’s story and setting. Luckily, the characters who speak most often usually fall somewhere in the middle in terms of quality. It was listenable for the most part which, considering the game is almost fully voiced, is a good thing.
In terms of the rest of the sound design, the game is passable. Most of the combat sound effects are repetitive, with the same sound being used for the charge up of every special attack in the game, but that is more of a nitpick than anything. The soundtrack I actually found to be rather well composed, sticking to a more tribal theme that really suited the game’s setting and art direction. While not something I’d go out of my way to purchase or listen to outside of the game, it was certainly one of its best features.
As far as the visuals go, the game looked surprisingly good for an original PlayStation title. The game even likes to brag about this, the back of the case boasting about the six hundred unique, pre-rendered backgrounds drawn for the title. This is a bit of a misnomer since half of these screens are just previously used ones with a different color palette because of the game’s poor reuse of locations in the second half. Studio Ghibli fans may be excited to know that the character designs were done by Katsuyo Kondo. While this style is reflected well enough in the beautiful opening cinematic and character portraits, not a lot of it could come across with the PlayStation’s level of detail. Even then, I thought the game was rather visually appealing for its time, with the exception of the ugly, 3D rendered ending cinematic.
If you are familiar with the Pokemon franchise then you should feel right at home with the majority of Jade Cocoon’s core mechanics; elemental weaknesses, having to capture your monsters by first bringing them to critical health, and so on. Throughout the game you travel between four forest locations in an attempt to capture powerful monsters and beat the boss at the end of each area. However, the game has a few tweaks that make it interesting, like the main character’s ability to fight monsters directly instead of relying solely on his captured creatures. The game rather brilliantly balances this by making it so that your character and creatures gain strength in completely different ways, with your monsters gaining experience points like in most RPGs, while your main character only gets more powerful through equipment and item drops that give a small, but permanent, upgrade to the hero’s health. Throughout my playthrough, the game remained fairly well balanced with my main character having far less health than my monsters, but outputting decent damage and being able to use items, which gave me incentive to switch between both options and even strategically swap them throughout each battle.
Experience isn’t the only way to level up your monsters however, as Jade Cocoon’s most unique mechanic lets you merge monsters together to create your own. This feature was surprisingly deep and fun to experiment with, and led to me going out of my way to capture extra monsters just so I could see what else I could create. The game is based around a four element system with a sort of rock-paper-scissor mechanic, so merging your monsters with those thoughts in mind (as well as other usual stats like strength, magic and defense) creates a rather interesting system. Are you willing to weaken a fire elemental’s damage output to try and cover up its weakness to water? Do you want to try and build an all-round creature or one that just excels at physical attacks? This is where the real meat of the game lies and where I got most of my enjoyment from the product, and I think that others will likely feel the same way.
Exploration is handled rather simply in Jade Cocoon, with the main city hub being traveled around by choosing from a list of locations, and the ‘dungeons’ being represented by four rather small maze-like forest areas. The exploration is made more enjoyable with a couple of key elements, the first of which being that there are no random battles. Due to the game’s pre-rendered nature I found it interesting that not only are the battles not random, but you can see enemies wandering the fields from multiple screens away at times. This is just another example of how the effort put into the game’s small details far outshine the game’s core concepts. The levels themselves are well constructed enough that it’s easy to tell when you’ve been to a location before, and I never felt like I was lost. On the other hand, for some reason the developers decided to go with a rather boggling set of ‘tank controls’, where pushing up means you always move in the direction your character is facing, while pushing the left and right arrows makes your character rotate. They also assigned a run command to the triangle button to always keep you moving forward, and luckily the map designs seem to have taken this control scheme into account, making it so if you hold down triangle as you reach a new area you will still be heading in the desired direction. Even so, this was a questionable choice, but not one that I feel damaged the game too much.
Considering everything I’ve said up to this point, I think it’s important for me to point out what I think really happened to turn this game that had so much brilliance into such a train wreck. To me, the game feels like it is unfinished. This game just reeks of a publisher stepping in and saying ‘you don’t have the money to finish this!’ or ‘wrap it up, we have a deadline to meet!’. Whether it was a financial issue or not, the developers clearly had so much more in mind, evidenced by the rushed pacing and completely anti-climactic ending, the under-utilized characters that were supposed to come off as important, the reuse of the first three dungeons over again for the game’s second half with virtually no changes made to them or any story build-up at all, the 100 or so monsters that you can’t even access until the post-game in the 1000 floor bonus dungeon (that is nothing but the same few screens repeated over and over again, by the way). I don’t have any proof to back up my claims, but the evidence seems rather strong that all the money was wasted on vocal ‘talent’ or that they had technical issues that kept them from releasing the experience they’d set their mind on and that is by far the most depressing thing about the experience. The first half of the game had me close to singing its praises, but the second half was so lackluster that it not only made the game mediocre, but it almost feels like a complete betrayal.
The game had so much potential that I was ready to recommend it to just about everyone, but it ruined all of that goodwill within the last few hours. There is a sequel that hopefully fills in a lot of the unresolved story elements, but I’m left with such an empty feeling that I don’t even know if I’m willing to play it to find out. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this conflicted about a title; any game that makes me question moral dilemmas and think of an in-game community as real has done something commendable, but when none of that has a satisfying conclusion (or arguably a conclusion at all), it ultimately defeats the purpose. There is no way for me to describe this game besides calling it unfinished, and because of that I find it hard to recommend to anyone despite how great the first half of the game was. A more bittersweet review I’d be hard pressed to write.