The most striking thing about Jade Cocoon: The Story of the Tamamayu is its relation to the excellent work of Studio Ghibli thanks to the involvement of Ghibli's Katsuya Kondo in the design of the world and characters. It is immediately apparent when you watch the opening anime movie and becomes even more apparent when you consider the environmental themes within. Another inspiration was the fledgling Monster Collection genre, spearheaded by Pokemon, which inspires the Minion collection mechanics of the game and its core gameplay loop.
With such pedigree, you may be surprised by how little you know of the game since it never reached the wide audience it deserved at the time. Yet, it did have a dedicated cult following, and that's a testament to the inherent quality of the game. A quality that is just close to standing the test of time if not for a few niggling issues.
#A24: Jade Cocoon: Story of the Tamamayu:-
Year: 1998, 1999.
Publisher: Genki, Crave Entertainment.
First things first, I am changing my rating system to a simpler 10-point system. I fully recommend games that get above a 7, and those that get below are mostly a waste of time. The recommendation for a game scoring a 7 largely depends on your personal taste.
"Destruction is often what comes of the Beasts of Knowledge... This could be an act of man..."
By the end of Jade Cocoon, I was pleasantly surprised by how good its story and narrative were. Initially, with an opening that tells the world's creation myth with some poor narration, I thought the game would just try to throw as many crazy terms at us instead of telling an actual story: "Beast of Knowledge", "Minions of the Forest", etc.
Later, as the narration got worse, the myths and the world started making more sense, and the environmentalist influence of Studio Ghibli became obvious. The aforementioned "Beast of Knowledge" were the first humans, who as they developed nearly destroyed the "Forest" which protected the world. As punishment, the God of the Forest unleashes Minions that keep the humans in check and protect the forest.
In that state, a few humans who can control the Minions, known as Cocoon Masters, emerge. Your silent protagonist is such a Cocoon Master, and he gains this ability just as the latest calamity hits his village.
Things fall apart quickly
From there, a basic story in which the village hero journeys to save it becomes better than it had a right to be. Thanks to the small population of the village, each with their own portrait, the NPCs actually acquire a lot of depth. This comes into play whenever you come back to the town from your latest dungeon crawl and see how the tension of the catastrophe changes the village people.
Another solid narrative thread is the relationship between the hero and the wife he must take as a Cocoon Master, a girl named Mahbu from a race called the Na'gi who can purify the Cocoons (Pokeballs) for the Master to use as minions at the expense of taking the curse into her own body. It's an obvious allegory of the cost of abusing the environment, and along with the other allegories of how the "Beast of Knowledge" behaves, sells the story of the world in its simple ways.
"Without the power to summon a magic beast, you are no threat to me. Just the son of a coward. Hahahahahahaha..."
The gameplay loop is as straightforward as the story initially appears, but in contrast, doesn't gain any complexity as you progress. You go dungeon crawling in simply designed dungeons, where you could thankfully see the enemies in the field which you could try to avoid or choose to fight. There isn't much in the way of puzzles or alternate paths in these dungeons either.
Once you are in a fight, you are in a one vs. one situation with the enemy most of the time, but there are one vs. two and extremely rare one vs. three situations in the wild. Here, you can control the main character or summon one of three Minions you can equip; easily changing between them during the fight.
Occasionally, you will fight more than one enemy
Mechanically, it's a basic turn-based system with little to no complications. Each enemy Minion has one of four elemental affiliations that work based on a circle of weaknesses. The key to victory is using creatures of the stronger element and attacking them with elemental attacks, separated into physical and magical categories. Once you weaken the monsters, you can attempt to capture them.
Each and every dungeon goes through the same loop. Enter the dungeon, capture a bunch of Minions, go back to base to recover and upgrade your equipped Minions (more on that later), and then go back into the dungeon. It would be a simple and fun loop if the battles were snappier, but there is a level of lethargy to the game that makes it quickly boring if you play it without a fast-forward feature.
This becomes more apparent near the end of the game, where I could imagine a lack of budget caused the team to reuse the same exact four dungeons with a different color hue. At that point, the novelty of the game's unique Monster Collection mechanics started wearing off, and I only continued the game thanks to its story and short length.
"O son of the Lion of Parel. You shall become a Cocoon Master worthy of your father's name!"
With any Monster Collection game, the loop of collecting new monsters and fighting with them is integral to the experience. In Pokemon, you collect new monsters and evolve them as you fight with them, with each monster type being unique along with its evolution path. In Shin Megami Tensei, you collect demons and then fuse them to create stronger demons and so on, with each demon type being unique but being lost when used as fusion fodder. Jade Cocoon has elements of both franchises.
There is a chance of failure during the capturing that is similar to Pokemon
You capture monsters, called Minions, and you can use them in battle to level them up. However, you can only speedily increase their power by merging them with other Minions. At first glance, this may appear to be the same as SMT. However, there is the key difference that the Minions used have a direct influence on how the resulting Minion looks. In fact, the resulting Minion has a small lineage tree that traces their evolution to its grandparent Minions, giving each monster of your team a more personal touch that is closer to Pokemon than to SMT.
Merging works by grafting some of the physical characteristics of the parent Minions, along with the influence of their stats and skills, into a new creature that you can use. Later, as you continue using the resulting monster in merging experiments, you can see how nearly limitless the system seems to be, with over a thousand unique configurations you could create without counting the different color tones and textures.
Unfortunately, while this system can be incredibly fun, it has a few glaring weaknesses. First, the extremely high number of variations reduces the thrill of collecting new Minions. Second, the basic parts that most Minions are built from lead to a uniform design across the board that never raises to the level of care other Monster Collection games offer. Lastly, the limited number of Minions you could equip reduces your appetite for experimentation, since you don't have as much of a chance to use the results of it.
It is a system that results in mostly ugly creatures
Still, it is a unique system that isn't widely imitated, and even if I didn't care for how my four main Minions looked, I did care about them thanks to their lineage and how they are all based on the first four Minions I ever captured from each element.
"The knowledge of man opposes the power of God, and thus the power of nature"
With some of Studio Ghibli's pedigree behind it, Jade Cocoon should have been an art piece that is only limited by the technology of the time, and that indeed turned out to be the case. While the game doesn't look as good as the animated opening movie, it does have some of the best 3D Polygonal character models in RPGs in its era. Every NPC in the village and human character looks close to their Ghibli-esque portrait, with polygonal work that rivals that of Square at the time.
These characters are also brought to life with nearly fully-voiced dialogue. As expected, the voice acting is of mixed quality. While the majority of actors give a solid enough job, a couple of notable roles are badly cast, chief among them is the old man narrator of the story's main myths.
A similar level of care to the character models went into the game's environments, which are handpainted backgrounds made in similar ways to Final Fantasy VII and the Resident Evil games. While this does create some issues because of the use of a static camera, it showcases the lush nature of the Forest nicely.
The scenes especially pop when the environment suddenly changes from the usual green
Unfortunately, as I alluded to above, the Minion designs leave much to be desired thanks to the core merging mechanics. Basically, the creatures in the game have some incredibly simple designs that can be extrapolated and interposed into hundreds of variations, such that no single monster has a level of care in its design.
Similar to the feel of the game's graphics, the soundtrack by Kimitaka Matsumae aims to evoke a naturalistic image. With plenty of flutes, tribal percussion, and an airy feel, it does build a forest or jungle-like atmosphere. Some might say it does it too well, as the various songs blend into each other; creating a cohesive sound that doesn't have any standout tracks.
There are many things that Jade Cocoon excels at, from a surprisingly gripping story and monster-merging mechanics to some of the best visual work in JRPGs outside of the Masters at Square. That, along with the unquantifiable Studio Ghibli effect, explains why the game resonated so much with its cult fanbase.
However, the game is not free of shortcomings, and those do drag it down. From a rather pedestrian turn-based battle system to a lack of charm personality to the Minions you recruit and are supposed to care about.
Consequently, this is a flawed hidden gem of the PS1 era, but its flaws cannot completely hide its emerald brilliance.
1- You can use the Earrings of the Hunter key item to teleport back to the village at any time.
2- The elemental circle goes like this: Earth> Water> Fire> Air> Earth.
3- The elemental circle is key to victory, and you can have your Minions be proficient in two elements.
4- It is key that you have one dedicated magic Minion, and another dedicated physical one.
5- You can press "X" to interact with the environment.
6- Guarding recovers some mana.
7- Heal yourself with Great Acors to increase your health.
8- Only try to capture enemies when their health is red.
9- Capturing enemies is the best way to upgrade your level, and merging them is the best way to upgrade your Minion's levels.
10- Stick with a few Minions so that you don't grind to level a huge group.
The relationship between your character and his wife, Mahbu, is the emotional core of the game
For those reading one of my PS1 review blogs for the first time, here is the basic concept:
I already reviewed both major Generation 4 consoles, and am now reviewing Generation 5 consoles. I already finished reviewing the Sega Saturn, so I am now reviewing the PS1. In these reviews, I take a top 100 games list and review the games that interest me in that list.
This time, my review series is based on this list from Retro Sanctuary and other sources, since the PS1 can handle a list bigger than a top 100.
Also, note the following:
-If you have any suggestions for a game that is not on the Retro Sanctuary list that I should review, please suggest them.
-Make a bet on each game to check whether Chris Charter played it or not.
Is this Ghibli-esque enough for you?
I am glad I ended up liking Jade Cocoon despite a slow start. Not everyone will keep up with its silly phrases and stick around until the story shows its promise, and some will be bored by its simplistic combat. However, I persevered until I noticed the complexity hidden beneath the surface, and I did enjoy merging Minions and upgrading my starting crew into the ugly but powerful abominations they became.
The next game on the list is one I am positive I will enjoy, and that's Wild Arms. I played the remake on the PS2, but the original is different enough (and shorter) that I would like to experience it.
For Previous PS1 Game Reviews: