If you innovate, they will copy. This take on the famous line from Field Of Dreams is one of life's universal truths. Whenever something new or special is released onto the market, there will always be someone leaping at the chance to capitalize on it with his or her own incarnation. At times, a copy or, rather, a derivative idea can wind up taking on a life of its own and spawning even more clones. A case in point is Virtua Fighter. It took its cue from Capcom's Street Fighter and became the first 3D fighting game on the market at a time when no one believed gamers wanted one. Now it is the standard by which all 3D fighting games are and will be judged. In our case, shortly after the phenomenon known as Pokémon hit the market, developers locked themselves away trying to create a Pokémon of their own. The developers at Genki were no different in that thinking except that they focused on releasing a more ambitious product centering more on the RPG aspect of Pokémon that their peers ignored. Instead of a straight copy, they strove for a game that could stand on its own.
As successful as Pokémon was, it has always lacked a compelling story or the sophisticated graphics to hold the interest of older players. Genki took notice and when they produced Jade Cocoon (JC), they intended to come through in a big way. Genki abandons Pokémon's large sprawling story line (with a multitude of side stories) for one that could best be described as quaint. The entire games takes place within the vicinity of the village that the main character, Levant, starts from. There is no dire world crisis that must be averted here and the focus is certainly not of the science fiction variety found in, say, the Final Fantasy series. It's a simple story of a young man trying to find a cure for a sleep curse that has afflicted his village's people.
Another break from the norm is the "backdrop." As I said, the story takes place near his village and never loses its inviting, old-world feel. There are no vehicles or high-tech weapons to deal with here, as the Syrian people haven't yet moved past the Bronze Age. And there is an extraordinary amount of folklore and myth mixed into the game. JC pulls the player in with some of the most intricate folklore I've come across and the best thing about it is its believability. This one aspect of the game could warrant a review all by itself, but I'm going to have to leave it at applauding Genki's effort to make it effective for the player. Their use of deep narration and stellar voice-acting made real all their myths and customs. My favorite characters, the elder Gavai, and the gravekeeper told their stories so wonderfully that I was always entertained as I sat through a tale or two. It was certainly one of the finest parts of the game.
But creating such a believable "history" for a world wouldn't mean anything if the final product doesn't look the part. JC jumps ahead of the pretenders with superb graphics. The artists at Genki managed to create some of the most beautiful pre-rendered backgrounds I've seen in a video game. Everything reflects the time and care that's gone into it. From the detailed villages and homes to the exotic forest foliage and landscape. I couldn't help but marvel at some of the screens I was in because of the remarkable detail. I'm not exaggerating when I say it graphically rivals the works of bigger RPG developers like Square and Enix. Worthy of note is that Genki abandoned the 2D bitmap characters as well as the super-deformed look that I've been used to seeing in RPGs these days. Instead, they have embraced realistically-scaled 3D models that fit in with their environments and move around it seamlessly. It's a welcome change from what I saw in Star Ocean and Final Fantasy VII.
As with any innovation, there are some remnants of the familiar and JC is no different. JC couldn't hide from its Pokémon roots and didn't always build on them either. I wasn't fooled when I learned that the little monsters I would collect were called minions and that their pokeballs were called cocoons. But it really was something to try the new technique indigenous to JC. I'm talking about the ability to create new minions through merging. That means I could take any two minions, merge them together, and wind up with a brand new minion that has the strengths and hopefully not the same weaknesses of the previous two. It seemed like a minor addition at first, but once I tried it I was hooked. Any monster I found, I merged with another monster in my collection. The combinations were wild and I really got caught up in creating the ultimate creatures to kick butt with.
However, JC fails to exploit the minion angle. First off, the minions can be pretty ugly. That's a realistic direction they took but it doesn't matter to the kids who would have snapped it up if the minions were all as cute as Pikachu and his Pokémon buddies. Also, their names aren't nearly as creative and easy to remember. Again, this just serves to keep the kids away. Maybe they were trying to it distance themselves from being a total Pokémon clone, but Genki failed to take advantage of one of Pokémon strengths: battling monsters. As I said before, I loved merging minions but the simple two-player tournament mode was just lacking. And it was really a let down when I realized I couldn't trade minion data. I was dying to try my hand at one of Chi's merged minions, but alas I couldn't do anything to facilitate that.
In the end, Jade Cocoon could have been more. Not a whole lot more, to be honest, but it was not very well polished in the minion area and that reduced its score. But there is truly something to be said for even faint originality and by taking a genre in another direction, Genki is an excellent example of a developer taking that route. JC is a successful hybrid, it's RPG and monster collecting bundled into a beautiful package. It holds the charm and old-world feel that has been lacking in contemporary RPGs and mixes them quite well with the popular Pokémon craze. I think that JC should be awarded more credit for what it is: an innovative twist on an innovative idea that stands up pretty well all on its own.
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