Return to PopoloCrois: A Story of Seasons Fairytale 3DS Review
If I asked you to name me a game that was an Japanese RPG mixed with farm simulation, then you would probably answer Rune Factory. It’s a spin-off of the Harvest Moon franchise that threw in a battle system, story and other JRPG traits, and has been going for about ten years. Return to PopoloCrois: A Story of Seasons Fairytale (Return to PopoloCrois from now on, because that title is long enough to grow a field of crops by the time you have finished saying it) is trying to blend the same concept together, although this time it’s with the Story of Seasons farming games, which is actually the new name for the Harvest Moon family since 2014, when Natsume kept the rights to the Harvest Moon name after XSeed took over its North America distribution. So, in actual fact, this is kind of related to Rune Factory, except crossing with PopoloCrois, a Japanese manga from the 1980s that was turned into a RPG series. Confusing I know, but the game itself is rather easy to understand, maybe just a little too much.
The PopoloCrois series puts the player in the role of Prince Pietro, and once again players take on the role of the Prince here. Pietro is an incredibly kind and pure-hearted boy who is celebrating his 13th birthday with friends and family, when a lady calling herself Marmela arrives with a plan to help the kingdom fight off their problem with the increase activity of wild black beasts causing havoc for the people of PopoploCrois. A few minutes into the story, the mischievous lady removes her ambassador cover and reveals to be a scheming enemy from the far away land of Galariland, but not before she sends poor Pietro through a portal after she misleads everyone into thinking Pietro is off to Galariland on a mission. Pietro is trapped in Galariland and must call on help from the local people to find a way back to his home town and save both Galariland and his own kingdom from the evil Lord Gryphot, who will undoubtedly devour PopoloCrois of all its nourishment, just like he already has with Galariland.
While the story is charming, evoking the whole fairytale aspect of its title, it’s certainly one that is aimed for the younger audience. It’s a story that is predictable for anyone who has watched children’s films over the years – what you see here is nothing you haven’t seen before. It’s simple to understand, but that said, Return to PopoloCrois does have some adorable moments, a bit of laughter and plenty of smiles. It’s made to make the player feel good about themselves, and when Pietro is being embarrassed talking to his friend Narcia that he oh so obviously fancies or watching the bizarre Pumpkinman do his wacky antics, you can’t help but feel taken in by the game’s friendly and happy tone. If you are person who is into complex plots or something a bit more adult and hate seeing cartoons, then Return to PopoloCrois will probably bore you to tears.
Simplicity is the word that could explain Return to PopoloCrois at its core. Let’s begin with the RPG elements. These aspects feel pulled from the days of 16bit RPGs, as Pietro and three other team members explore the lands from an isometric perspective. Battles are random, which will cause the gang to transition into a battlefield. Return to PopoloCrois isn’t all standard when it comes to the battle system. It’s turn-based, but there is a grid that dictates how far an friend/enemy unit can move and what reach the attack/spell/item will cover, similar to what is often see in tactical RPGs.
Tactics are hardly required to beat the game’s battles. One of the issues with the game is that its combat is too easy, even if you change it from normal to hard (there’s even an easy), the challenge is lacking, hardly ever being able to give that sense of danger from being in a bad position or misusing a spell. The element of environmental obstacles does nothing to correct this. After a few hours, I felt the battles became dull, and so I began abusing the game’s intelligent auto-battle system to take me away from being a participant in the monotonous activity. The auto-battle is clever enough to move, attack and heal your party in such a way that it can even take down bosses without any help from the player. Auto-battle is fantastic for the younger plays that pick up the game, because I can see this helping fresh-faced newcomers to the genre who might not be used to Japanese RPGs. The auto-battle combined with the ability to change the encounter rate between low, medium or high, is a nice feature, one that lets Return to PopoloCrois give players options to adjust it accordingly to how they feel about taking part in the the game’s battles, it’s just a shame that it doesn’t make the game more engaging with its challenge.
Sadly, the dungeon design doesn’t fair any better. Before being able to tackle each of the game’s major ruins, Pietro must find at least five dark corrupted farmlands and cleanse them before moving on. These are called field dungeons, with designs made up of what feel like generic random generated dungeons producing nothing but geometry featuring thin passages and square angles. There are a few pallet environments that the game swaps around, but these are often reused. These areas could have supplied some cool scenarios, since Pietro and the gang have to shrink to insect size to explore and find the dark mist mini-bosses that inhabit the gardens, except it just falls flat on itself with its bland map designs that never changes, losing any surprise these mini dungeons could bring. Don’t expect much differences from the ruins, which are larger versions of the field dungeons with a bit more variation, but still suffer from boring layouts.
The other half of the game, the Story of Seasons, isn’t a patch on the title with the same name. In fact, the farming is something that you can get away with hardly touching. Close to the beginning of the game, a small piece of land is given to Pietro to grow various crops and eventually look after some farm life. Controls are straightforward, and the library of tools is reduced significantly compared to the Story of Seasons. Hoeing, seeding and watering is all you need to do. Time will move on while Pietro is exploring the world to continue his adventure, mining rock minerals or capturing a few bugs. Return back to the farm once time has past and the crops are ready to be pulled out. Just like with the RPG mechanics, the farming is also stripped to a bare minimum. It’s importance is virtually none existent. It feels like the farming was shoehorned in as a way to blend the two game concepts together, and with no incentive to take part in it other then being able to sell goods for cash, there isn’t a sense of reward that comes from farming, unlike Harvest Moon games, where you have a bigger scale and a game that focuses its elements on making agriculture as exciting and rewarding as possible.
Aesthetics are visually pleasing, fitting right into its fairytale motif with its use of bright colours to bring a beautiful world to the little screens of the 3DS. Anime shorts, and the actual graphical look, are reminiscent of the the PopoloCrois manga. Return to PopoloCrois gives the option to bold an outline around the character models – a recent trend that was forced upon games like Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and Hyrule Warriors Legends – which makes them pop more on screen, as lacking the black stencil makes the character models blend more into the background. On the audio side, an English dub is included and is done well enough that it feels right coming out of the mouths of the characters. One thing that is interesting is that there are two Japanese audio tracks. I’ve never seen anything like that before in a translated game, but it’s down to the two main characters, Pietro and Narcia, having two different actors. The rest of the cast have single Japanese audio tracks, but this dual selection will make audiophiles for all things Japanese dub happy to be able to select the modern or original voice actors for Pietro and Narcia.
It sounds like I am being hard on Return to PopoloCrois, but that is because I am a little disappointed with Return to PopoloCrois and how it doesn’t blend the two things I enjoy (RPGs and Harvest Moon) in a way that sets a good example for both properties involved. I must say that despite the game being stripped down to the bare essentials and absorbed of any difficulty, there are still aspects of the game that are fun enough. I’d be fine with the heavy focus on being an RPG if it was actually great, but the lack of challenge hampers the involvement I wanted out of Return to PopoloCrois. That said, the adorable cast and its charming story soften some of its shortcomings, but unless you are young or wanting a friendly game that the kids can get into along side yourself, then it would be better buying a dedicated Japanese RPG or one of the many Harvest Moon Story of Seasons titles to truly see the potential those offer.