Some of you may have noticed we've been having a bit of a PopoloCrois moment here at Everybody Plays over the last few weeks, as we've been charting our course through the newly released (and gorgeous) role-player-come-farming-game, Return to PopoloCrois: A Story of Seasons Fairytale in a series of diaries. Outside of the diary series, however, you could be forgiven for not knowing that there was actually a PopoloCrois to return to - even though the series has actually been running for quite some time. And it's not for no reason - while the series has had role-playing instalments dating back to the original PlayStation in Japan, there's been but one entry to make its way to the west, on the somewhat-less-popular PSP. Now comes a sequel of sorts, this time to the 3DS eShop downloadable store, set a couple of years after the events of the PSP game - and with new farming elements thrown in for good measure.
Our story begins on a day like any other, in the green and pleasant land of PopoloCrois, following the exploits of the young Prince Pietro on his 13th birthday. At the celebratory feast, an emissary from a far off land arrives to help out with PopoloCrois growing 'black beast' problem - and needs the young prince to go with him. These mysterious dark creatures have been causing a ruckus all across the land, turning once arable farmland desolate and infertile, much to the worry of the kingdom (see, we said farming was important!). In order to save the land, Prince Pietro must head to the emissary's home world and learn how to get rid of the black beasts, so he can save his realm from the creatures. But just as he steps into the transport circle to head to the emissary's world, something goes horribly wrong, and the young prince finds himself trapped in a different world - and it's up to him to try and find his way home.
Even worse, it turns out this Galariland he finds himself in has an even more severe black beast problem than PopoloCrois - and a combination of Pietro's heroic nature (and a lack of any better ideas for getting home) means that he gets roped into saving this world too.
In traditional role-playing game style, the bulk of your time in Return to PopoloCrois is spent exploring, helping out locals and battling monsters, both black beast and otherwise. Essentially, Pietro and his companions, which are an eclectic mix of pumkin-headed amnesiacs, a friendly blue fox and a couple of brothers with a bit of a past, travel in and around the different regions of Galariland, searching for the legendary four Farms of Light - the key to lifting the darkness that's covering the land. However, these farms have long been sealed up and forgotten about - so you'll have to go to some length to free them from the clutches of the darkness. By shrinking yourselves down to a minuscule size, you'll need to take on a number of maze-like dungeons found inside each plot of corrupted land, and take down the nefarious black beast at the end, weakening the curse's hold on each region of Galariland. Exorcise all five plots in the area, and tackle the dungeon and boss fight that follows, and you'll unlock a Farm of Light, getting one step closer to saving the world.
Battles, of which there are plenty, are pretty old school, and are both random and turn-based, with a slightly more strategic bent. As you explore the game's many fields, forests and dungeons, you'll be attacked at random by unseen enemies on the field, triggering a battle sequence where your team and the enemies take it in turns to attack, defend and heal until you whittle your opponents' health to zero. The strategy comes in the placement of your characters on the battlefield, as each character has a maximum distance they can move during a turn, and many special attacks will have an area of effect to them. Crowding everyone around a particular enemy may make you vulnerable to a large fireball, but spreading them out too much may make it more difficult to make a dent in an enemy's health, while putting your weaker healer characters in the line of fire is a recipe for disaster - so battles can be a bit of a balancing act.
But Return to Popolocrois isn't quite a straight up role-playing game, and between all the beating up black beasts and saving the day, its sometimes nice to kick back and relax with something a bit less stressful. Like farming. In a similar, albeit simpler, vein to the greats of Harvest Moon and Rune Factory, Return to Popolocrois gives you a patch of land, a handful of seeds and largely leaves you to get on with it, as you till, plant, water and harvest everything from carrots and cabbages to turnips and onions. There's no seasons to worry about, and your crops never seem to suffer much by being left without water while you're out in a dungeon somewhere either, while the produce you grow is both a source of extra cash, and great for giving as gifts to the various young women Pietro can build relationships with (in a totally platonic way, unfortunately) during his journey. Also, Pietro has an ulterior motive for saving those four Farms of Light too, as along with saving the world as we know it, they can also be used to plant fancier, farm-specific species of crop, which in turn can be flogged for more money too.
So far, a lot of fun then - and in fact, that pretty much sums up Popolocrois in a single word - fun. In fact, about the only thing we found ourselves disliking about Return to PopoloCrois was pathfinding. We'll happily admit that we're not the best when it comes to reading maps, but PopoloCrois' map is frankly rubbish for finding your way. The overworld map (pictured below) is more like a landscape painting, and fills in as you go from place to place, so most of the new areas you have to head to as part of the story are shown as a little flag surrounded by blank space - which isn't especially helpful when it comes to finding where you're meant to be going, and how you get there. Meanwhile, a more detailed map on the Touch Screen gives you an overview of your current area only, so is similarly unhelpful. It could just be us, as we don't exactly have the best track record with maps in games, but still. The map problems are arguably worst when you're trying to track down the five corrupted plots of land in each region of Galariland - with no pointers or markers anywhere, you're largely left to sniff them out on your own. For example, it took us the best part of an hour trying to track down the last one in the 'Urbain' region, which we assumed meant the 'Mount Urbain' area we were wandering around at the time. Except it didn't. Because, unbeknownst to us, the forest road to the town of Lampling a fair way away was 'North Urbain Forest', where we found the final corrupted farmland, at last. Even just the name of the area we were supposed to be searching would have helped.
Return to PopoloCrois may not win any awards for it's plot, but it's silly, light-hearted, and has plenty of likeable characters to keep you going - literally anything relating to Pumpkinman/GamiGami is hilarious, and the constant sass between Nino and Connie is sure to raise a smile too. Sitting somewhere between the farming of Harvest Moon and the dungeon-crawling of your average role-playing game, it's not too unlike Rune Factory or Fantasy Life, and that's hardly a bad thing. It's farming may not be as deep, with no seasons or soil qualities to contend with, and its dungeons may be comparatively linear corridors, but when weaved together with a cute story, it all works work rather well. This is well worth checking out.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo 3DS