After checking in at the lobby of the Mystic Hotel on Stockton Street in San Francisco, I made my way to where Xseed Games was holding its latest media event. Journalists and Xseed workers alike were wedged into a narrow, long room, fitted with large TV screens and game consoles, as well as counters covered in food and drinks. Snagging a glass of water and some Green Tea Kit Kats, I made my way over to the small table that was home to the lone Nintendo 3DS game on offer from the publisher and sat down to play.
I was greeted by Xseed localizer Thomas Lipschultz, who introduced me to their upcoming 3DS title Return to Popolocrois: A Story of Seasons Fairytale. Tom’s enthusiasm for the series was evident right off the bat. With a copy of the original manga series from 1978 on-hand, I found myself learning quite a bit about the franchise, which I’d never heard of before my invite to the event. Popolocrois will be familiar to those who discovered the series when it saw a couple of titles launch on PlayStation back in the day, but it was never a huge hit here in the west, and has been in dormancy since its last release on PlayStation Portable in 2005. Return to Popolocrois is a fitting name for this latest game, as fans are finally being given a chance to rediscover the series and its unique world.
Popolocrois will fit right in the wheel works of Zelda fans with its fantasy setting and young, energetic lead character Prince Pietro. Unlike the Zelda series, however, Popolocrois isn’t afraid to broach the topic of romance, albeit in a very cute, wholesome way. Prince Pietro is madly in love with the young witch Narcia, and their relationship has a big role in the series. Though the game plays in the Popolocrois sandbox, it features a standalone story that doesn’t require any previous knowledge of the characters or the franchise. Popolocrois famously follows Pietro through multiple decades in his life, but Return to Popolocrois plops us into the Prince’s shoes as he turns 13.
Tom gave me pointers as I booted the game up, noting that Return to Popolocrois is a very traditional JRPG on the surface, but with a handful of tweaks to bring it more in line with modern audience expectations. Quick saving is one key feature (especially for a handheld title), but there’s also the ability to control the percentage rate for how often random battles occur. While Return to Popolocrois does boast turn-based battles, there’s an element of strategy to them provided by a movement grid that appears when facing enemies, much like what can be found in a typical tactical RPG. The game isn’t made to be especially taxing, however, as its difficulty definitely skews on the easy side, but the ability to set the enemy encounter slider and tackle the game’s extra hard mode (which apparently still isn’t a really steep challenge) will help satiate seasoned RPG veterans. I had a blast tackling foes with this system, and Tom reports that as the player gets deeper into the game, combat becomes more engaging as new abilities become available.
Xseed made waves earlier in the year when it released the latest Harvest Moon game under its new western title Story of Seasons. As is evidenced by Return to Popolocrois‘ subtitle, this new game is a hybrid experience merged with the Story of Seasons franchise. Farming is a supplemental activity in Return to Popolocrois, and though I drew comparisons to Rune Factory (itself an RPG/Harvest Moon mashup), Tom pointed out that the key difference in this game is that raising crops and tending livestock is entirely optional. Neglecting fields and animals won’t impact the flow of the game, but the trade-off is that players won’t be able to reap the rewards of a well-cared for farm. At this point I think that’s a wise move, as Return to Popolocrois clearly has a story to tell, and bogging the player down with too much to do aside from completing the main adventure would be detrimental. Letting players determine how much farming they want to engage in, and the rewards that come from it, is a balance I’m looking forward to experiencing in full when the game finally drops.
I had a great deal of fun during my brief time with Return to Popolocrois. Though not quite up to par with titles like Fantasy Life, Return to Popolocrois is a pretty game to look at, with a cheery fantasy aesthetic that mirrors the world of the Popolocrois comics and anime. Prince Pietro is a likable lead, made more so by the game’s excellent localization. Speaking of, there are two Japanese voice tracks (one in the style of ’90s anime, the other a more modern take) that the team is hoping to include along with the English dub! I was enjoying the English voice acting, but having the choice to switch between three tracks will be a real thrill for many. The main quest is expected to take around 20 hours to complete, with 100 sidequests, bug catching, farming, rock quarrying, and more to take part in along the way. There are also additional quests that pop up after players have reached the end, and along with the post-game content to enjoy, Pietro can also continue to farm.
Xseed is hoping to get Return to Popolocrois on store shelves by the end of the year, but a first quarter 2016 launch is more likely. No matter when it hits, though, look forward to Nintendojo’s continued coverage of the game. As I walked out of the Mystic and headed back towards BART and home, my mind kept returning to the woods where Pietro was fighting his way through packs of enemies. I legitimately want to know more about the prince’s adventure and the dangers lying in wait. Like I said, I’d never head of Popolocrois before that evening, but after sitting with Tom and the game, I hope the final build can stand up to the small, fun sample I got to enjoy.
Special thanks to Angela Marrujo, who also attended the event and contributed to this article!