Recently, I’ve praised the efforts of makers of newer throwback style JRPGs for making just enough tweaks and additions to their gameplay to freshen up the experience without sacrificing their nostalgic feel. For the most part, JRPGs still follow a pretty linear game flow structure, opting for a more directed, streamlined experience that emphasizes narrative at the cost of character customization and exploration. Western RPGs, in comparison, are more likely to embrace open sandbox environments and feature more robust customization options. They’ve also grown in popularity over the last few years. While Western and Japanese RPGs have deviated in this respect, there have been noticeable changes to newer JRPGs that seem to have been directly influenced by these Western design trends.
You only need to look at gameplay footage of the long awaited Final Fantasy XV game to see a full embrace of open world design that seems more likely to have been influenced by spacious games like The Witcher 3, Skyrim or more closely Xenoblade Chronicles– more so than any previous Final Fantasy game in the flagship series. Even non-RPG stealth action game Metal Gear Solid V seems to have taken a cue from Western trends when they decided to drop their main protagonist into giant sandbox levels instead of the usual narrow concrete corridors and cramped jungle spaces from previous games. Whether or not every JRPG will be following in the footsteps of the newest, more open Final Fantasy, or Western RPGs is hard to say. In the interim, the JRPG genre will be fragmented, ranging from the more classical nostalgia-infused design to the more modern open world design, and the rest falling somewhere in-between with a mix of open world and robust customization features.
Return to Popolocrois: A Story of Seasons Fairytale, developed by Marvelous for the 3DS, is a JRPG that fits somewhere in-between, but most definitely fits in the classic category. It is a hybrid game that mixes traditional 90’s style tactical turn-based combat, random encounters, quests and features an epic fantasy story, setting and characters and contains a farming simulator within, similar to Harvest Moon. While the game might feel old in gameplay design, it at least accommodates the player by including features that allow you to lower or increase the rate of random battle encounters, and lower or raise the difficulty level at any time. It is two games mashed together, but you can opt out of the farming bits if you just want a role-playing game experience, or put off the main quest to tend to your farm. Farming is also a great incentive to keep playing long after you’ve completed the main story of the game.
Return to Popolocrois is set in a fantasy kingdom bearing the same name where mysterious, dangerous creatures have started appearing throughout, accompanied by a plague that’s contaminating all of the lands crop soil. Coincidentally, a mysterious visitor to the kingdom claiming to have knowledge of magic to cure the plague and defeat these mysterious enemies makes an appeal to the king to allow her to take the prince, the main protagonist of the game, to her world to teach him the spells necessary to purge the darkness. The king agrees, but… it was a deception. As prince Pietro sets foot on a magic transport circle to travel to the new world, the visitor reveals that the prince will be held prisoner and the world of Popolocrois will be taken over. Once in the new world of Galariland, Pietro must find the means to return home, but the powerful magic necessary to do so requires him to first save this new land which is suffering through a similar plague.
Play mechanics in Return to Popolocrois are very typical of many tactical turn-based Japanese role-playing games. The game has a top-down, isometric camera view and combat is initiated randomly as you explore the world with season-themed regions. Party members with varying combat and weapons abilities will join and depart Pietro throughout his journey, which you can also equip with upgraded weapons and armor from town shops. The world is populated with towns with item shops and inns to rest and save your game, as well as many NPCs available who offer multiple fetch quests, sort of like a baby MMO. The story is told through lush anime cartoons, in-engine cut-scenes, voice acting and text dialog.
The game flow is roughly divided into three main components. First, exploring the overworld allows you to travel back and forth across the different regions, and also where you will encounter resources for farming like ores. Second, the underworld is made of mazes and dungeons that require your party to shrink down to insect size in order to heal contaminated soil and usually requires defeating an end dungeon boss. Third, besides exploration and dungeon crawling, you have the option to tend your farm and completely delay the RPG side of the game, although you will need to progress further into the main game to unlock more features for your farm, like housing animals.
I really enjoy classic style JRPGs. I’ve never quite gotten into farming simulators before, so Popolocrois is my first introduction to one and I quite enjoyed the farming life as an incentive to keep playing long after the story was complete. The farming features are quite basic and intuitive. After the first major boss fight, you are granted a portion of land with some patches of fertile soil to sow seeds, which you water and grow in real time (in-game). Once your plants have grown you can place them in a drop box to sell to vendors for currency. You also get a barn which allows you to add farm animals like chickens and such, as well as a synthesis shop where you can experiment with making new items from ingredients in your inventory. Two games mixed into one and they are both great!
This review is based on a review copy of the Nintendo 3DS version of Return to Popolocrois: A Story of Seasons Fairytale developed by Marvelous
- Whimsical Story
- Farming Sim
- Classic role-playing
- Random Battles
- Linear Progression
- Repetative combat