Return to PopoloCrois: A STORY OF SEASONS Fairytale (henceforth referred to as Return to PopoloCrois) exemplifies a very odd spot in the Western 3DS release library. Although Story of Seasons (the most recent release in the Bokujou Monogatari series, most frequently known as Harvest Moon in the west) is itself part of a series that has been well-known to western gamers for decades, PopoloCrois has historically been a Japan-only IP, spanning manga, anime, and (of course) video games. The last time the western world officially got anything to do with the PopoloCrois franchise as a whole was back in 2005, with the PSP launch window release of PopoloCrois PSP - a compilation/remake that melded together the stories of the first two PopoloCrois PS1 games. This was also, as far as I can tell, the only other official release in the franchise outside of Japan. The rest of the exposure that the franchise got internationally was primarily through the fan-subbed release of the franchises' two anime series.
Beyond that little history lesson, Return to PopoloCrois: A STORY OF SEASONS Fairytale is a PopoloCrois RPG with some Story of Seasons farming elements. Players take control of Prince Pietro of the PopoloCrois Kingdom on the morning of his 13th birthday. Recently, eerie black monsters have been appearing across the Kingdom and terrorizing and attacking the citizenry. At the start of the story, the King of PopoploCrois (Prince Pietro's father) has received an offering of help from a delegate of a Kingdom on the other side of the "World Tree", Galariland. A few things happen - not to spoil the overall setup to the plot - and Pietro finds himself stranded in Galariland, all the way on the other side of the World Tree. Eventually it's revealed that the only way for Prince Pietro to return to his Kingdom is to resurrect the Goddess Galariel by healing the 4 "Farms of Light."
Naturally, this is how farming gets tied into the overall plot - and gameplay - of Return to PopoloCrois. Although the process of farming itself isn't as in-depth as the real Bokujou Monogatari games - nor their Rune Factory spin-offs - Prince Pietro gains access to a wide variety of usable farms throughout the games 15-20 hour story. Different farms have access to different plants, with the four Farms of Light each representing a different season, while Pietro's very first farm also has its share of exclusive plants. Three of the five farms in the game allow you to house Chickens, Cows, and Sheep/Llama type animals, too. The act of farming itself is simplified compared to most of the Bokujou Monogatari series. The standard Hoe, Plant, then Water routine for farming is more or less identical, but all the real work stops there. Making sure that you're watering your plants diligently doesn't matter since they'll never wilt, and at least for a good portion of the game, the work is very cathartic, as you initially can only hoe and water one plot square at a time. Upgrades only come after you've grown and shipped a certain number of produce to begin with.
Thankfully, although farming is a major theme of the title, it's definitely not the main focus of the gameplay. Various items you've gathered (such as produce you've grown, various rocks and ores you've mined, or insects that you've gathered) can be combined once you reach a certain point in the story, allowing you to create a variety of different items or even equipment. Although many sidequests revolve around growing certain produce for villagers, the main quest has only a handful of situations when a specific produce is required to continue. The bulk of the gameplay is instead based around the classic PopoloCrois tile-based JRPG combat. Random battle encounters dot the game world whether you're traversing the world map or exploring one of the games' many Field Dungeons, and these battles make up the majority of the core gameplay. The battle system plays out similarly to the Trails series that XSEED has also recently published, with a psuedo-TRPG battle system. Characters have a range of skills besides their basic attack, and some of these are only usable when a certain companion is in the party.
In theory, there are a myriad of different factors affecting how the battles will play out, such as elemental strengths and weaknesses, side and backside attacks dealing more damage, and different status ailments. In practice, even on the game's hardest difficulty mode (which is an addition for the game's western release), most battles end within a single turn. Boss battles themselves are just as easy to cheese with buffs and spamming backside regular attacks. Although they tend to take longer than regular fights, bosses still don't take much time to take down. To make matters worse, although most characters have multiple healing spells with different costs to use, it's hard to justify using anything more than the original, cheapest healing spell in nearly every case until the very end of the game. Even while standing up to the game's final boss on the hardest difficulty setting, Pietro's standard healing spell (that's 3-5x cheaper than most characters' stronger healing spells!) manages to heal 90% of any character's max HP, making the other spells nearly useless.
If the game was this easy all the way throughout the experience, I wouldn't complain. I'd even ignore the weird inconsistencies arising from the games' healing spells. However, the biggest problem I have with the game's combat is how - even on the easiest difficulty - it spikes in difficulty considerably near the end of the game. For about 80-90% of the game's length, the difficulty is almost mind-numbingly low on the hardest difficulty, and then you reach the last few bosses of the games. Past a certain point, even random encounter enemies can manage to knock out your entire party in one turn if you get unlucky, with almost no way of defending yourself. The best way to explain the problem as I see it, is that although the game allows certain characters to buff your defense, regular defense and magic defense are separate properties, and there's no way for a party to buff their magic defense during a battle, like they can buff their physical defense. Since every boss and even most regular enemies use a bunch of AOE magic attacks at the end of the game, that tend to take out about half of your parties HP on the lowest difficulty, and the problem becomes apparent very quickly.
The games' inconsistency with balance aside, the main draw to Return to PopoloCrois would have to be its fairy tale aesthetic. Although the setup for the story and some notable scenes are actually rather dark or bleak in nature, the game's overall tone still manages to stay upbeat and even happy past a certain point in the game. A calming, low-key soundtrack accentuates the overall feel of the game, and the almost watercolor art style helps cement the game's theme of "hope" and "friendship". There's nothing really groundbreaking about the story, but that's probably what helps it stand out. Likable characters, a story that doesn't really focus on action, and some surprisingly adult themes have been staples of the PopoloCrois series for decades, and it's the same here. The game's localization does a fantastic job at keeping the game's theme intact, which should come at no surprise after taking a look at the credits of the game and comparing them to the fan-sub credits for the PopoloCrois anime.
A lot of love and care has been taken when localizing this game to English - Thomas Lipschultz of XSEED Games/Marvelous USA has gone into more depth with some of their localization blogs on the title, but it warrants mentioning that Return to PopoloCrois received a lot of attention in the localization process. Although in the end, Return to PopoloCrois is nothing truly fantastic, but it radiates heart. For all of its grievous faults, Return to PopoloCrois manages to be enjoyable, light-hearted adventure, if nothing else.
Return to PopoloCrois was reviewed on a New Nintendo 3DS with a digital review copy provided by the publisher.
For all of its grievous faults in balance, Return to PopoloCrois manages to be an enjoyable and light-hearted adventure.