Prince Pietro is living the adventurous life. He had three games on the PS1, which were neatly consolidated on the PSP to a single version simply called PopoloCrois, and after that the series moved on to PS2 and starred his and Narcia’s son. As it turns out, however, Pietro’s young life of RPG excitement didn’t end with the conclusion of the PSP game, but instead moved to the new world of Galariland. Return to PopoloCrois: A Story of Seasons Fairy Tale blends the world of PopoloCrois with the farming of Story of Seasons in an alchemical synthesis that preserves the qualities of both games for an absolute charmer of RPG/farming hybridization.
Black beasts has been seen roaming through Prince Pietro’s kingdoms, very unlike the standard RPG critters he’s used to tackling outside the town walls. All that’s known is they’re very powerful and, while not completely undefeatable, a little strategic help would be nice. This is forthcoming from the mysterious Marmela, a woman from a neighboring dimension a few branches over on the world tree that links different lands together, but after things get out of hand Pietro finds himself trapped in Galariland with no way back. Help shows up quickly in the form of a blue wolf and, for some reason, the Gami Gami Devil with a pumpkin stuck on his head. There’s obviously something very wrong here but first Pietro needs to get back on his feet, get a few more friends and allies in this new land, and then worry about getting home.
At this point a reasonable question would be “But where’s the farming?”, because the first several hours of Return to PopoloCrois are a straightforward RPG with the promised Story of Seasons elements only lightly touched on. Pietro gets a small, abandoned farm that’s in terrible shape, with only a few patches of dirt to grow things on, you’ll spend far more time fighting random battles than tending crops, and the famr’s shelter is too broken to house any animals at all. The Prologue and Chapter 1 go by with roughly five to six hours of gaming between them, and the promise of a working farm seeming to get overwhelmed by story and combat. Then Chapter 2 starts and the two elements finally start working in balance as the farming elements take their proper place.
That “five to six hour” line needs a bit more explanation, though. Generally when reviewing a game it goes on the default settings because that’s how most people will end up playing. Normal difficulty level, tweak the controls a bit to fit personal play-style if it’s the kind of game where that’s necessary, and then get to it. For Return to Popolocrois that may have been a mistake, though, because one of the options in the configuration menu is battle frequency, and that’s set to High by default. One of the features of classic 8-bit RPGs that tends to be forgiven is the “step step fight, step step fight” frequency of the combat, which was there primarily to make a small world take longer to get through, and while that may have been acceptable when the battle system was all an RPG had it’s nothing but tedious in the bigger, richer games of the 16-bit era on through to today. Trimming the battle frequency to Normal not only gets you to the full game more quickly but also makes exploring far more fun.
Which isn’t to say the combat is bad, even if it’s fairly simple. Pietro leads a party of up to three other allies, and battles start with the traditional “good guys on one side monsters on the other” setup. If you want to hit a monster you’ll need to walk that character to it, though, so movement range becomes important during each character’s turn. Additionally, battlefields have rocks and other debris in the way, and you can’t walk through an ally, so positioning has an effect as well. It’s not so important on Normal difficulty, seeing as most monsters only do a small percentage of total HP in damage and all HP and MP are recovered on level-up, but for the sake of efficiency it’s best not to have your active character stuck out of range of an enemy because they need to walk around an inconveniently-placed ally.
Positioning also comes into play with spells, which tend to have an area of effect aside from the very few targeting a specific enemy. Some spells take effect no matter how far away from an enemy you may be, with the caster sacrificing movement that turn, while others let you move to target all enemies in a straight line, or within the circle of effect, or even in a cone emanating from the caster. There’s a nicely strategic battle system hiding under the easiness of the combat, only held back by how expensive spells are to cast and enemies that are weak enough that you might as well bash them instead. While that means fighting is fairly straightforward the dungeons are usually small enough and combat (once the frequency is set to normal) spaced out far enough that it rarely becomes a chore, especially with all the farming and other tasks constantly calling for attention.
The tiny run-down farm that starts as home base gets a nice upgrade in Chapter 2, plus you start discovering other magical farms that grow unique crops. All the usual conventions are followed here- hoe the earth, plant a seed, water, wait for it to grow, and eventually harvest. The time between planting and harvesting is perfect to advance the plot a little more, either by pushing on to the next town or finding the next NPC to chat with. Notifications pop up as crops dry out or ripen, and a sprinkle of Fairy Dust takes you instantly to any non-combat area you’ve visited previously. What this means in practice is you can plant a field, teleport to the town nearest the next dungeon, clear it out, then teleport home and tend the fields before heading back to hit the next plot point. The world is in the midst of being overrun with black spiky monsters, but it can wait a minute while you tend the fields. Or bring a present to one of the five girls you can befriend. Or play with the synthesis machine, run side-errands for the villagers, whack rocks with a hammer for ore, or any of the other numerous diversions that make saving the world get put on the back burner. Lady Galariel, the goddess of Galariland, is big into farming, so if she’s got to wait a bit longer while you take care of business that’s perfectly fine.
While it takes a bit to get all its gameplay elements into place, Return to PopoloCrois: A Story of Seasons Fairy Tale is thoroughly charming from the very start. The little moments of animation scattered throughout the story, solid and likable voice acting, and the welcome return of familiar characters for those who got to play the PSP game make for a wonderfully inviting adventure. The RPG and farming elements tend to run independently of each other, but even that works in the game’s favor as you jump from one task to another before any of it has a chance to get overly repetitive. There’s plenty of story elements, but they don’t tend to drone on forever, making each cut scene a nice reward rather than an interruption of the action. Galariland is a cute and friendly world being threatened by a dark evil just dangerous enough to need a hero to drive it back, and if that involves growing vegetables and tending cows as much as smacking around monsters, then Prince Pietro is more than willing to attack the problem with a sword in one hand and a hoe in the other.