References to candy are used often when discussing media such as video games. For example, high quality graphics and stylish visual design are referred to as “eye candy.” It is with this candy mentality in mind that I review PoPoLoCrois for the PSP, because PoPoLoCrois is like a Marshmallow Peep candy. Peeps look teeth-rottingly cute and are somewhat fun to eat with their gooey texture but are ultimately an empty calorie snack without any discernible taste to them. They’re certainly not a bad candy and people love them, but there are far better treats to tempt the palate. In much the same way, PoPoLoCrois looks very cute and is somewhat fun to play, but is ultimately a very mediocre Japanese RPG that does not leave any sort of lasting impression at all.
PoPoLoCrois contains three short stories, all starring prince Pietro. The first story chronicles the adventures of ten year-old prince Pietro as he attempts to revive his mother from the slumber spell she’s been placed under. Not to be outdone by Mom, the second story finds Pietro’s dad in a predicament where he has been possessed by an evil demon and Pietro, now twelve years old, has to save him. The third story has a fifteen year-old Pietro saving the land of PoPoLoCrois from imminent doom in the form of a vengeful ex-goddess, her minions, and eventually a resurrected evil demon god. None of the stories are particularly intersting or contain anything that has not been seen before in Japanese RPGs. The third story is the best one in the game, but is still unremarkable. To make matters worse, the characters, though achingly cute, are rather one-dimensional and the dialogue is often dry. At least the game does not skimp on play time offering gamers 20-25 hours of play.
The aesthetics of the game only enhance the characters’ cute factor. Whether characters are represented by the in-game sprites, via the FMV anime cutscenes, or via the anime still cutscenes, they have that cherub-esque look with cute little rotund bodies, big round faces, and big round eyes. The sprites, be they playable character, non playable character, or enemy sprites, are rather small but have cel-shading and excellent facial detailing. Friends and foes all look very cute, and it is sometimes hard to take an enemy seriously if it looks cute rather than menacing. Environments are viewed from an isometric 3/4 view and are aesthetically pleasing albeit in unremarkable 2D graphics. As with the character graphics, it is in the minor details where the environment graphics shine. For example, the moving waterfalls and water in general look quite nice. The graphics do not have any sort of wow factor, but they get the job done and look smooth.
The sound is the least impressive aspect of the game for me. In general, the sound is quite soft and difficult to hear, unless you raise the volume. However, whether the music and sound effects are present or not makes zero difference in the game. The synthesized music is innocuous, often atmospheric, and generally just bland, generic, and utterly forgettable music that could be found in any average Japanese RPG. The worst examples can be found inherent in the battle themes. I appreciate the fact that the game has several different normal and boss battle themes, but none of them are very good. I found the battle themes too relaxed, even lackadaisical. Since RPGs by nature revolve heavily around combat, lazy battle themes are not good. The best part of the sound is the professional quality voice acting during anime cutscenes that is on par with any children’s cartoon seen on television.
PoPoLoCrois’s gameplay is classic JRPG gameplay with a few unique twists. The most notable of these is the battle system. Battles occur randomly and instead of a separate battle screen, encounters happen on the field maps. Battles are turn-based with a strategy-RPG component in that once a character’s turn comes up, he or she is presented a strategy-RPG style grid where he or she can move and then perform an action on an enemy or ally. Unfortunately, there is really no strategy involved in the battles and I felt as if this strategy-RPG component was needlessly tacked on and made battles longer than they needed to be. The game would have been just fine with a basic turn-based battle system. At the very least, the random encounter rate is not annoyingly high and there is an option to set AI commands for characters during battles. In terms of challenge, the game is not that difficult. It should be noted, though, that bosses tend to have insane amounts of hit points so boss battles can run long.
Another twist is in the game world. Where many RPGs distinguish between overland, town, and dungeon/enemy infested areas, the world presented in PoPoLoCrois is a seamless one where towns, fields, and dungeons blend seamlessly into each other. There is no overland to speak of and exploration occurs mostly on foot, which can be a chore since you have no choice but to go back and forth through dungeons just to get to certain towns only accessible within them. At least dungeons are fairly linear and manageable in size.
Control in the game is noticeably slippery. The default speed is running and Pietro and company run so fast that some precision control is lost. Pressing and holding down a button makes them walk, but they walk fast and still lack precise movement. Even during battles, the slippery controls slightly hinder precise character positioning. In terms of the interface, the icon-based menus are easy to navigate. A button can be pressed at any time to bring up various maps of the land, which are useful even though they are a tad clunky and disjointed to navigate. Saving usually occurs at inns and save points and saving at these places is encouraged since Game Overs bring you back to the last inn or save point used. However, to facilitate gaming on the go, the game has a convenient quick save feature where players can save anywhere and anytime they want to outside of battles. The quick save is in a different slot than the inn/save point saves and are accessed via different options on the title screen. This feels somewhat clunky as if the quick save feature was tacked on, but a quick save feature or the ability to save anywhere is a necessity for portable games.
One complaint people have had about the game was the frequent and sometimes lengthy loading times. Loading is frequent and occurs before battles, before cutscenes, and when changing locations. However, I did not find the load times long or intrusive at all. In fact, I thought they were on par with or quicker than those in comparable RPGs on the PlayStation One console. However, part of that may be due to the fact that I play PSP games on one of the newer slimmer second-generation PSP models where the hardware has been upgraded to shorten load times.
PoPoLoCrois is, at its core, a vanilla, mediocre, bland, been-there-done-that Japanese RPG that probably should have stayed in Japan. There was a buzz about it in the import gaming community many years back and I do commend Agetec for bringing it out for North American audiences, but I fail to see what made the game buzzworthy among that importer constituent in the first place. PoPoLoCrois is merely another face in the crowd of Japanese RPGs and an easily forgettable one at that.