Once upon a time, there were two long-running game series. The first, PopoloCrois, began as a serialized manga in 1978. The whimsical adventures of Prince Pietro would later be adapted into a story told across five turn-based RPGs, most of which were never released outside of Japan. The second series, Story of Seasons, has roots (ha, I’ve got puns) in the 16-bit era, where it was first conceived as the inaugural farming simulation Harvest Moon. These two universes appear before us today in a surprisingly appropriate crossover title, Return to PopoloCrois: A Story of Seasons Fairytale. Taking gameplay cues from both of its progenitors, Return to PopoloCrois is a brief adventure, as light of spirit as it is light of substance. While it is undoubtedly earnest, a sense of simplicity permeates the entire experience, for better and for worse.
Return to PopoloCrois wears its “fairytale” moniker on its sleeve; players assume the role of Pietro, an infallible, pure-hearted hero on a quest to vanquish a god of darkness. His journey across the foreign soil (ha, again) of Galariland takes him through a bevy of rustic villages and requisite elementally-aspected temples, culminating in a final showdown against his one-dimensionally evil antagonists. The story’s trajectory is predictably linear, and although Galariland is populated by an ensemble of quirky and sometimes charming characters, I never felt particularly attached to any of them. An innocent, blossoming romance between Pietro and his longtime friend, the forest witch Narcia, is a cute highlight. Despite my inexperience with the rest of the PopoloCrois series, it’s clear that this game is abundant with fanservice, which should please a certain subset of players. The most apt description that comes to mind in describing Return to PopoloCrois’s story is “kid-friendly.” I frequently felt like I was playing a game intended for younger children, the occasional “dammit” in character dialogue aside. Whether this works for you or not is a matter of personal taste.
The balance of adventuring to farming is skewed heavily in the favor of the former. In fact, the Story of Seasons elements — tending crops, harvesting materials, and raising animals — are more or less completely optional. Only at one point in the game did I need to grow a particular crop in order to advance the story, and without any incentive to farm beyond using it as a means to make money, I found it utterly inconsequential. Another Story of Seasons carryover is the inclusion of five girls for Pietro to… well, “romance” isn’t quite the right word, because his relationship with Narcia takes precedence. Pietro can give these girls gifts for minor rewards and bonus dialogue, but again, it does not impact the core experience in any meaningful way. The feature feels tacked-on at best, and I’m not sure why the developers chose to include it. One might assume that the game’s RPG elements would be more fleshed out to compensate, but those too lack depth. Dungeons are terribly repetitive mazes with recycled assets, much like the game’s bosses, which reuse the same three monster designs ad infinitum. Combat is turn-based and takes place on a grid, but positioning matters so little that the vast majority of battles can be won without employing a modicum of strategy. Skills and magic might help you win faster, but outside of one or two instances, regular attacks will always suffice. It is no exaggeration when I say that I used the game’s auto-battle feature for more than half of the scant ten hours it took me to reach the story’s conclusion.
Fortunately, fans of either series will be at home with the game’s visuals. Environments and character models are clean, and the color palette is slightly muted, favoring pastels. Dialogue portraits have a hand-sketched aesthetic, while the world is right out of a storybook, befitting the game’s title. There’s an option to toggle black outlines around the characters, which I preferred to leave on, as it gave the game a pleasant cel-shaded look. And speaking of options, the player can adjust the encounter rate from the get-go, as well as select between two separate Japanese voice tracks in addition to the English dub. I chose the dub, and even though I wasn’t enamored with the game’s characters, their voices were perfectly suited to their designs and personalities. I was less taken with the soundtrack; most of its simplistic melodies registered flat for me, as did the sound effects. The main battle theme reminded me of the “kooky event music” I’m accustomed to hearing in Gust and/or Nippon Ichi titles, which is at the far end of the spectrum away from my taste. It’s not necessarily that I crave melodrama, but I prefer something with a little more gravitas when I’m squaring off against my enemies.
I certainly do not intend to communicate that Return to PopoloCrois is universally bad; in fact, I think it will suit the right kind of player just fine. It is undeniably simplistic, however, and neither of its two gameplay styles is especially deep or compelling. I respect PopoloCrois’ lengthy history, but the reality is that I wasn’t moved by my time with this game.