When announced for release in the UK by Ignition, I’ll readily admit that my heart wasn’t set on fire, nor did my hands ache to get a firm grip on the review code. Still, in the interests of fairness and the ongoing struggle to broaden my gaming horizons, I gave PoPoLoCrois my full attention. A Japanese RPG resurrected from the late nineties, and thrust forth onto the PSP with all the care and attention you’d expect of a solid franchise, I was, to say the least, rather surprised.
Greeted by the now synonymous lighter-than-air nursery rhyme score, optimism wasn’t a word I’d have ventured to use, but 30 minutes and a handful of victories later, whether by way of gloriously stylised cartoon-esque cutscenes or simple, yet intuitive turn-based action, I was hooked. But how did I come to even like turn-based RPGs, and more importantly, what was it about PoPoLoCrois that enamoured me to its little touches of magic so readily?
As Prince Pietro, the game begins on your tenth birthday. Having been told of your mother’s death ten years previously, you’re obviously not too happy to learn that she isn’t actually dead; instead she transformed herself into a dragon to save PoPoLoCrois from the Ice Demon – as you do. In the midst of defeating said demon, she found herself locked in the world of darkness, unable to return. Against the advice of your father, you begin your quest with a journey to Bryonia to find the ancient archives which guide the way through the world of darkness. Essentially, that’s all the plot details you need to get started, so with the task of rescuing Queen Sania, the game begins in earnest.
Using either the digital pad or the analogue stick, Prince Pietro moves with ease across a quite delightful backdrop, showing that polygon counts aren’t the be all and end all of gaming. A pseudo 3D isometric display is more than capable of conveying any action in game, and more so, it feels incredibly natural to the style of game on offer. With varying backgrounds and a multitude of sprites on display, everything seems fresh, but then I’m not a Japanese RPG nut. And then there’s the combat.
As a fierce critic of turn-based gameplay, the closest you’ll find me to my own personal taboo would be the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic series. Itself a fresh take on RPGs, and yet, not quite far enough away to dishearten die hard fans, PoPoLoCrois takes this ethos and simplifies it further still. There’s the usual system of weapon attacks and spells assigned to individual buttons, but this time, all the action takes place on a grid, allowing you to play on the fly, rather than plan your next two attacks – a much better system for newbies such as myself.
Quests come and go intermittently alongside the main story arch, and at times, are a little too random for the overall gameplay experience. As you make your way through the main quest, it all seems to fit together extremely well. Once you move to a different area, you’re faced with different enemies, giving the game a constantly fresh appeal, even though the gameplay is essentially recycled as the story progresses. It would certainly be harsh to mark down based on this principle alone, though, with most RPGs following the same formula.
Although 2D, the in-game graphics are nothing to squirm at, and, although a little dated with the advent of true 3D gaming, hold their own with a unique and refreshing style. Combat is aided by a quick zoom function, which is also accessible from the right shoulder button, allowing close-quarter combat to be executed to your desire, and more importantly, with a solid degree of accuracy.
For a game that has opened my eyes to another genre, by succeeding in ticking almost every box in my reviewers’ handbook, I’m hard pressed to find any major downsides before considering a score for the game. Nothing is perfect though, and PoPoLoCrois is no exception to the rule. The usual PSP problems blight an otherwise solid conversion, with load times an occasional hindrance to the pace of the game. It’s not something that PSP owners won’t be prepared for, but prevents the game from scoring any higher.
It certainly is engrossing, and offers so much to the hardcore RPG fan, but the essence of portable gaming is the ability to pick up and play at a moment’s notice. Whilst this can be argued, with the ability to load games, it isn’t really an area where a non-RPG fan can be convinced, due to the gorgeous, yet rather long cut-scenes and the inability to jump into some hard and fast action.
But then, jumping in isn’t what PoPoLoCrois is about. It’s about an endearing quest to save your family, combating all enemies that stand in your path; a game where the number of hours you play is defined by your love or loathing of the genre. It really does have something for every RPG fan, and its main success is something every game should strive for before innovation; it excels at the simple things, with gameplay that makes it accessible to new players and enjoyable for devoted RPG fans.