Release Date: December 6, 2005
Don't get me wrong, I love old school console RPGs. Although I'm a PC gamer nowadays, I still believe that Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI (FF3 here in the US) were the golden age of the genre. Two-dimensional RPGs focused more on plot and tended to be longer and more varied than the 3D fare that has taken over nowadays.
So where does Popolocrois fit into all of this? It does bring a true RPG to Sony's handy little media station (I refuse to call it a handheld gaming system until it actually has a library of games worth playing). It's the first real RPG, I might add, seeing as how Untold Legends was more of a mindless hack-and-slash. In Popolocrois you'll have turn-based combat, random encounters, inventory and treasure, experience and levels, and guys with swords running around trying to stick them into anything that moves. Get your mind out of the gutter – the hero's only 10, after all!
Popolocrois may be familiar to some of you – it originally was a pair of RPGs released in Japan several years ago on, get this, the PSOne. Don't worry, it looks quite good on the PSP. I showed the game to a friend (and real anime-lover), and her primary comment was on how detailed everything looked. That's no real surprise; the graphics are cel-shaded, and the look of the game, which, while childish to some, is anime-based and very polished. In fact, there are anime cut scenes inside the game which are very impressive and easily movie quality.
The PSP rendition of this game actually combines both original Popolocrois games into one grand adventure, and some additional content was even added to tie in the ending of the first game to the beginning of the second so as to make the transition seamless. I can't say for certain how well they pulled this off because I haven't gotten quite that far in the game yet (old-school RPGs = LONG), but I have no doubts that this game, being two full RPGs, probably will take even the most hardcore of RPGers quite a while to work through.
You have a main character named Pietro, the 10-year-old prince of Popolocrois, who uses a sword (of course), the Dragon Sword no less. His mother has been in a coma for his entire lifespan because her soul had been sucked out by an ice demon, and the demon was stopped back then by the appearance of a white dragon. I hope I'm not giving anything away by my speculation that there is likely a connection between the 10-year-old protagonist with the Dragon Sword and the events that occurred 10 years ago involving a white dragon and a soul-sucking ice demon.
In either case, Pietro is determined to save his mother and restore her soul (how noble and sweet of the lad). He believes the answer may lie in the floating continent of Bryonnia, which passes overhead every once in a while to say hi and steal milk and cookies. The thing is, no one knows what is on Bryonnia or who, if anyone, lives there. Pietro figures that since no one knows anything about the place, it obviously must be the solution to his matriarchal dilemma, which makes sense in a wacky RPG way. Along the way, Pietro will pick up additional party members, gain levels, learn skills, and become rich by slaying random woodland creatures and stealing their convenient stashes of gold coins.
So the next most important thing (and to some, the MOST important thing) deals with how the combat system works in the game. When you enter combat, the game goes into turn-based mode, and you find your characters positioned on a grid which overlays the terrain you're on. Your party and the enemies must move around on this grid, and can, in some cases, gain some strategic advantage by clever placement. Different attacks have different ranges, so it's possible to hide weaker characters behind stronger ones in order to make it impossible for the enemies to reach them. Also, some attacks hit in straight lines, or in area boxes, which means that with the right positioning, you can hit multiple enemies simultaneously. It seems fairly interesting, but my main problem was that using special attacks consumes hard-to-replace skill points, which means that for most random battles, you'll just be using the classic "Attack" command over and over.
The pros of this game are that its quite long, and the anime-inspired, cel-shaded graphics are quite pretty to look at. The gameplay and story are pretty standard fare and certainly aren't the worst I've seen, but not the best either.
I feel that the sound is pretty weak, but I tend to leave the sound off most of the time anyway (the PSP has horrible speakers, and I'm not going to walk around with headphones connected to the thing all the time).
My biggest concern with the game is that it simply is not very exciting or compelling. In a word, I find it to be a tad on the, dare I say, boring side. You don't really feel a connection to any of the characters because there are simply too many with meaningless enemies. The plot plods along slowly, and the random encounters do not help. I miss Earthbound's classic take on random encounters in which, if you were sufficiently more powerful than the enemies, they ran away and left their loot behind instead of making you have to waste time pulverizing them. In this game, you'll find yourself going through areas you've already been through before, multiple times. Each time, you'll be more powerful than the time before, but the game will still force you to fight enemies that stand no chance of doing anything to you, other than maybe hit you for one point of damage. This will waste more time than you can -- or want -- to imagine. I put the AI on auto-attack when going through these areas, so basically travelling consists of spending five seconds of running and then 30 seconds of watching a completely pointless fight. Repeat ad infinitum until you make it to the edge of the map and can get to the next area, where you may very well have to do the same thing again.
A technical problem I have with the game deals with excessive load times whenever you enter a new area, face a new enemy, or even deal with a new special attack that you haven't seen before. These only occur once typically during any game session, but if you turn the PSP off and back on, you'll have to reload everything again. These pauses can last anywhere from a couple of seconds to perhaps 5 or 10, and it really pulls you out of what little immersion there is to be found here.
Also, while I applaud that Pietro runs really, really fast, it bothers me that there is very noticable ghosting which occurs whenever you are zipping around. I'm not sure if this was intentional or not (I suspect not), but it irks me to see black areas on the screen kind of stretch out whenever I move around.
So, is Popolocrois the game for you? It isn't a Final Fantasy VI or a Chrono Trigger, but then again, nothing is. Normally I'd say it's a standard RPG that many people will find to be fun. For the PSP, though, it's definitely a notch above the average game for the system, and it provides the first and only RPG experience until Legend of Heroes makes its debut. Hopefully, the extra development time between our build and its December release date will adjust some of my grievances and make this game worth a play.