Popolocrois is the first US release in a role-playing series that has been around for nearly a decade in Japan. In fact, it was popular enough overseas to spawn its own anime series. Popolocrois on the PSP is somewhat of an amalgam of the first two games in the series, which have been reworked and woven together to deliver a singular, fairly cohesive adventure. Rather than trying to develop a convoluted battle system or flashy cast of characters, Popolocrois keeps things simple. It works for and against the game, depending on your perspective. If you're a role-playing veteran looking for a new epic adventure to tackle, you'll probably lose interest in Popolocrois rather quickly. However, if you're new to the genre or you're just looking for a light, easygoing adventure to carry around in your pocket, Popolocrois will suit you just fine.
The story follows the exploits of Pietro, the young prince of the kingdom of Popolocrois. Pietro is only 10 years old at the beginning of the game, but that doesn't stop him from setting out to save his mother, who has been in a deep sleep since he was just a baby because her soul is confined in the world of darkness. Pietro has to free her soul and defeat a menacing demon that is threatening to destroy the entire kingdom. But, since this game encompasses the events of the first two games in the series, the transition between the first story and the new one is very blunt. The second half of the game follows a now-15-year-old Pietro (though you wouldn't know it by looking at him) on a quest to save his father's soul from darkness and subsequently defeat an evil fiend that is threatening to destroy the kingdom. The story is very simple and it moves quickly, which means you can easily follow along whether you play the game over the course of a week or a month. Unfortunately, it also means that there isn't much depth, and after you've played it once, there's really no reason to come back for more.
The gameplay in Popolocrois is as basic as it comes. You start out by talking to various non-playable characters to initiate some sort of mission, which is always spelled out very clearly. Then, you set out to complete that mission, which usually involves exploring a dungeon in search of an artifact to collect or an evildoer to vanquish. As you walk about, you'll randomly get pulled into battles with lowly, easily defeated enemies. The turn-based battle system plays out in order of initiative, which is determined by each character's speed stat. You can take up to four characters into battle, and each character has unique, predetermined skill sets and weapon proficiencies. When a character's battle gauge is full, he or she will get to take a turn. You can move a character on a grid and attack, use special skills, use items, or focus, which skips your turn to charge up your attack for the next time. If there are multiple characters using the focus command, you can pull off special combo attacks by moving two characters into a specific formation.
There are 11 characters you can play with throughout the course of the game, and each one has a handful of skills that develop as they gain experience from fighting battles. The characters all behave as you'd expect. The prince is handy with a sword, although he can also use a bit of magic; the forest witch uses a staff and casts healing magic; the white knight and the samurai are both strong frontline fighters with some powerful weapon skills, and so on. In fitting with the theme, the enemies are all much goofier than they are fearsome. You'll spend a lot of time fighting enemies like ninja robots, baseball-playing insects called Sluggers, tiny acorns called Acornholios, and more.
The battles are super easy, and you can even set the game to auto mode by assigning your characters specific actions like attack, assault (use skilled attacks), or defend. This way, the characters will automatically behave as you tell them, without requiring you to select commands each time. In auto mode, you can sit back and pretty much let the game play itself, which is handy, but it also doesn't leave you with much to do. Still, you'll probably want to use auto mode from time to time just because the random encounters occur so frequently that you'll quickly get sick of playing through the same battle over and over again. When you're not in a town, you'll be sucked into a battle every few seconds, which really drags down the pace.
Frequent load times also drag down the pace of the game. Every time you're drawn into battle or you step into a new area, the game will pause for a few seconds to load up. Even in battle there's a very noticeable lag as attack animations load. It also takes a few seconds just to bring up the map so you can see where you're going. Usually these load times only last three or four seconds, but it's still a very noticeable problem when the game is constantly stuttering.
Aside from the frequent loading, the presentation is quite charming, like it was adapted from the pages of a children's book. The world is a bright and colorful blend of typical fantasy and light sci-fi themes. The characters are all squat and cute. They also animate well and do a great job of expressing quite a range of emotions. Some of the battle animations are flashy, but compared to the rest of the game, they seem a bit out of place. The anime cutscenes are interesting and they look nice, but they occur so infrequently that they don't really add much. The sound in Popolocrois is pretty good as well. The music is light and quirky, but it's well done and remains listenable for the length of the game. The sound effects are about what you'd expect from a role-playing game. There are appropriate noises as swords swoosh through the air and lighting bolts and explosions strike your enemies. The voice-overs in the cutscenes are also good, and they fit the tone of the story perfectly. Unfortunately the in-game voices are much less appealing, and it gets old real quick to hear the same squealing battle cries over and over again.
Popolocrois is a good introduction to role-playing games for young people or for people who have been wondering what role-playing games are all about. Its simplicity works to its advantage as a portable game, making it easy to pick up and play for an hour or so at a time. Unfortunately, it is so simple and shallow that experienced role-playing fans will get bored well before the 30 hours or so that it takes to finish the game are up.