Version tested: PSP
There's no way to tackle an old favourite of '90s JRPG players and its eventual arrival in the West without preamble. Oh such preamble we shall have... long, meandering and highly informative the preamble shall be.
PoPoLoCrois originally graced the PlayStations of Japan in the 1996. Fortunately, the world has moved on enough since then that two things have happened. Firstly we are now deemed a developed enough region to see more Japanese games reach our heathen shores. And secondly, it's possible to fit the name PoPoLoCrois on the screen of a handheld, leading it inevitably to the PSP.
This version is a combination of the first two games in the series, with some necessary chops and changes to the story to make the whole thing gel together with a little more fluidity. Unless you've played it before, you'll probably not be paying too much attention to the rearrangement though and for the most part they don't flag themselves.
Now that that's out of the way...
Players slip into the role of Prince Pietro at the fine age of ten. Just about a decade prior, Pietro's mother had turned herself into a dragon to save her kingdom from an ice demon, banishing it to the land of darkness. In the process though, she managed to get her own soul stuck there. Bummer.
The game is divided into books, with the task for our hero being to save his mother's soul and defeat tremendous evil, vanquishing foes and making friends along the way. It's a simple enough story that fits well into the game and never seems to be artificially advanced.
After the chop to the sequel, five years have passed and Pietro (15 for the mathematically challenged) is now charged with saving his father, King Paulo's soul, defeating tremendous evil, fighting along the way and generally providing more play time.
It might not sound all that inspired, but it's important to remember that "inspired" isn't what sequels are all about, especially when they're attached to the first game. All it really does offer more of an already enjoyable game without the necessity of playing through exactly the same story again... which is pleasant for all concerned.
Gameplay is split between the usual map-exploration three-point perspective and combat. Combat is turn-based on a grid, allowing characters to move around enemies, with attacking order determined by characters' speed. It's a quick and easy to learn system that might disappoint more experienced RPG fans, but players with a more cursory RPG interest will be well served.
Pietro and his merry gang receive quests from NPCs scattered throughout the game. Quests follow the usual rules; go here, find that, kill the other. You'll be better served not to head in expecting genre=defying innovation. It's an old game that has stood up well to time, not a miracle. The whole feel is similar to Final Fantasy Tactics, and that's no bad thing.
Overall this probably couldn't be any more of a typical JRPG if it tried. Random encounters do crop up constantly; if you're not into them then there's a fair amount in PoPoLoCrois that's not palatable.
Normally I'd have strong reservations about dwelling on something as trivial as load times, but in this case I'm convinced it's justified. We've seen, time and time again, that the PSP can be pushed into loading things in a timely fashion. Then there's the occasional monumental blunder that renders a game utterly unplayable (Untold Legends, we're looking at you).
PoPoLoCrois falls decidedly closer to the latter category. It's not quite bad enough to warrant avoiding the game, but it would be a disappointment to anyone coming to the game without reading a word about the load times (hence, the heading). Though the load times land on the unreasonable side, it isn't enough to lead to abandoning the game. Thanks to the option to quicksave, most loading won't be repeated too much, but they do fragment the experience. It's probably more telling that this is the only real negative point here...
I've deliberately avoided talking about the graphics until now. The transition to the PSP might have been graceful for some PS ports, but PoPoLoCrois doesn't just see the benefit of a smaller screen, it harnesses it as a power for good and somehow manages to look a mere fraction of its ten years of age.
This is largely thanks to the fact that the characters are well drawn and exceptionally well handled. In combination with a world that genuinely manages to convey the idea of "Fantastic Kingdom" there's not much more here to want... but it doesn't stop giving.
Quite aside from being nicely presented, the characters are genuinely endearing and entertaining more often than not. The humour seems to have made its way through the translation just as well as the rest of the game. Put together with grand presentation, superb artwork and a well-told (if a not particularly original) story, the characters make the game fantastically loveable.
If you've been desperate for an RPG and would willingly drown yourself in a sea of Final Fantasies then it might be a little on the simplistic side. Regardless you could certainly do worse, and despite its advanced years, loading issues and awkward capitalisation, PoPoLoCrois is a game (scratch that, it's two games in one) that sells itself with its wonderful characters and provides a truly engaging experience. Even if you've only a mild interest in JRPGs, you can't go far wrong.
7 / 10