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Interview: Return to PopoloCrois

by Todd Ciolek,
A new Nintendo Direct airs later today, well after this column regularly shows its face. So I'll do what any proper pundit does: I'll make predictions. And when the Nintendo Direct actually broadcasts and contravenes me, I'll pretend I never made such outlandish statements.

Nintendo already announced that this new Direct won't have any news about the upcoming NX system, though rumors suggest other revelations: a Monster Hunter Generations and Fire Emblem crossover, some Super Nintendo games on the 3DS, and a new look at Lost Reavers, the free-to-play Wii U online action game from Tekken's Katsuhiro Harada. And there remains the indefatigable hope that Nintendo will put an officially translated version of cult-favorite RPG Mother 3 on the Virtual Console.

I'll go one better. Nintendo will reveal a Virtual Console release for Donkey Kong's Fun With Music. Originally planned for the Famicom around 1983, Donkey Kong's Fun With Music (or Donkey Kong no Ongaku Asobi) was an educational game that let Mario, Pauline, and Donkey Kong play a musical quiz and jam on instruments. Yet it never materialized. Donkey Kong's Fun With Music is among the most tantalizing cancellations of Nintendo's early years in the home-system industry, and it'd surprise everyone if Nintendo pulled out a completed version of the game for the Wii U's Virtual Console.

Well, everyone except me. That's why I always guess wild.

NEWS

BLACK ROSE VALKYRIE ARISES SUSPICIOUSLY
I did not welcome Black Rose Valkyrie. For one thing, it's yet another game that has “Valkyrie” in the title without tying itself to Valkyrie Profile, and that's a cruel tease. It's also from Compile Heart, so I expected Black Rose Valkyrie to be a dating-RPG hybrid where the player's avatar can romance squealing, neon-haired superheroines who symbolize, oh, different types of space-exploration vehicle. Yet Black Rose Valkyrie might not go that route.

Black Rose Valkyrie looks different from the usual Compile Heart creation so far, since it wears character artwork by Kousuke Fujishima of Oh My Goddess!, You're Under Arrest!, and a good percentage of the Tales RPGs. It's also rooted in alternate history. In 1818, a meteorite impact sows a grotesque virus that transforms humans into creatures called Chimera. After the resulting pandemic, Japan closes its borders (this time for a good reason) and establishes the Special Force Valkyrie to beat back the mutant threat. Led by the upright Asashi Shiramine, the unit includes the alert Ai Yakumo, wealthy corporate heir Luna Ichinomiya, fiercely loyal Yue Hiragi, and the Franson twins: hyperactive Amal and withdrawn Coo.

What's more, Black Rose Valkyrie borrows some decent ideas. Combat runs on turn-based systems, but the game shows off the sort of elaborate high-tech weaponry you'd expect in a Valkyria Chronicles or God Eater game. Other sections find the player talking with teammates and detecting a traitor within the ranks. The traitor's identity changes with each playthrough (the first trailer plays off this grim potential), and so do the endings. The Vita strategy-RPG Lost Dimension tried the same gimmick last year, and while the overall game didn't develop the characters enough to have bite, the concept remains promising.

Black Rose Valkyrie is in line for a PlayStation 4 release later this year, and its approachable artwork and Compile Heart connections make it a strong candidate for localization. All things considered, I'd sooner see it than Valkyrie Drive.

BRAVELY SECOND TWEAKS COSTUMES, ARTBOOKS, FANS
It now appears that the game industry of 2016 will be a procession of one alleged censorship controversy after another. No sooner had we settled down to play Fire Emblem Fates, which saw some dialogue changes and the removal of suggestive face-touching features, than another fuss arose over Bravely Second: End Layer, the sequel to Square Enix's old-fashioned 3DS offering Bravely Default.

Bravely Second is due out in April, and already fans spy alterations to the Japanese version. The first to emerge involved a stereotypical Native American job class called Tomahawk; in the English version, it's a cowboy getup (which could say something about the decimation of native tribes in the Old West, but no matter). In fact, many of the costumes for female characters were edited to show less skin, whether it's occluded cleavage on Francophonic warrior Magnolia Arch's fancy-hatted Merchant costume or more fabric all around for her Summoner attire, which looks like a Mardi Gras costume. It's a wider application of the original Bravely Default's changes, which made several costumes less risque.

Other complaints arose around the artbook that comes with Bravely Second's special edition. It's mostly the same volume as its Japanese counterpart, but several suggestive illustrations of Agnes (and one blood-spattered one of hero Yew) are nowhere to be seen in the English edition of the book.

It all sounds like another case of minor regional changes, and I don't think that lost when costumes get more fabric or become less offensive to Native American cultures. Considering that Bravely Second's characters are once again cute little figures with huge heads, tiny bodies, and no noses, I appreciate the game sexualizing them as little as possible.

But what of a rumor that the localized version of the game mollifies sidequests to remove character deaths, taking out the multiple outcomes available in the Japanese edition? Well, cuts like that run deeper, and I think they might merit a “Mrgrgr,” to quote heroine Edea Lee.

There. It's a tentative Mrgrgr, and one that I may rescind if Bravely Second is censored only for minor aesthetics.

COLECO CHAMELEON COURTS CONTROVERSY, COVERTLY CONCEALS CAPTURE CARD
The Coleco Chameleon doesn't sound so bad in theory. It's a new console deliberately aimed at those aficionados who like cartridge-based game systems. It went through a failed Indiegogo campaign under the RetroVGS banner, but the system reappeared as the Coleco Chameleon, seizing the sponsorship of Coleco and, in theory, the nostalgia for the ancient Colecovision. As its designers have it, the Chameleon will play all-new cartridge titles as well as older games, using an FPGA (field-programmable gate array) chip to emulate the Super NES, Intellivision, Colecovision, Atari 2600, and other systems.

The project drew some mockery at first, partly because the system uses the now public-domain casing from Atari's notoriously failed Jaguar console. The Indiegogo fundraiser also made some strange claims, including the promise that its games would never need patches due to them being “tested thoroughly before release, just like they used to be.” Moreover, the Chameleon's lineup of new games has few titles that aren't available elsewhere.

Yet it wasn't until the New York Toy Fair that the Chameleon's façade started crumbling. The project's managers at RetroVGS showed off a functional prototype of the system and refused to open it up for visitors, stating on Facebook that the unit was running games on its “custom-written SNES FPGA core.” However, photos suggested that the system just housed the innards of an off-the-shelf Super NES.

In an apparent attempt to quash criticisms, RetroVGS updated the Coleco Chamelon's Facebook page with several shots of a clear-cased prototype. Before long, members of the Atari Age forums noticed that the circuitry inside the console is a near-exact match for a Hicap50B DVR Capture Card for PCs. The original photo soon disappeared from Facebook.

The Chameleon now seems on the verge of folding. Its KickStarter campaign missed a February 26 launch “to make it even better,” strongly suggesting that that RetroVGS lacked the working prototype that Kickstarter normally mandates. Their ship took on more water this week when Coleco Holdings itself released a statement demanding “to inspect the prototype units within a seven-day time frame.”

Everything suggests a project stitched together with nostalgia, ambition, and little else. I understand the fondness for older games, and I like the material security that comes from a big plastic game cartridge. Yet I also realize that those days are over, and I already have too many old game consoles and carts clogging up my living space. I didn't want a Chameleon in the first place, and now I'm not sure anyone does.

INTERVIEW: RETURN TO POPOLOCROIS: A STORY OF SEASONS FAIRY TALE'S TOM LIPSCHULTZ

You might have seen PopoloCrois before. Perhaps you imported the original PlayStation RPG in the mid-1990s. Perhaps you played the localized PSP mashup of the first two games in the series. Perhaps you even watched the anime series or read Yohsuke Tamori's manga. Or perhaps you've never touched a single scrap of PopoloCrois.

Yet there's nothing keeping newcomers from Return to PopoloCrois: A Story of Seasons Fairy Tales. It's a crossover between two series; the long-dormant PopoloCrois supplies its hero, Prince Pietro, and his companions for an RPG quest, and the Story of Seasons line (which is what XSEED has to call Harvest Moon these days) gives him plenty to do in the way of gardening, livestock-tending, fishing, and other rural pursuits.

XSEED's pushed Return to PopoloCrois a lot, even going so far as to translate Yohsuke Tamori's manga. We went to Tom Lipschultz, XSEED localization editor and devoted PopoloCrois fan, to learn just why we should show a little more respect for PopoloCrois fairy tales.

Sony's American branch skipped the original PopoloCrois and its sequel on the PlayStation, though they released other first-round RPGs like Wild ARMs and Beyond the Beyond, and we didn't see PopoloCrois in America until the PSP era. Why do you think it went ignored?

The prevailing rumor I always heard is that it had everything to do with Sony wanting to push the 3D capabilities of the PlayStation—and even though neither Wild ARMS nor Beyond the Beyond featured extensive 3D, PopoloCrois Story featured none whatsoever, opting instead for the hand-drawn 2D approach. Add to this the fact that Japanese-style RPGs were still a really niche genre in the West, and would continue to be until Final Fantasy VII landed, and that PopoloCrois Story had a more lighthearted fairytale theme and starred two lovestruck 10-year-olds—in the midst of the '90s 'tude era—and it kind of makes sense that the first game wouldn't have been released in this hemisphere.

The challenge level might've also had something to do with it. Believe it or not, the first PopoloCrois game is probably the single most difficult RPG I've ever played to completion. It doesn't seem like it would be, but it's an absolutely punishing game—the generally accepted best strategy for beating the final boss, for example, is to let two of your four party members die and use their bodies as blockades to trap the boss in a corner so it can't get close enough to the other two to use its practically insta-death area-of-effect attack. Match that with the game's cutesy appearance and young protagonists, and the dichotomy was probably a little too much for marketers in 1996 to handle.

This is all just speculation, though. I have no insider knowledge here, and can't say with any certainty whatsoever what the real reason might've been—though I'd love to know for sure, as it's a question I've always wondered about myself.

I do think the reason its PS1 sequels—PoPoRogue and PopoloCrois Story II—were skipped over, though, is entirely because the first game was never released. Each game more or less tells a self-contained story, but nonetheless, they're technically all part of the same timeline and do make references to prior events. And with JRPGs at the time still only just starting to get the recognition they deserved, I can see not wanting to risk starting players out in the middle of an ongoing saga.

For that matter, why do you think PopoloCrois was so successful in Japan?

Well, that one's easy: because it's damned good!

To be more specific, it's a series with a genuinely unique charm to it. The way I see it, PopoloCrois is one of the most successful coming-of-age stories in video games, placing young, naive, innocent children in situations far beyond anything most normal human beings could handle. But rather than letting those experiences "break" them, as so many other more "edgy" RPG plots do, PopoloCrois gives its characters an almost superhuman level of perseverance. They try as hard as they can to set things right, sometimes making them significantly worse in the process, often at unimaginable costs, but eventually, their persistence pays off, and they succeed brilliantly against all odds.

It's that constant struggle to overcome adversity, and the fact that the characters never lose their optimism or sense of wonder along the way, that defines PopoloCrois for me. It's kind of like the Star Trek of fairytale fantasy: while other fairytales often end with children being eaten or scarred for life (especially when you delve into the original Brothers Grimm stories), PopoloCrois is off showing just how powerful hope and perseverance can be, and how acting with honor and humility can get you through even the darkest of times.

It's very sweet, and charming, and most importantly very genuine. If you read creator Yohsuke Tamori's blog, you'll see that he's got a lot of that classic Gene Roddenberry optimism in him, always zeroing in on the best aspects of humanity and never losing faith in the power of a good heart to win over even the most hardened villains. And because of this, you really find yourself caring for the plights of these lovable characters, and rooting for them, and becoming wholly engaged in their day-to-day struggles. It's the kind of thing that could go completely awry in the wrong hands, but works spectacularly when written by someone with a real, obvious passion for what they do. And Tamori-sensei definitely has that passion.

How would you describe Return to PopoloCrois: A Story of Seasons Fairytale to someone who's played only the PSP game? How has the series improved?

Well, that's the thing: it hasn't. Nor has it faltered. Basically, it's PopoloCrois! If you were won over by the charm of the PSP game, or the anime, or the original manga, or anything else bearing the PopoloCrois name, then chances are, you'll be won over by this too. Return to PopoloCrois doesn't break new ground or do anything you've never seen before in an RPG—rather, it sticks closely to its roots, delivering an experience that feels like it was ripped right out of the late '90s, but in the best possible way. It's kind of like the retro nostalgia you often see in modern indie games, but in this case, brought to you by largely the same people responsible for the very material they're emulating. And they all jumped right back into their roles as if they'd never left.

It's a really rare specimen, in that sense, and I genuinely do think it'll feel like "coming home" for a lot of '90s gamers. It's all the stuff you loved from that era, and that you never really noticed was missing from more modern RPGs, but which you've been desperately, secretly longing for all this time.

How did Return to PopoloCrois: A Story of Seasons Fairytale come about in the first place? How did Marvelous decide to combine Story of Seasons' farming with PopoloCrois?
That's really more of a question for Marvelous Japan, as I'm not entirely sure how the idea came about. It does sound like a really strange concept, and I was even skeptical myself at first, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. After all, like PopoloCrois, Story of Seasons is all about overcoming adversity, and about being humble and kind and becoming part of something bigger than yourself. Philosophically, the two franchises are a perfect fit with one another—and one of the anime adaptations of PopoloCrois, 1998's PopoloCrois Story, even prominently features farming in its plot, showing the king and queen casting away their royal garments and donning simple farm clothes as they lead their people to till a rocky, unwelcoming land, confident that hard work and perseverance can overcome the rough terrain and yield crops enough to sustain the kingdom.

So really, this was a pretty natural fit.

Both Story of Seasons and Rune Factory let players date and marry other characters. Return to PopoloCrois: A Story of Seasons Fairytale doesn't let Pietro romance the divinely empowered maidens of the land, since I assume only a cruel oaf would separate him and Narcia. How does the game's system of relationships compensate for that absence?
By homing in on Prince Pietro's good nature and naivete, I'd say.

He's a naturally selfless protagonist, so when he encounters people who are going through tough times or struggling with something difficult in their lives, his natural inclination will be to lend a friendly ear and help them however he can. He's also very generous, so it makes sense he'd get to know them, learn what sorts of things they like, and make a point of giving those things to them as gifts—not with the intention of getting anything in return, but just to put smiles on their faces, because that's the kind of guy he is.

It only stands to reason that this larger-than-life generosity and kindness would make him an attractive prospect to girls around his age. But since he's only 13, and he's already got a girl he's very much in love with, even if he hasn't exactly told her yet, he's completely oblivious to the fact that these five girls are into him.

They totally are, though, and the more he builds up his relationships with them by listening to their problems and giving them gifts, the more inclined they'll be to do kind things for him as well, even if they know he'll never return their feelings. This ultimately culminates in each of them overcoming their biggest psychological hang-ups and coming to visit Pietro on his farm, unconsciously sharing their divine blessings with him in the process.

And even though they're not destined to "get the guy," their lives are all made a little better for having met him. One can't help but feel at least a little bad for these poor girls with their unrequited crushes, however...

How did you arrive at the tone you use when localizing a game like PopoloCrois? Did you try to evoke the style of an old fairy tale?

Oh, absolutely. The tone of PopoloCrois has always been very whimsical, so writing everything a bit over-the-top is a must. From the White Knight's faux Shakespearean dialect, to GamiGami's Dr. Eggman-esque mad scientist tendencies, to side-characters and NPCs who are just a little too uncomfortably fixated on something or another, the Japanese dialogue, and even system text, for Return to PopoloCrois is full of goofy, fun quirks and asides, and we did our absolute best to create an exact equivalent experience in the English, down to the smallest detail.

And it really wasn't very hard, as the original text was an absolute joy to work with. It's nice to see an RPG in this day and age that knows how to let loose and have fun; how to work a side-story about cows saving the world entirely into item descriptions, or create an out-of-the-way quest in which a robotic town greeter with no emotion needs to be taught the true value of welcoming others.

Sometimes, the lines practically wrote themselves!

How would you respond to reservations that the game is too cutesy? On your localization blog, you mention that the storyline sometimes goes into harsh territory.

Well, it certainly is cutesy! But yes, as I stated above, overcoming adversity and persevering against impossible odds are major themes of the series, so obviously, you're going to need to have some adversity and impossible odds present in the first place in order to pull that off. Which means Prince Pietro and his friends have some pretty intense stuff happen to them, and you even get to see Prince Pietro momentarily lose his cool a few times, becoming confused, depressed, and even desperate. You always wonder if maybe this will be the moment he actually snaps; if this will be the thing that finally "breaks" him. And by all rights, a lot of what happens certainly should!

I can't go into any more detail without spoiling the plot, but suffice it to say, nothing is really off-limits just because this is a fairytale story starring young children.

In other words, no punches are pulled. There will be blood...

...but Pietro will overcome it. Somehow. Like he always does.

You mentioned that XSEED added an option to let players adjust the rate of random battles at any time. Will this also adjust the amount of experience points so the characters level-up consistently?

I think there may have been some minor adjustments made to that end, but it's definitely not an exact equivalency. The same holds true for the added difficulty level: I know for certain the drop rate for rare items is increased if you play on King difficulty, but I don't think the advantage this gives is enough to completely balance out the difficulty spike.

There's no need to let this affect anyone's decision on which options to pick for their gameplay session, however, as Return to PopoloCrois really isn't a particularly difficult game—the added challenge and lack of experience gain from playing on King difficulty with a Low encounter rate will only serve to make the experience a little more dynamic for seasoned RPG veterans. And in the unlikely event that it does get too tough, you can switch among all the difficulties and encounter rates at any time you'd like—there are no restrictions placed on either option whatsoever.

Some players of the Japanese version complained that item-crafting was too complicated. Has XSEED addressed this in the localized version?

This is the first I've heard of that, actually. I'm not sure why people would say it's too complicated, as there's not really anything all that complicated about it: you just pick two or three items, and they fuse together into a new item, with the exact "recipe" for this fusion then being recorded in your Recipe List. You're even told in advance if the fusion will create something useful, or if it'll result in abject failure and just give you a “Junk” or “Sootstone” item. I guess I could see the sheer number of viable combinations possibly being off-putting to some people, but there's not really anything we could do to address that.

Who's your favorite character in PopoloCrois?

Prince Pietro himself, hands down. I know that's a rather boring answer, but Pietro is The Man. I wish I were that level-headed and determined when I was that young! I love his positive attitude, and I love how it doesn't turn him into a pure trope like you might expect—he wears his outlook on life very well, and it just feels very natural coming from him. He's also a natural-born leader, to such an extent that even his own father is willing to look the other way and let him run off and put himself in danger because he realizes there is literally no one better suited to the task. Even the royal guard is like, "Yeah, we could go fight monsters in Galariland, but... we all know Prince Pietro is the most qualified!"

He'd never describe himself as one, but Pietro really is a total badass. Taking his age into account, he may actually be the most badass RPG protagonist I've ever encountered.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

Ori and the Bling Forest did well last year, and deservedly so. It's a cute side-scrolling action game with gorgeous art and a Metroid-style sense of exploration. The Definitive Edition, coming to Xbox One and PC, adds new abilities and a new region that reveals more about Naru, Ori's slothlike stepmom.

Are you compelled to play every slightly unorthodox dating simulator? Well, you might want to watch for Panzermadels on Steam next week. It follows a transfer student at a military academy where all of the girls are personified World War II Tanks, and most of them are into the new arrival. Is it a satire? A mockery? A rip-off of Girls und Panzer? Well, one thing is clear: it's no Hatoful Boyfriend.


Todd Ciolek occasionally updates his website, and you can follow him on Twitter if you want.


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