As a crossover between Yohsuke Tamori's PopoloCrois (an enduringly popular fantasy manga from 1978) and the evergreen Bokujō Monogatari series (formerly known as Harvest Moon and now Story of Seasons in the West), Return to PopoloCrois: A Story of Seasons Fairytale stands out, even in the 3DS' impressively varied RPG garden. It's a real pleasure to find it popping up among its peers, too; this is a game full of joy, positivity and heart, backed up by a brilliant blend of classic JRPG adventuring and farming fun, and one of our favourite adventures on the system so far.

When the curtain rises in Return to PopoloCrois it's Prince Pietro's 13th birthday, and our young hero is enjoying the festivities. Not all is right beyond the castle walls, however; PopoloCrois has recently seen its soil infested by dark beings known only as 'black beasts', resulting in fallow fields and a shortage of crops throughout the Kingdom. Eager to nip this in the bud, the King has summoned the ambassador Lady Marmela from Galariland — another kingdom suffering from the same black beast problem — to see what can be done. When Lady Marmela reveals that only the purest of heart can hope to combat this earthy evil, Prince Pietro nobly volunteers to travel to Galariland, learn from its example, and bring his newfound knowledge back to PopoloCrois. Unfortunately, things don't go exactly as planned, and Pietro eventually finds himself stuck in Galariland with no way to return. Ever the hero, however, he sets up camp on an abandoned farm and quickly makes friends with the locals, vowing to help them reawaken the Four Farms of Light, defeat the black beasts once and for all, and bring back the blessings of the Goddess Galariel to the land.

Once it gets going, Return to PopoloCrois's story really does feel like a fairytale; it's comfortingly familiar, but well told and beautifully presented. It's also full of interesting characters — Pietro will team up with the odd-couple brothers Nino and Rue, a blue bekerchiefed wolf, and several returning faces from the PopoloCrois manga, including forest witch Narcia, the White Knight, Black Baron and GamiGami, and each of these companions is memorable and lovable in their own way. In fact, the story shines not because of any meta-narrative twists or massive surprises, but because it lets you get to spend time with these characters, and realize just why people love these PopoloCrois personalities.

Though both series get equal billing in the title, in terms of gameplay Return to PopoloCrois: A Story of Seasons Fairytale is definitely a JRPG first and a farming sim second. You'll spend most of your time leading Prince Pietro on his journey across Galariland in classic RPG fashion, traveling between towns, traversing fields filled with random enemy encounters, exploring dungeons, and besting the boss black beasts that guard them. Even while you're adventuring, however, the agricultural themes at the heart of the story remain important throughout; the dungeons you'll clear are actually corrupted plots of farmland, and by shrinking down to the size of ants with the help of some fairy dust, Pietro and co. can defeat the denitrifying demons and return the soil to its former glory.

Thankfully, dispatching these agrarian evildoers is made easy with the turn-based, mildly tactical battle system that's one of Return to PopoloCrois' best assets. When your party gets pulled into a fight, you'll get an overhead view of the action, and on each character's turn, you'll be able to move them freely within a certain radius determined by their speed, before attacking or casting spells. It's position-based, but the fine scale and analogue movement make it feel much freer than similar systems; rather than calling for chess-like tactics, it's more about being able to control your characters in a meaningful way in battle, and making each skirmish feel more interactive.

In addition to approaching enemies and finding your way around obstacles, movement in battle also plays into how you'll use each party member's skills; magic can affect different types of areas, from lines and cones ahead of a character to circles around them, and using a few turns to get into position for a powerful sweep almost always pays off. Depending on who's traveling in your party at any given point, you'll also have access to 'Pair Skills', which combine multiple characters' strengths to launch impressively effective invocations — from attacks and blitzes to buffs and healing spells — all with their own charming animations.

Between these possibilities for pair-ups, direct control of your characters, and the snappy pace of the combat, battles in Return to PopoloCrois hit a fantastic balance; they're involved enough to be engaging — even against low-level garden grunts — but simple and quick enough that they never overstay their welcome. And if you're ever itching to burn through battles without breaking a sweat, a surprisingly effective Auto-Battle mode can be triggered at any time with a tap of the 'Start' button.

Outside of battle, Pietro's travels through Galariland will introduce him to plenty of personable characters as he works to restore the land, but in addition to those you'll meet in the main story you'll also find tons of NPCs eager to send you on side-quests. While these tend towards the fetch-quest end of the spectrum mechanically, the writing and framing make them more interesting than you'd think, and they're definitely worth taking on. StreetPass also offers its own style of side-quests: each time you pass an alternate-reality Pietro, you'll pick up a treasure map that points to items buried somewhere in the world, and if you can manage to find them, they're all yours.

Return to PopoloCrois' RPG framework is rock solid, and happily, when it's finally time for Pietro to put down the sword and pick up the spade the agricultural side is just as engaging. Farming here is a back-to-basics affair compared to more recent Bokujō Monogatari games — more like the original SNES Harvest Moon or Friends of Mineral Town than Story of Seasons or Rune Factory 4 — and gets back to the simple joy that makes virtual agriculture so appealing: instead of rebuilding a village or designing your farm, Pietro's time on the land is all about raising crops and spending time with animals. We got a kick out of Galariland's twists on the standard formula, as well: it feels appropriately funky to plant 'tear-inducing onions' and 'clingy potatoes' instead of garden variety greens, and the familiar animals each have unique names that make them feel at home in the fairytale world — 'sumoo' for milk-givers, 'cuckotti' for egg-layers, and 'pacapacas' for your llama-like furry friends.

On the farm, controls are simple and straightforward: you can use the shoulder buttons to switch between your trusty tools — like a hoe, watering can, or seed bag — and then press 'A' to use whichever implement is equipped. One big difference from a traditional Story of Seasons experience is that there's no day/night cycle and no changing seasons here; rather, your crops grow in real time as you travel across Galariland, and each of the four farms you'll eventually have access to is perennially situated in a particular season. There's also no stamina meter to worry about, so Pietro can safely plant, play with his animals, catch bugs and harvest minerals to his big heart's content.

Both of these constraints might seem like essential parts of the Bokujō formula — they've been there since the very beginning, after all — but while removing them does takes a lot of the challenge out of the farming, that's exactly why it works so well within the context of the rest of the game: you're free to get as into farming as you like, but you can also largely ignore it without any dire consequences. It makes for a fun, no-stress farming set-up, and that also goes a long way towards making what would otherwise be a fairly linear main quest feel completely open-ended; whenever you want a break from saving Galariland by the sword, you can always pick up the watering can instead.

All this agriculture is well and good, but as any Bokujō Monogatari or Rune Factory enthusiast will tell you, farming turnips often takes a backseat to romancing the locals, and Return to PopoloCrois is no exception. There are definitely dating-sim elements here, but they're handled quite differently than in Story of Seasons. See, Prince Pietro's had a canon crush in Narcia since the beginning of PopoloCrois, and as you'll find out very quickly, he's definitely not the type to run around behind anyone's back. So instead of forming romantic relationships with the gals of Galariland, you'll instead be leveling up your platonic friendship with five special maidens blessed by the goddess Galariel, through the genre's staple combo of sparkling conversation and generous gift-giving. It's a thoughtful, on-message implementation of a perennially fun mechanic, and fits in perfectly with the game's themes of kindness and generosity — as you develop your friendships with these lucky ladies, you'll receive blessings from Galariel that will help improve specific farming skills.

This synergy isn't limited to social links, either; Return to PopoloCrois does an exceptional job integrating all of its Story of Seasons elements into the wider JRPG frame. Most notably, as you're adventuring, a pop-up live feed on the top screen will keep you updated on events on your farms and which of Pietro's new friends might be thinking of him at the time. It also makes sure farming stays relevant to your main quest throughout, as aside from the thematic connection — bountiful harvests will help Galariland's citizens survive — both sides of the game mechanically reinforce each other. You'll often receive new seeds as rewards in battle, for instance, and in one of our favourite examples, the fur produced by your Pacapacas doubles as escape ropes to warp you out of dungeons instantly. Little links like these really make Return to PopoloCrois feel like a cohesive experience; rather than an RPG with a farming mini-game, it plays like an RPG about farming.

In fact, just about the only thing that doesn't entirely mesh is the controls. Pietro's movement outside of battle is locked into an eight-way grid, but it doesn't always match up with either the overworld design or the farming plots. There's also a second of 'give' between when he starts to walk and when he gets up to running speed, which makes moving between plant plots with precision a bit cumbersome. The fact that the view swings seamlessly to a head-on perspective when you approach farmland does help, and using the D-Pad when planting or watering can make a difference, but truly analogue movement would have been very welcome.

Aside from these control quirks, however, Return to PopoloCrois is hugely user-friendly, and feels perfectly at home on its portable hardware. While it uses a save-point system at inns and farms, for instance, you can also make a quick-save state to come back to anywhere outside of battle. And in an excellent nod to its portable nature that we wish more games would integrate, a spoiler-free 'Hint' button can tell you where you were supposed to be going with a simple tap of the touchscreen — perfect for jumping back in after a long break from playing.

You'll also unlock fast-travel via Fairy Dust quite early on, which is especially appreciated here. Fairy Dust lets you zap to any previously-visited location instantly — as long as you're not in the middle of a dungeon — which makes it easy to take a quick break from adventuring to water or harvest some crops before jumping back into the thick of it. That's a nice mechanical balance, but it's also a great thematic one; we loved being able to pop out of danger at any time and recharge with some pastoral pursuits.

Finally, taking a page from Bravely Default, Return to PopoloCrois lets you adjust the enemy encounter rate to high, medium or low frequency, and switch between three difficulty levels — Seedling, Prince, and King — whenever you like. It's worth noting that even on King difficulty this is a very easy game, so if you're familiar with RPGs at all, we definitely recommend dialing the difficulty up and the random encounters down. On the flip side, the Seedling difficulty really does make this an accessible RPG experience even for total newbies, which is fantastic — the charm levels here are off the charts, so we love that anyone drawn in by the aesthetic (or the farming!) will be able to see Pietro's adventure through to the end with no stress.

All these features make Return to PopoloCrois a blast to play, but one of our favourite reasons to keep coming back to Pietro's world is how appealingly it's presented. The graphics recall the same golden-era 32bit JRPGs as the gameplay, but in a beautifully-rendered, modern style with a sunny colour palette and softly-drawn look reminiscent of Ni No Kuni, Fantasy Life, or Dragon Quest IX. There's even an option to add in cel-shading, which changes the style quite a bit — we switched back and forth throughout our playthrough, and found it thoroughly charming either way. There's also an impressive amount of detail, with distinct animations for critical hits, elaborately choreographed (but skippable!) pair skills in battle, and our favourite touch: tiny Pietro's legs moving noticeably faster to keep up with his taller companions while running.

On the audio side, the soundtrack in Return to PopoloCrois is the work of longtime PopoloCrois composer Yoshiyuki Sahashi, and his sonic footprint shows; the music is fantastic, and gloriously different from typical RPG soundtracks. It's a mix of two broad styles: on the one hand, there's field and town music that takes a trip to the British Isles, with gentle, Celtic-tinged melodies on autoharp, mandolin, and finger-picked guitar lilting over sparse, asymmetric percussion; on the other, battle and dungeon music that pulls together funky, electronic synth riffs in a style reminiscent of Phantasy Star Online or The Denpa Men. It sounds like an odd amalgamation, but it works wonderfully in context and — along with some appropriately pastoral, wistfully twangy guitar tunes for your farm — gives Return to PopoloCrois a unique audio identity, and one of our favourite RPG scores of recent memory.

In addition to the stellar soundtrack, Return to PopoloCrois boasts a uniquely full-featured set of audio options, with three different voice-over tracks: one in English and two in Japanese. The two Japanese tracks differ in the actors used for Pietro and Narcia: the first uses their classic voice actors for a 90's anime feel, while the second offers a more modern, moé take on the characters. You can switch between all three tracks at any time, and we love having the choice — the English track is well done, but it was great to get to hear Pietro and Narcia as Japanese audiences have for decades as well.

Our only disappointment with the audio is that lines of dialogue seem to jump around between being either unvoiced, fully voiced, or accompanied by shorter Fire Emblem-style voxpop clips at random, sometimes in the middle of a multi-line thought. It's distracting at first, though we got used to it as we played, and the voice actors do a good job of reacting convincingly to both spoken and unspoken lines. We also loved how NPCs will sometimes call out to Pietro as he passes, even before you approach, which makes the soundscape feel surprisingly alive.

The voice acting adds a ton of charm to PopoloCrois' world, but that's thanks in equal part to the excellent script. XSEED's typically top-notch localization really shines here, with characterful writing and an impressive amount of personality crammed into each dialogue box. NPCs have plenty of fun things to say, and even the smallest advance in the story will give them new events to talk about — and thanks to the fact that the dialogue is snappily succinct, seeking them out feels like a pleasure rather than a chore. Best of all, Return to PopoloCrois sidesteps the classic JRPG trap of needless exposition from the heroes: for the most part, as soon as you realize something, your party does too, and that makes cutscenes significantly more enjoyable.

Return to PopoloCrois' writing and presentation are especially important because, while the RPG mechanics are sound and the farming is great fun, its wonderfully warm, kind-hearted atmosphere is far and away the game's best feature. Prince Pietro's journey is filled with wide-eyed wonder, takes place on a refreshingly child-like scale, and from beginning to end never stops trying to make you smile. It's easygoing and gentle, in every sense of the word; this isn't white-knuckle gaming or deep, skill-testing strategy — rather, it's the kind of game you play kicked back on the couch, sitting up in bed before dozing off, or parked under a tree outside, and we love it for that.

Conclusion

Return to PopoloCrois: A Story of Seasons Fairytale tells a beautiful tale, but its magic isn't in the plot points, and won't come through in a simple summary of events. Instead, it's in the little details, the kindness of the characters, the gentle music, the journey. Like a storybook that just so happens to come on a 3DS cartridge, Return to PopoloCrois is sweet, heartwarming, and absolutely worth diving into. If you have a soft spot for golden-era JRPGs — or just classically charming games in general — we can't recommend it enough.