If you were a PSP owner in 2010, there’s a chance you might remember Nippon Ichi Software’s Cladun: This is an RPG. Although screenshots might have conveyed the sentiment that the game was little more than a modest Rogue-like, those who purchased the title discovered an experience that was a wonderfully rich and robust departure from genre. Cladun turned out to be a game of nearly indescribable intricacy, and the deeper you plumbed, the more mechanics you’d discover. Sure, there are a number of games which extend a character creation suite. But how many allow you to change the look of the final boss?
Delve into the recently released sequel and you’ll take another entrancing trip down a Rogue-ish rabbit hole. But instead of arriving in Wonderland, your journey starts in Arcanus Cella, a Yomi-like realm for those who died and continue to carry the burden of regret, making them an ill fit for reincarnation. While you’re interned there, a friendly Lord named Yakimura suggests that you assist any troubled souls trapped within the adjacent dungeons, forming the impetus for Cladun’s trek. Pleasingly, the exposition is succinct, shirking the verbose conversations that might turn off players anticipating action.
Promptly, players are goaded into Cladun Returns’ first environment, which provides an accessible subset of the game’s ever-growing collection of mechanics. Like subsequent dungeons, there are a variety of different monsters, each displaying a variety of behaviors. While some lay dormant until you strike, others roam around. Each attacks differently, and much of the enjoyment stems from studying the patterns of each creature, discovering their weakness, and occasionally learning when to keep your distance.
Scattered around each dungeon are a pleasing variety of health-replenishing tiles as well as traps, which are undetectable until you draw close to them. Like any respectable Rogue-like, triggering the ensnarements can be serendipitously beneficial, with arrows aimed at players piercing any foes who unlucky enough wander in the way. Beyond a variety of upgradeable, recovered or purchased weapons, gamers can use their shield to minimize the impact of incoming strikes. Running is also an option, especially when gathering the currency that scatters from defeated enemies. But intermittently, sprinting descends into chaos, and trying to elude an adversary can produce a moment not unlike the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where you’re high-tailing it across a procession of triggered traps.
Soon enough, you’ll realize that individually you might not have the capacity to conquer dungeons. By venturing into an owl colony, you can create fellow adventurers that will join you in exploration. Smartly, Cladun Returns doesn’t require players to move any entire party through each environment. Instead, you’re granted access to over 200 Magic Circles, blueprints where players position party members and artifacts that can unlock perks like hit point and defensive boosts. With different designs and the occasional de-buff, you’ll have to be very strategic about placement in order to maximize efficiency of each Circle.
And yes- there is a bit of repetition. In order to augment your team you’ll want to swap out secondaries and level grind any newly created characters. But given Cladun Returns’ action-based approach to dungeons and the ability to surmount many stages in less than five minutes, this isn’t too much or a burden. What might be a minor disappointment to some is the squandering on context. Sure, Cladun Returns visuals reflect Japan’s Warring States era with period-authentic storefronts, castles, and interiors lined with tatami mats and characters names that reference real historical figures. But the otherworld settings convey little of the political intrigue and social upheaval that the age is known for, and NPCs only offer a line or two of dialog, making the allusion seem frivolous. Perhaps NIS America should have subtitled the game “This is Sengoku-lite!”, as the actual exclamation might set hopes too high.
Some might bemoan the use of retro-inspired, pixelated graphics in Cladun Returns. But the title is clearly signaling an era in gaming when gameplay was at the forefront, and narrative was noncompulsory. Given some of the difficulty found across the pre-made and two types of procedurally generated dungeons, it’s easy to become absorbed by Cladun, hyperaware of every action and encounter. The other upside of the aesthetic is that Cladun Returns retains the pixel editing capability of its predecessor, creating your own characters and weapons. Mercifully, the artistically challenged aren’t at a loss. The game allows you to download the works of others via PlayStation Network, even allowing creators to post their efforts on Twitter. Those with an ear for melody can also craft with Cladun Return’s Musical Macro Language (MML) component, composing five-part adventuring arias.
Much of Cladun Returns’ enjoyment stems from discovering the multitude of mechanics that the game gradually reveals. Just one example is the multifaceted weapon system, where you’ll continually discover new nuances and be goaded into trying different arms. Sure, the title regularly relies on the obvious, with giant hammers able to crumple suspicious-looking obstructions. But those moments where you feel like you are exploiting the game, using certain weapon to attack foes through walls feel especially gratifying. Of course, that’s an example of one minutiae found in the mechanics, there’s are plenty more in the classes, jobs, advanced jobs systems. Admittedly, I barely ventured into the title’s multiplayer component, where both versus and cooperative components are found as well as clear-time leaderboards.
Like it’s 2010 ancestor, Cladun Returns: This is Sengoku! shrouds a substantial amount of depth. While screenshots might make the title look like another pixelated, Rogue-like, developer Nippon Ichi has layered in a multitude of systems and mechanics, recalling the sophistication of the Disgaea franchise. Given the game’s diminutive footprint, there’s no good reason why Cladun Returns shouldn’t earn a permanent spot on your Vita’s memory card or PlayStation 4’s hard drive.
Cladun Returns: This is Sengoku! was played on the PS Vita
and PlayStation 4 with review code provided by the publisher.
Platform: PlayStation 4, PS Vita, and PC
Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
Publisher: NIS America
Release date: May 30th, 2017 (Vita, PS4), June 6th (PC)
Launch Price: $39.99 via retail or PSN (Vita or PS4), $TBA via Steam (PC)