Cladun Returns: This is Sengoku! marks the revival of NIS's handheld RPG franchise, and also marks the first time the series has come to home consoles. Previous entries Cladun: This is an RPG and Cladun X2 were originally released on the Playstation Portable, and offered players cute faux-pixel graphics and bite-sized dungeon hacking quests that were perfect for gaming on the go.
The story of past Cladun (Cla-ssic Dun-geon) games has been lightweight, and Cladun Returns only ups this slightly by placing it in the "Sengoku" era of Japanese history. The story revolves around the player's characters being stuck in the magical purgatory-like land of Arcanus Cella, where souls go when they have unfinished business and cannot be reincarnated. This sounds like it could make for heavy stuff, but is anything but–Arcanus Cella is adorably cute, with rounded cartoon-ish buildings, and a ton of talking owls that come in all shapes and sizes. The fun design is matched by the funny writing, which throws 4th-wall-breaking jokes and double-entendres at you as fast as you can click the "X" button.
Your first character (which you create) is freshly dead, and amnesiac. What's worse, no one is being reincarnated due to a mysterious force preventing anyone from passing "into the light." Your mission? Help newly arrived souls recover stolen memories from vicious monsters, and find out what's keeping people from moving back into the world of the living.
Luckily, you won't be doing it alone. Saved souls (many of whom are famous figures from the Sengoku era) join your cause, and fans of Koei's long-running Nobunaga's Ambition series will find many familiar names, and may even get some extra satisfaction from battling through game-ified mini-versions of real world historical locales.
Good lord, there's a lot of content here. Cladun Returns is all about giving you stuff to do, and it does not fail. What begins as a game of mini-dungeons that you hack-and-slash your way through with a single attack button, spell button, jump button, and run button, becomes an equipment-laden dungeon crawler with mechanics that allow for gazillions of combinations of weapons, "vassals" (servants), armor, skills/spells, and additional ways to boost your character stats.
The main mechanic at play in Cladun Returns (and former Cladun games) is the "Magic Circle" system. These circles are actually templates that look sort of like a game board. At the center is your "Lord," which is the character you are currently controlling. Situated around the Lord are several slots where you can place your vassals, a.k.a., other characters you've either built or recruited. Around each Vassal is a selection of squares that either have effects on the vassal (such as -20% HP,) or are blank; the blank slots are where you can place artifacts, which grant your Lord buffs like attack or defense bonuses. In addition, damage taken affects your vassals first, so they are basically invisible meat shields that allow you to take more punishment.
Each character has a class, such as Assassin, Swordsman, Vile Priest, etc., and they have special skills and their own magic circles to unlock as they level up through use (either by being your active Lord or a vassal). You can't swap equipment or Magic Circle setups or equipment while in a dungeon, so planning your loadout is critical.
Dungeons are accessible from your hub town, which is Arcanus Cella, and more areas of the small town are unlocked as you play. The numerous NPC's around have either helpful tips, humorous dialogues, or serve as access points to various tool sets. Such tool sets include the Art Owl, where you can draw new character heads in pixels from all angles, and apply them to your characters, and various music owls, which allow you to create new music tracks by placing MML's, or "Mini-Music Language," pieces in different orders. There's even a relationship owl that lets you configure your characters into various relationships–this literally has no effect on gameplay, but might cause you to feel more "attached" to your characters.
Equipment items can also be tinkered with. Each weapon has a handful of "Title" slots where you can pay the blacksmith to imbue the item with a Title, such as "Courier," which increases character movement speed. There are numerous Titles with varying buffs to Lords and vassals, and they can be overwritten if desired. Like the Magic Circle setups, tweaking Titles can radically affect gameplay. One of the Titles you can apply is "Edit," which allows you to draw and recolor the item to your liking.
Each new dungeon you receive access to has a set of pre-designed levels, and a set of "EX" levels that are more difficult, and have a higher chance for dropping better loot and giving more EXP. In addition, there are three sets of Ran-geons (Random Dungeons) that are 99 levels and procedural generated.
What does all this mean? That Cladun Returns: This is Sengoku! can keep you occupied for a stupid long time. While initially seeming simple, even an hour or so of game time reveals that you'll be unlocking new aspects and mechanics well into the core of the game. You can complete half of the story dungeons in the game, and still have new mechanics to discover and master. As an example, you'll eventually unlock the Fortify mechanic, which allows you to use looted stones to build up plans for a fortress, which invisibly buffs your character in a fashion similar to the Magic Circle system. All of these mechanics stack, so you'll be able to tweak innumerable aspects of your characters to best outfit your preferred play style.
While the game is solidly fun, there are a few minor gripes. First, the small size of the dungeons still feels most at home on a handheld console; the idea of an openworld, old-school Zelda-esque Cladun sounds so good, that I hope we'll one day see it. That said, particularly on the PS4, the load times are so swift that you can play dungeon after dungeon without feeling hindered too much by their small size.
The controls are good, but the default L-Stick to move method is a little sticky occasionally, causing you to occasionally attack in the wrong direction. This is born from the fact that the game allows for free movement, but only 4-directional attacks (in other words, it is not grid-based like a traditional rogue variant.) You can, however, set movement to the D-Pad in the options menu (which is fairly extensive), granting more precise control. I'd have loved the option to turn both L-Stick and D-Pad movement on at the same time, however, as the stick is more comfortable, and the D-Pad more precise, but that option is absent.
Control of the weapons is quite good, and each weapon has delays and intricacies that require players to learn their behaviors in order to handle them effectively. Sickles, for example, are cast far out, and skip over the area directly in front of the player, until they automatically reel back. Likewise, if the sickle strikes a target directly, it hits twice (once upon the initial strike, and again as it's automatically drug back.) Every weapon type is so different, in fact, that tactics will always need to be adjusted based on what's equipped.
While we didn't have an opportunity to try out the multiplayer prior to launch, the co-op mode promises to be a great time. Dungeon hacking is fun in the single player, and doing so in the madness of a bunch of little warriors swinging funky-looking weapons should be a grand old time.
There's also a PvP mode, where players will compete for points, and a photo mechanic that allows you to save the player-created sprites from your game, and allow others to import them into their own.
graphics and sound
The first interaction with the game is to choose whether you want modern or retro styled background music. Both are exceptional, and getting the special edition packaged game (available for PS4 from NIS) is worth it for the soundtrack alone. We went with the modern version, but swapped to the chiptune later on to ride the nostalgia train to victory.
As for the graphics, Cladun Returns kept the charmingly boxy characters designed to appear like sprites, while upping the world backgrounds to a 32-bit sprite style (think attractive PSX-era RPG goodness.) The character art editor is simple and effective, and the varying owl designs are particularly adorable additions to the game world.
The only small irritation in the visual department is the pop-up notifications when a gate is destroyed (i.e., when a doorway elsewhere on the dungeon map is opened); these cover the center of the screen, but do not stop the action. This didn't cause us to die at any point, but it seems to have the potential to do so.
It comes down to this: Cladun Returns: This is Sengoku! is a treasure trove of time-killing pleasures, the kind of game where boredom has to be sought to be found. Between dungeon crawling, loadout tweaking, magic circle and fortress-fortifying, drawing, and composing, there're just too many play options to detail. The dungeons look good, play great, and will have you coming back for more.
Get Cladun, love Cladun, live Cladun Returns!
|+ Charming retro-themed graphics||– Some overlapping graphics|
|+ TONS to do||– Still designed for a handheld|
|+ Funny quips abound||– Joystick controls not as precise as D-Pad option|
|+ Massive amounts of loot|
|+ Great for short gaming sessions|