Cladun Returns: This is Sengoku! - Vita Review

Sen-sational!

  • System: Playstation Vita, Playstation 4, PC
  • Publisher: NIS America
  • Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
  • Release Date: June 6th, 2017
  • Pricing:$39.99
  • Rating: E10+
  • Genre: Action, RPG
  • Players: 1-4
  • Official Website: http://nisamerica.com/games/cladun-returns-this-is-sengoku

Who it Caters to

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The Cladun franchise has been making a name for itself over the past few years. While none of the games have been smash hits by any means, they’ve managed to carve out a little niche for themselves as fun bite-sized action RPGs. It got its start during the twilight years of the PSP with Cladun: This is an RPG, but then later got an enhanced port to PC, renamed to Cladun x2, which received rave reviews by fans. Now, the series is finally back with a new entry, moving away from the traditional medieval-themed fantasy and moving to Sengoku-era Japan.

For those unaware, the main appeal of Cladun is that they are heavily retro-themed action-RPGs that can be played in bite-sized chunks. You’ll make a character, enter a small dungeon, and find the exit. A single floor of a dungeon only takes a few minutes. However, each stage has enough diversity in it that it keeps it from being just a simple, mindless time killer. You’ll need to actually engage with the mechanics and plan out your strategies ahead of time if you actually want to make progress. This makes the game perfect for people looking for mobile-esque play sessions but want a game with a bit more meat.

What to Expect

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The heart of the game comes from traversing the floors of its various different dungeons. Most floors have either some light puzzle solving involving activating switches, finding the correct path, or beating certain enemies to open up gates. Action is fairly simple, with a single attack button and a separate button to cast magic. Different weapons have different properties, though, with swords that allow you to chain your attacks into combos, hammers that have a charging property that increases the range of your attack, staves that shoot magic which deals damage based on an enemy’s resistance rather than your attack power, and so forth.

You won’t be able to change your weapons on the fly, though. Instead, everything you go into battle with is determined before you enter a dungeon floor. Everything is handled with the Magic Circle system. In addition to your gear and skills, you’ll actually set party members into spaces that surround the player. They will not participate in combat, but they will take hits for the player on the direction corresponding to where they are placed in the Magic Circle. These positions will also have spaces for the player to equip stat enhancements, which will take up Mana from the character placed there. General rule of thumb is that lower defense characters will have higher Mana, so you’ll need to decide if you want more stat enhancers or raw ability to tank hits.

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In order to ease the player into the game, however, you’ll find a very colorful 16-bit inspired art direction, with heavily pixelated character sprites laid on top of vibrant, less pixel-y backdrops. It’s very purposely reminiscent of classic Squaresoft and Enix which used a very similar contrasting low-quality character/highly detailed backdrop to draw attention to the liveliness of the world itself over drawing attention to the unrealistic looking characters. It’s even more extreme of an effect in Cladun Returns, as it feels like your character sprites are only 8-bit, while your backgrounds are drawn in a more 32-bit style. Regardless, Cladun Returns wants to evoke the atmosphere of the classic JRPGs of old, regardless of which console generation you’re most nostalgic for. It even goes so far as to offer the option to change the music to use 8-bit instrumentation to sell the whole experience.

Cladun Returns: This is Sengoku! – Introduction Trailer:


Story

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Being a sequel to the original Cladun, you’ll encounter a lot of the same terminology from that particular title. You’ll return to Arcanus Cella, the world of the afterlife where lost souls continue to cling to their past regrets and need your help to let go and move on to reincarnation. The difference is, as alluded to earlier, you’ll be dealing with historical figures from the Sengoku era. Helping them out helps you as the player to move on with your regrets so that your character may eventually move on to reincarnate as well.

But honestly, it’s not too important for the overall experience of the game. The story is mostly minimal, with a brief little bit of dialogue between characters after finishing a new floor of a dungeon. The new setting means you won’t have to worry about old characters showing up during the main narrative, meaning that interested newcomers can jump right into Cladun Returns without fear of missing out on something.

Gameplay

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Cladun’s greatest strength is the diversity of its level design. Each floor is generally designed around a simple concept, forcing you to look at the already established mechanics in a new way. One great example of this comes from a bonus level making use of the trap system. The path forward is gated off, and in order to proceed you need to defeat three guards, who will not move from their place and cannot be damaged from the front. It seems impossible to do at first, but in front of each of these enemies is a trap activation tile. Walking over a trap will shoot some form of projectile towards the direction the player is facing so that they’ll hit it if they keep moving in that direction. Levels prior to this want you to avoid traps (barring healing traps), but in order to defeat these guards, you’ll actually need to activate the trap and hit them with the ensuing projectile. You feel clever figuring this out because you actually need to think outside of the box in order to progress.

What’s also nice about varied level design like this is that it allows for some breathing room for the player to experiment with the different types of weapons. Weapons not only have different attack patterns and abilities associated with them, but different properties for how they interact with the level as well. Clubs can break walls, scythes will cut that slows you down, etc. However, in order to reach an exit, the levels are never designed in a way that will force you to use a certain type of weapon. Since it’s an action-based system, it comes down to how you use the weapon and abilities you enter the level with, rather than just coming in with the right build. A better build might make it easier on you, let you beat it faster, or might make it easier to acquire treasure, but you’re rarely going to enter a level and find you can’t beat it with your load out. And even on the rare occasion that you do (because an enemy that’s necessary to beat to progress absorbs attacks from your element or something), levels are so short that it hardly matters. You lose a minute of progress at most.

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However, the speed in which everything moves can also hurt your experience at times. Your character doesn’t have much of a reaction when you’re hit by an attack outside of briefly getting knocked back, nor do you have any invincibility frames afterwards. This means that, if an enemy is in the middle of a multi-stage attack, you may walk right into it and not even realize you’re taking damage right away. This is especially an issue when activating a trap that has a wide area of effect, like spikes or fire pillars, which completely surround the area around the trap and deal major damage when touched (unless you’ve prepped the proper resistances ahead of time). Since traps aren’t even visible until you’re just a few tiles away from them, you’ll be walking along, accidentally step on a spike trap, keep walking into the spikes before it registers in your head what’s happening, and die without realizing it. This can lead to some frustrating deaths that feel unearned due to the near spontaneity of traps combined with efforts the game takes to make sure you’re always moving.

But the biggest issue of Cladun Returns comes from the Magic Circle. It’s an interesting system which allows for the player to come up with some creative builds due to how every class of character gets their own selection of different types of Magic Circles they can set up regarding character placement, bonuses based on the title, and different types of stat-boosting artifacts that can be equipped. The issue comes from the lack of explanation. There’s a brief tutorial when it’s introduced that discusses just how to get a Magic Circle set up, but the more advanced concepts like what all the terminology means can only be found by talking to some characters and asking about each concept individually. There’s probably no clean way to convey this sort of information, but as a result, the Magic Circles tend to be overwhelming and it results in you sticking with a couple of different ones.

Honey's Gameplay Consensus:

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Ultimately, Cladun Returns is a strong choice for players looking for something they can play in short spurts over a long period of time. The retro atmosphere generally comes off as endearing rather than as a cheap nostalgia ploy, and the focused level design will carry your experience. However, you might end up with some frustrating deaths due to the relentless pacing of the game speed. People who might not want to heavily invest their time in figuring out how to min/max their stat distribution may want to think twice about jumping in, but if you can look past that you’ll find a fun Action-RPG worth your while.

Honey's Pros:

  • Segmented level structure combined with short stages makes it perfect as a portable game for those who want to kill some time on the go
  • Rewarding level design that’s not afraid to mix up and experiment with established mechanics
  • Action-based gameplay keeps you from feeling like the game consists of too much trial-and error
  • New setting keeps story from blocking out newcomers who may be worried about jumping into the series

Honey's Cons:

  • Magic Circle, while innovative, might be overwhelming due to lack of satisfying explanations
  • Overly quick pace leads to some unexpected, frustrating deaths

Honey's Final Verdict:

Cladun Returns: This is Sengoku finds a happy balance between a quick pick-up and play style of game and a meatier action-RPG. Its complexity may be off-putting to some, but the game has enough balance between its stat-building and action mechanics that it’s easy enough to get through the main story by just focusing on skillful play. Have any suggestions for newcomers? Please, let us know in the comments below!

Matt Knodle

Writer

Author: Matt Knodle

I come from Indiana, where I grew up near a video rental shop that proudly stated “The widest selection of anime in the state”, setting me on a course to enjoy as much anime as possible. I’ve devoted myself to over-analyzing various sports anime and video games probably more than they were ever intended. I currently co-host a weekly sports anime fan podcast called KoshienCast with my good friend, Matt.

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