In the hubbub of games for major consoles, games on portable hardware still tend to be overlooked (with the exception of the occasional Legend of Zelda or new hardware releases). Which is a shame, since that means plenty of cool niche titles are likely to be overlooked. And this is exceptionally true on the PS Vita which, surprisingly, has not yet been discontinued or forgotten about (by developers, anyway).
Enter a truly underappreciated PSP series getting a new release. Cladun Returns: This Is Sengoku! is a action/RPG dungeon crawler with a focus on the Sengoku era of Japan, reimagined with yokai (spirits), magic, and a layer of pixilation reminiscent of 8-bit computers and consoles. A player takes charge of their custom character in the town of Arcanus Cella, the midway point between this life and the afterlife, where Lords who aren’t reincarnated for one reason or another are left to either simply exist or solve their unfinished business. Most of the Lords have no idea what sent them to Arcanus Cella, only that they’re not where they’re supposed to be; luckily, whoever the hell YOU are is able to dive into dungeons of their past and help them remember.
Gameplay consists of two major factors: the dungeons themselves, and the work setting up for those dungeons. Actually exploring is straightforward: it’s just a matter of finding the exit (or a gate or the exit, if playing through randomized dungeons). Running around with weapon and gear, fighting enemies and trying to avoid dangerous traps that appear on the floor. It’s the classic formula used in any top-down action/RPG. Attacking from behind will do the most damage to enemies vulnerable to physical attacks – and those that can only be hit from behind their shield that way – and once defeated, loot will be left scattering in their wake. Grab the loot before it disappears, and you’re good. Simple, but effective and satisfying, especially with the variety of weapons, and even allowing for extra exploration when things like hammers can break some barriers to other areas.
But it’s the building of a team that’s the interesting bit. And I say “team” even though only a single player can be in use at a time, because each primary character can use a unique “Magic Circle”, which allows for additional help in battle. Instead of going in with only one character’s strengths and weaknesses, the Magic Circle system allows for many different variations of power-ups to be assigned (like boosts in defence and attack), or experience accumulation, or even just other warm bodies to take some of the dealt damage for the primary character. Add to that variations in weapons (like swords, magic staffs, bows and arrows, and the aforementioned hammers), shields, armor, and a flood of Magic Circles to be unlocked for each character, and a player can find multiple teams to swap around for different dungeon scenarios at will.
There’s variety in the dungeons to explore, different elements and landscapes, each with a unique set of enemies. At least, they’re unique aside from the multiple palette swaps that fill many stages. It’s an old-school trope, sure, but it can feel a bit old knowing that many of the same enemies will fill a dungeon in a rainbow of colors, each relating either to relative difficulty to one another or to elemental differences. There’s still many different enemies, but the same models are used time and time again. But thankfully, the available quests – which feel a bit tacked on to extend play and offer only minor extra rewards – can add extra enemies and difficulty to previously-dominated dungeons.
And these dungeons, without level-up grinding and searching for powerful loot, can grow unwieldy and difficult right quick. Sure, it may be that a certain set-up will put you at a disadvantage – why would I bring a wooden shield to a lava-hosting stage – but only the first dungeon will hold your hand. After that, it’s the bully shoving into the deep end of the swimming pool. For those who like a challenge this can be a fun one, but as much as I might appreciate a good swim, that brings this away from the casual audience. Which is a shame, since there’s plenty of charm in the characters to appreciate when not reaching out for that life preserver that simply won’t be there.
Cladun is a unique series in that you, should you take the time and effort, can actually design your own character from scratch. There is a pixel editor that allows for totally-unique characters that started with the inaugural title, and in the part NISA has even shown off some of their favorite unique creations, like a walkthrough for designing a Prinny, or Laharl and Etna from Disgaea titles. You can’t make everything from an empty screen, but you can make whomever you want to play as. And you can, of course, change the colors of previously-created characters too.
The main story can take plenty of time – I don’t know quite how much, but it did take over ten hours to push through six sets of dungeon stages – but there’s plenty of distraction from two sets of random dungeons (or “Ran-geons”), the Neo-geon and the Tri-geon. They work similarly, but each with a different main end goal: the Neo-geon is to reach level 99, the Tri-geon to reach level 99 through one of the different types of available gates. These can be Heaven Gates, or easier stages with larger loot drops, or Hell Gates with strong enemies and fewer helps. There are even Chaos gates that look like mouths with demon eyes which… well, they’ll kick your ass. Hard. With a pokey steel-toed boot with a spike on the tip. Sure the loot is pretty amazing, but you’ll lose it quick when some enemy is doing 9999.99 damage (when the strongest from the last level was doing closer to 25).
But hey, I’m a nostalgia-driven loon, so this is the sort of thing in my wheelhouse. The variety of gear is appreciated, and the Magic Circle capabilities are a nice and unique touch with this series, though with both I would like more customization – if I can make a character, surely I can build myself a Magic Circle to wrap around my heroes. But personal nagging aside, this is my third time playing a Cladun title, and they just haven’t gotten old yet.
Copy provided by publisher. Available on PS Vita.