An afterlife full of adventure
The only thing that I knew about Cladun Returns: This is Sengoku! before going into it (aside from the fact that it was a retro-inspired, hack-and-slash RPG) was that it had was the sequel to a game called Cladun: This is an RPG. In terms of information, that really isn’t anything at all. The funny thing, however, was that that one tiny piece of information helped me see Cladun Returns for what it really was — an RPG for the sake of being an RPG.
That might sound like an insult, but it isn’t. I know that it’s 2017, but a game doesn’t have to have some deeper meaning in order to be enjoyable. And yes, while I very much like my thought-provoking Japanese games like Steins;Gate and Shin Megami Tensei, I’m capable of enjoying a game solely based on mechanics alone. And enjoy this game I did!
Cladun Returns begins with your (mostly naked, for some reason) character waking up in the middle of a strange-looking town. Before you can even begin to collect your bearings, you’re approached by a strange-looking man wearing a top hat and a cape. Introducing himself as Yukimura, the man explains to you that you are, in fact, dead, and are currently residing in Arcanus Cella — a magical land where the souls of the deceased live as they await reincarnation.
Unfortunately, there’s no resting in peace for you. Other souls have been showing up as well (you’re not going to be the only person to die, after all), but in a slightly less complete way. Rather than just showing up without clothing as you did, these newly appearing spirits are showing up without bodies, and without most of their memories. The only way to save them? By traveling across Japan, and slaying the demons that haunted their death.
If it sounds kind of confusing, it isn’t just you. Cladun Returns‘ story is very vague, and I saw it as less of an actual story and more of a way to flesh the game itself out. The story isn’t bad by definition, it’s just very obvious that it isn’t the game’s main focus. And that’s okay. There are plenty of good games out there that don’t focus on plot development. Why am I mentioning this, then? Because it feels kind of weird for an RPG to skimp out on the story. So long as you keep in mind that this isn’t a narrative-centric game however, it isn’t a big deal at all.
The Hero of Your (Pixelated) Dreams
Despite taking place in the Sengoku Era and featuring a cast largely based on actual historical figures, you are still the main character of the story. Well, you and the many other characters that you’ll inevitably end up creating. And naturally, that means that you get to customize yourself! Cladun Returns features plenty of ways to create your character your way, offering 40 different character sprites (with 10 different colors each!) to choose from, a nice selection of classes, and even throws in the ability to pick out your character’s personality.
But wait, there’s more! If what Cladun Returns has to offer isn’t to your liking, you can just go ahead and make sprites yourself. That’s right, you can literally design your own character from scratch. I wish that I had a cool custom character to show off, but I don’t. Alas, I am a writer and not an artist. It’s there though, trust me. Total customization doesn’t stop with characters, either. Cladun Returns also throws in the ability to customize weapon and armor appearances, and even lets you create your own level music! How cool is that! And, to top the role-playing experience off, you can also create relationship trees between all of the characters that you’ve made. They really didn’t leave anything out!
A Hack and Slash Haven
Cladun Returns‘ gameplay is level-based. Rather than roaming around an entire world, you select your destination from a world map. The game’s main campaign is split up into 10 chapters, each containing 5 levels. The goal of each level is always the same; to get to the exit. You generally aren’t just making a beeline for the exit, though. It’s an RPG, remember? You’ve got to do RPG things, like killing monsters! And that’s exactly what you do. Blocking your progress in every level in the game are locked doors. The key to opening those doors? Dead monsters, of course. Okay, sometimes you have to hit switches to open doors, but usually you have to kill monsters. I wish that I had some fancier way of explaining things, but I don’t. The gameplay is literally that straightforward.
One game immediately came to mind when I began exploring Cladun Returns‘ dungeons — Shining Soul. Regardless of why you’re doing it, all you really do in this game is wander around and kill things, while gaining money, items, and EXP which then lets you go kill even more things. It’s simple, yeah, but remember what I said about Cladun Returns basically being an RPG for the sake of being an RPG? That’s exactly what it is. The entire experience is meant to be nothing more than a bit of mindless RPG fun — and I mean that in an endearing way — and it pulls that off very well.
I did have a few issues with the game in certain aspects, though. First, there were the traps. Usually when I think “trap”, I think of a few cleverly-located areas in a level that are designed to slip you up while you’re playing. But that’s not how Cladun Returns sees traps. Every single trap in Cladun Returns is a floor tile that goes off when stepped upon. That wasn’t my problem. No, my problem was with the fact that they were everywhere. Every single level has dozens upon dozens of traps for you to accidentally walk all over. And trust me, you’ll step on them. Like, a lot of them. It eventually got to a point for me where I stopped trying to avoid them and resorted to running blindly through areas, crossing my fingers that I wouldn’t trip something that would kill me.
My second issue was with how cramped the levels were. Given how Cladun Returns is set up, I wasn’t expecting sprawling landscapes to traverse across. You know what else I didn’t expect? Mazes. But lo and behold, mazes were what I got. Near the end of the main campaign, Cladun Returns through that it would be a good idea to turn most of cramped levels into cramped mazes. I actually like mazes, but I don’t know that I want an otherwise non-cerebral RPG to be full of them. What’s worse is that you can get stuck in them if you aren’t being careful. Certain monsters can’t be killed from certain directions, or by certain weapons and, if you’re unlucky enough to get sandwiched between two of these guys, you’ll have to restart the level. Like, come on, that’s seriously not cool.
Cladun Returns managed to redeem itself a bit with its “Ran-geon” feature. In contrast to the constrictive, maze-like setup of many of the campaign’s levels, the Ran-geon is a procedurally generated 99 floor dungeon filled with nothing but treasure, baddies, and wide-open spaces. Also a lot of traps, but you can’t win ’em all I guess. Not only are Ran-geons good for leveling up and finding loot, but it’s where a good amount of the game’s replay value comes from as well. With no floor ever being the same as it was before, and a number of Ran-geon types to explore, this is probably where you’ll be spending a good portion of your time. Post-game, anyway.
My Friends Are my Power
Considering how straightforward gameplay is in Cladun Returns (mazes aside, of course), you’d expect leveling up to be a fairly simple process. Well, it isn’t. Not entirely, anyway. The act and leveling up itself is entirely standard — you kill monsters, gain EXP, and level up. Leveling up nets you what it would in most other RPGS — an increase in stats such as HP, Attack, and so on. Regardless of what level you’re at, however, your character alone will almost never be strong enough to take dungeonss on alone.
Enter Magic Circles. Magic Circles are the game’s way of using nonactive characters (known as “Vassals”) to power your active one (known as a “Lord”) up. To make things easier to understand, you can compare them to a more complex version of Final Fantasy X‘s Sphere Grid system. Each Vassal on your Magic Circle can use their Mana to activate artifacts that you placed. Stronger artifacts require more Mana, so it’s important that you don’t just blindly place artifacts down. Leveling up will give you access to more complex Magic Circles, allowing you to draw more power from your Vassals. Your character class is also linked to Magic Circles, making choosing your class less acquired skills and magic, and more about which Magic Circles you’ll get.
Vassals aren’t just sources of power, they absorb damage from enemies too! But that doesn’t mean that you can take as many hits as you please. Whenever a Vassal gets knocked out, your Lord loses access to all of their artifacts. This means that losing even one Vassal could considerably cut your stats down for the rest of the level. And of course, if you lose a powerful Vassal, it just makes it all the easier for monsters to kill the rest of your Vassals — and then you.
On top of that, Vassals and Lords level differently. HP and Mana are the only things that matter for a Vassal, while Lords rely more on Attack and Defense. You’d think that, because of that, Vassals and Lords get boosts in stats that help them the most. Nope, it’s completely the opposite! Cladun Returns handles character leveling in a way that makes it very difficult to go through the game with a single character. While I guess I can appreciate the fact that it wants you to test out different classes, the way your characters level up feels kind of sneaky.
An RPG for the Sake of Being an RPG
Cladun Returns: This is Sengoku! was an above average game, but not for the reasons that typically make a game land in that category. There was a lot about it that I really enjoyed. The gameplay took a very classic hack and slash approach that you could easily get into, and the amount of customization for a game like this was staggering. The good is counter-balanced by the not-so-good, however. I’m not over the moon about level design later on in the game, and Magic Circles feel like a chore.
Still, I wouldn’t let either of those things stop you from trying this out. So long as you can accept your good with a little bit of less-than-good (I don’t even consider anything to be “bad”), then Cladun Returns: This is Sengoku is a free-spirited (literally!) and fun romp through Japan’s spirit world.
FINAL VERDICT: 3.5/5
Available on: Vita (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, PC ; Publisher: NIS America, Inc. ; Developer: Nippon Ichi Software, Inc. ; Players: 1 – 4 ; Released: June 6, 2017 ; ESRB: T for Teen ; MSRP: $39.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Cladun Returns: This is Sengoku! given to Hey Poor Player by the Publisher