Cladun Returns: This is Sengoku! PS4 Review
It has been over five years since I last heard of the series Cladun, which was when I covered the PC release of ClaDun X2 back in 2012. The series originally started life in 2010 on the PSP with the release of Cladun: This is an RPG, but has been on a break ever since the sequel arrived – for people who have never heard of Cladun, it’s title is an abbreviation from the Japanese name of the series, Classic Dungeon. Fast forward to 2017, where it seems that Nippon Ichi Software was ready to release Cladun into the world again, with the appropriately titled Cladun Returns: This is Sengoku! It’s been out for a while, but I finally got round to playing the game after the mad rush of game releases that propelled 2017 to one of the best years in gaming, but enough about that, I’ve got to tell you how I found Cladun‘s arrival onto the current generation and its first time on a home console – hint, it’s very similar to before, but now with a Sengoku theme.
This ancient Japanese theme is also the base for what you could call for a story. These games have never spent much time trying to come up with something worthwhile in terms of plot, as the game is focused solely on gameplay. Taking control of a created hero, the player finds themselves in a secret place known as Arcanus Cella, where lost spirits of the dead seem to appear and cannot move onto the afterlife. This is where you come in, as requested by Yukimura, the first person who comes into contact with the player in this special town, you are requested to help the lost souls move on by doing their quests, while also trying to figure out why they aren’t simply moving up to the afterlife on their own.
The story is mostly throwaway, with some entertaining parts at the back end of the game. Also, if you are expecting deep characters from some of the real life historic figures featured here, then you will be disappointed. There are no epic lines of thought-provoking dialogue, as these characters are like any generic non-player character and drop a few lines here and there, even when some can be added to the party after finding them in special dungeons.
There is a big emphasis on dungeon crawling, as that is the core gameplay loop of Cladun Returns. Every request and side quest requires going into a dungeon. The dungeons in the earlier chapters of the story are very easy to navigate, letting the player get accustom to how the game plays with its top-down view, which makes combat very similar to the old 2D The Legend of Zelda titles. The hero can block, attack, jump, use one of the assigned skills (these have to switched on the fly with the D-pad, as the hero can only have one special assigned to the skill button), and sprint, although the latter causes the hero to have their defence reduced by half, bringing caution into the mix when trying to sprint through areas of the dungeons.
Combat itself is basic, and with such limited moves, it’s straight up all about being able to hack-and-slash your way to the end with one of eight weapon types – swords, bows, shuriken, hammers, staves, spears, daggers, and sickles – as fast as possible. There is a speed running element to Cladun Returns, which will often require players to replay the dungeon to beat the par time. To give you an idea on how small these dungeons can be, some of the earlier par times are 40 – 60 seconds, which often required me to use my first entry into the stage as a way to scope out its layout and where key enemies sit, then use my replay of the dungeon to sprint through, kill the relevant enemies and find the exit.
Staying alive soon becomes challenging, as enemies become tougher and more awkward to battle, while many debuffs and traps are added into the later dungeons. Loot drops often from enemies or in chests, which can help, but the biggest tip is down to the preparation with the mechanic known as the Magic Circle – it’s important, as magic circles bring buffs and extra defences that keep the hero alive. Magic circles work by giving a template with slots where the hero and other sub characters can be placed. When sub characters occupy that grid specific buffs or debuffs that are directly joint to that grid will activate. Small boxes that can fit specific loot items are also linked to these grids, acting as a way to equip gear for extra defence, attack or skill points.
The magic circle system forces players to make use of the character creator and create some extra heroes in different class types. These sub characters will, as the game calls them, become meat shields for your hero, an awful role for someone who has just freshly come into the world, but much needed in staying alive for the late and post game content, which there is plenty of (random dungeons, giant multifloor dungeons, etc.) after beating the 10 chapters of the story. The position of these meat shields on the magic circle act as what angle they defend at. If you have one behind you, they will take all back attack damage until they die, then any more back damage will directly be taken off the hero’s health, whilst also losing any buffs that were linked to that character on the magic circle.
In fact, it’s not just characters that can be created in Cladun Returns, as customisation is a massive feature once again. Players can make brand-new skins and weapons, and even new music for the soundtrack, something that I still can’t seem to understand properly, but then, I was never good at creating original music. Interestingly, you cannot create your own dungeons (a feature that could make its way in for the next game), but as mentioned, randomly generated ones are in the post game content to make up for that.
Dungeon designs are flat, keeping with that top-down 16-bit design, but can become complicated when it begins to throw in teleports or tough enemies guarding narrow corridors that it feels nearly impossible to get through without taking a hit. This game design cannot avoid trial and error elements, as there can be times where you feel confused where to go, with no clues that will show you the way. Also, grinding will happen, as at multiple times it felt like the only way forward for me, as difficulty spikes come in full force, with the first happening for the boss of chapter 2 – the hydra takes some figuring out how to beat. This is clearly not a game for people who cannot grasp learning multiple systems that are hands off from the physical combat, nor for people who hate replaying levels – this is down to the core design of Cladun Returns’ gameplay loop, and even I find that grinding the same stuff for too long simply isn’t fun.
Visually, this isn’t much of a step up from playing Cladun X2 on PC. This new game is still set on capturing the retro feel, from presentation to sound, everything across the board is packed with that old school vibe. Playing on a big TV can take a few minutes to get used to the massive pixels, but it has a charming look that does not distract at all from the game. The issue with this retro approach is this also works its way into the user interface, with primitive menus that require too much jumping in and out of to do simple things like changing gear.
When it comes down to it, Cladun Returns: This is Sengoku! makes for a fun title to play in small bursts before its frustrating nature begins to creep in, which is something inherited from its portable beginnings. Everything about the game is based on quick gameplay moments – short dungeons, fast combat – but has enough content here to keep players invested past the initial 20 hour’s of the story.
I feel that Cladun Returns: This is Sengoku!’s repetitive issues will cause some people not to find any appeal in the game – you cannot get around the point that this game is driven by some grind and trial and error elements. If that gameplay loop doesn’t fit for certain people, then those will not have fun. For others, Cladun Returns: This is Sengoku! can offer a amusing challenge that scratches an addictive itch, but those will need to stomach some of its frustrations to find what makes it a good game and reap the rewarding gameplay after taking a few missteps inside its challenging dungeons.