Developer by Nippon Ichi Software Publisher by NIS America Reviewed on PlayStation 4 (also available on Vita)
Cladun Returns: This is Sengoku! is the latest entry in the retro-inspired dungeon crawling Cladun series. Its subtitle refers to how the visual and thematic motifs reflect Japan’s Sengoku era. The game involves traversing hazardous environments, defeating a variety of eccentric enemies, and gaining new items to become more powerful. With an emphasis on character customization, simple action, and endless replayability, This is Sengoku! provides an amusing quirky take on dungeon crawling.
The game frames the action with a straightforward simple setting. The player immediately awakens in the otherworldly realm known as Arcanus Cella, which contains a tranquil village full of helpful villagers and even talking animals. Tasked with helping souls resolve earthly burdens and move onto their next lives, the player ventures to dungeons based on actual Japanese areas. These dungeons are full of mythological creatures and daunting passageways. Over time, the player gains the strength to combat greater threats and traverse increasingly dangerous dungeons.
This is Sengoku! presents short missions, accessible action, and a constant sense of danger. The main story mode consists of completing a series of missions in order to help wayward souls. Each mission’s objective is to simply reach a goal point. To do so, the player must defeat enemies to open doors, flip switches to open other doors, and dodge traps. The player can freely attack, run, jump, defend, and use skills in order to overcome obstacles. However, dungeons are filled with floor traps, which necessitate a bit of caution. In most cases the obstacle placement provides a fair challenge, and sometimes players must weave between traps and enemy attacks in order to survive. Some stage hazards such as teleport mazes and spikes are lifted straight out of classic role-playing game tropes, but they feel appropriate and frequently evoke mystery and danger.
One of the game’s biggest draws is its extensive customization, and it provides plenty of opportunities to create unique characters with different appearances and playstyles. Characters represent one of seven jobs including samurai, saints, and even merchants. Each job specializes in different weapons and has varying degrees of stat growth. The game also provides plenty of visual customization options. Picking natural short hair or zany vibrant hair is quick and easy. If players so choose, they can even create their own character sprites via the built in pixel editor. This editor’s functionality is basic and straightforward, and players can easily switch between different character poses.
Another distinctive feature is the Magic Circle system. A Magic Circle is a formation that provides bonuses while exploring. The player controls one character throughout an entire dungeon, but other party members can be assigned to a Magic Circle’s slots. The other members will absorb damage that the playable character would have otherwise taken. Fully utilizing this system requires some deliberation as some circles include stat modifiers and even detrimental effects. Furthermore, the other assisting party members can also equip Artifacts that boost stats even further. While this system can be slightly daunting and often requires a bit of experimentation, it leads to interesting resource management. Each new Magic Circle can lead to drastically different configurations that can help overcome tricky dungeons.
The way the game empowers players is engaging, but the experience can feel uneven. As they level up, characters gain different stats depending on their role. An active character becomes increasingly able to hold potent items as an assist. On the other hand, assisting characters gain offense and defense bonuses that help once they are switched into the active role. The game therefore encourages players to switch to a different playable character if they are having problems completing dungeons. Some dungeons may contain enemies resistant to physical attacks, and it can be helpful to try again with a magic focused class. However, this trial and error process can feel a little haphazard. It also requires players to level up a sizable roster of characters, which can take a bit of planning and persistence. Furthermore, the chapters’ difficulty levels feel somewhat uneven. One world can feel rather intimidating while the next can be a total cakewalk. Overall, however, the game consistently rewards players for experimenting with different item, character, and equipment load-outs.
The game captures the colorful spirit of 16-bit pixel style visuals, but its use of tropes can feel somewhat bygone. The village hub area is full of striking buildings and vibrant flora, and it is fun meeting the diverse cast of non-playable characters. Dungeons are also full of bright details, and the floor and wall tiles are crafted well. However, these tiles can also feel slightly repetitive, and some environment motifs will certainly seem familiar to anyone who has played role-playing games before. Encountering new enemies is thrilling as their mythology-inspired designs are distinct and memorable.
The eclectic soundtrack fittingly accompanies every aspect of the game. The songs that play in the hub area and the menus are quite relaxing. Each chapter’s set of dungeons presents a different catchy theme. Due to the use of disparate genres and instruments, however, the soundtrack can also occasionally feel disjointed. While excellently crafted, the high tempo rock tracks can feel out of place compared to other tunes inspired by world music. A fun touch is that the game contains modern and retro versions of each song, and it is easy to toggle between the two.
Cladun Returns: This is Sengoku! is full of content for anyone interested in retro-inspired dungeon crawling. Aside from the story mode, the game also presents the opportunity to complete optional missions, extra quests, and dauntingly long dungeons. The amount of customization is staggering, and experimenting with new load-outs in order to overcome the game’s diverse challenges is entertaining. With its accessible mechanics and obstacle-filled areas, the game provides hours of straightforward dungeon crawling fun.