Are you down with the neo-retro movement? You know: games like 3D Dot Game Heroes, Etrian Odyssey, The Dark Spire, or NISA’s latest handheld title: “Cladun.” Short for “Classic Dungeon,” this PSP dungeon crawler showcases intentionally pixel-heavy, 8-bit style graphics.
But nostalgic charm can only carry a game so far, and if you work too hard to imitate the games of old, you’ll also pick up their flaws. While Cladun has plenty to love, it also has plenty to hate. Your mileage will vary with this one depending on a) how much patience you have and b) your willingness to self-learn the game mechanics.
A sprightly young girl named Pudding, and her assigned protector- a young boy named Souma, are wandering around the countryside. Pudding is looking for the entrance to a magical world called “Arcanus Cella.” On the surface, she claims she merely wants to go there for “awesome treasure.” Secretly, though, she’s looking for a cure to her ultra-rare “die laughing” disease. You laugh, you die. Not a good disease to have.
Pudding and Souma find the entrance to this magical world and quickly discover that it is a strange world indeed. There are very few human inhabitants. In fact, when they first get there, the only person they find is a hermit-sorceress named Despina. In the “main area” of Arcanus Cella (a town), they also find a bar (empty), a shop (empty), a home for cute birds who claim they have the power to create randomly-generated dungeons (?!), and an exit. Take the exit and you get to watch the ending. “Beat the game” at any time, as it were. But there is a true ending. Because the one other thing found in this main area is a door. And through that door, you’ll find well-designed, “scripted” dungeons.
As Souma and Pudding run through some of the first few dungeons in that magical door, they keep coming back to find more people inhabiting the world of Arcanus Cella. A self-proclaimed hair stylist named Bob shows up. Dotache, the new barkeep, shows up to take over the bar. You’ll also meet a shopkeep, a duo who are obsessed with finding the “ultimate” sword and shield, a stalker, a stray cat, and a creepy talking mask. None of these people seem to be sane in any way. They all have social/emotional problems, perhaps moreso than we gamers who are addicted to this sort of quirky RPG.
Eventually, all the aforementioned characters (minus cat and mask) join your “party.” Technically, they’re joining your “Magic Circle,” also referred to as the “Circle of Friends.” Here, you pick a main character to control and use in battle. Everyone else becomes a “sub character,” which means that their stats can be added to benefit the main character. How this works is actually quite confusing and isn’t explained terribly well in the game. If you choose to master it, you will love this game. If you are afraid of change and customization, you will have a terribly hard time getting through certain dungeons.
Arcanus Cella is a world that is, for both the player and the fictional characters, forgettable. It’s like a dream, and you’ll probably be fine waking up from it any time with no side effects. The “plot” (if you can call it that) is about Pudding finding a cure and the socially inept characters learning how to make friends. This isn’t done in a cookie-cutter anime kind of way. Instead, it’s done with a poorly-translated and typo-ridden script. You’ll feel like you’re playing old NES RPGs alright, because the game’s plot seems to make no sense at times. “It’s a secret to everyone,” indeed. But the charm found in, say, 3D Dot Game Heroes is lost in Cladun when you’re actually trying (and failing) to follow along.
I’m Asking For A CHALLENGE!
Ask and it is yours, stinkoman.
What kept me coming back to Cladun, even with its strange and not exactly enjoyable scenario, was the level of challenge I found in the pre-designed dungeons. The actual gameplay is surprisingly strong. There’s a perfect balance of puzzle, combat skill, and combat strategy required to finish each dungeon. Ideally, the “best” way to handle any given dungeon is to go in once, scout around (and probably die), then customize your magic circle, equipment, abilities, etc to be perfectly set for the challenge. Then go back in, clear it in record time, and move on.
The learning curve isn’t necessarily “steep,” but there is a big jump you have to make once or twice. You have to learn to use different characters as “mains,” get used to different weapons, try out different abilities, and choose magic circles with more (or less) available character slots. Why? Well, let’s say one dungeon is fire-heavy. If you’ve been using “normal” equipment and your only magic spell is a fire spell, you’re in trouble. You’ll first want some fire-resistant armor, and even then you’ll probably want a magic circle and characters with high HP in case you run into one of those infernal moving-blow-torch-trap things. Then you might think you want to use a standard “ice rod” as your weapon. But it turns out some of the enemies in the dungeon are magic resistant, so you had better use an axe instead and find some ice magic as your special ability.
Once you’ve customized, you can clear the dungeon. Note that most dungeons are very short in nature. All have a “par” clear time to beat, and those times are usually set to a minute or less. Some dungeons took me as long as 15 minutes, but most don’t take more than 5 minutes. So you beat that dungeon, watch a short cut scene with your 8-bit buddies having some nonsense conversation, and then in the next dungeon you find you’re up against a bunch of fast-moving, axe-resistant enemies in a maze-style dungeon. You’re going to want to change up the magic circle all over again!
If that sounds like fun to you, you’ll like this game. If it sounds like torture, stay away. I myself, in simply reading back, think “wow, that does sound frustrating.” But in the actual experience of the game, I enjoyed the customization. Once you get the hang of it, it’s a lot of fun. It’s also worth noting that, as said in the game, “a good main levels as a sub, and a good sub levels as a main.” What they mean is that, characters who level-up while in a “sub” role will get high stat gains on ATK and DEF (useful for a main character), while a main who levels will get big boosts in MANA (which is only used for augmenting other stats in the magic circle as a sub!). It sounds backwards, and it is. But with enough work and a bit of level grinding, you can develop some pretty cool setups for your magic circle(s).
One beef I have with the control in combat: evasion is stupid. It’s difficult to deal a blow to an enemy and also avoid their attack. But for certain enemies, it’s the only choice you’ll have for survival. Eventually you’ll find yourself doing what I did: attacking an enemy from the side, then as it counters, moving 90 degrees around him and attacking from that side. Mirror back, rinse and repeat. And for some enemies, you’ll do this 20+ times because the weapon you chose isn’t ideal to fight them (but the dungeon has such a variety of enemies that you’ll ultimately have to fight something resistant to your weapon of choice).
One thing many people around the ‘net are chattering about in regards to this game is its superior soundtrack. Composed, arranged, and performed by members of ZIZZ Studio (led by VGM veteran Toshimichi Isoe). At any point in the game, you can change the BGM type from “Real” to “Retro.” In the “Real” form, you hear incredible rock, jazz, and ethnic-fusion-style music with real recorded performance of violins, guitars, drums, piano, and more. Switch to retro and you get chiptune equivalents of those same pieces. The concept of switching BGM type isn’t new to the game; they’re copying Etrian Odyssey and plenty of other handheld neo-retro titles. However, the “real” side of the music is so ridiculously impressive that it deserves high marks just for surprising us.
There are even some vocal tracks found in the game, and they are really, really good. Not cheesy, not annoying, and used sparingly. Cheers to ZIZZ Studio. You guys are great.
Is This a Good RPG?
There’s no question that Cladun is, indeed, an RPG. It’s a retrolicious Action RPG with some strong dungeon design. But is it good? Is it worthwhile? Again, all I can say is that your mileage will vary. For a $20 downloadable title, yes, it’s pretty good. But then, even as I was playing this game, I was also dabbling with the recent re-release of Alundra on PSN. This is another puzzle-heavy Action RPG, though it’s a longform title with much less customization. It’s a very different game. But, in my opinion, Alundra is far superior to Cladun despite its age, and it’s only $6 as opposed to $20.
Even with that comparison in mind, however, I do recommend this one to anyone who wants to try something that is both old and new. I’ve played games with small-scale “beat the boss, find the exit” dungeons before, but none that were as engaging and entertaining as Cladun. Sure, the game has its pitfalls, and you are bound to discover them if you commit as much time as I did to this game (15 hours, which is what it took to get the “True” ending). Those who play even further, discovering the unique post-endgame scenario (which includes Asagi, an NIS standby for “wannabe protagonist”) may actually find more fault with the game than I did. But truly, this is a game where looking past its faults is a good practice. I can’t say that for all RPGs, but I can for this one.