Cladun: This is a Review

Earlier this year I made a list of six games that I wanted to play (in English, legally, on physical media) that I doubted would ever see release in the US. Two of them, both published by NIS America, actually did make it to the English language market, but only one of them made it onto store shelves. My voracious gamer friend, RockManXZ24, assures me that ZHP is awesome, but for purely financial reasons, I haven’t played it. Rather, I’ve made do with Cladun: This is an RPG, the other NIS America dungeon crawler which got left in the lurch as a downloadable game on the Playstation Network.
Thankfully, Cladun has enough content and customization that I haven’t grown bored with it since its release in September. It’s the very definition of niche: retro graphics, optional retro soundtrack (like 2009’s The Dark Spire), noticeably Japanese aesthetics, video game meta-humor, randomized gameplay elements (mainstream critics and gamers seem to hate these) and a focus on number-crunching customization and dungeon crawling. PSP exclusivity does Cladun no favors; the system does quite well in Japan, maintaining a reputation as a gamer’s system, but American gamers never took to it, except for those who bought it with the intention of installing custom firmware (ie tech-savvy software pirates and software pirates with tech-savvy friends). It almost feels like the game was tailored precisely to my tastes, since I share an affinity with the misunderstood and underappreciated as all nerds do.

The game starts off with lots of talking. A girl named Pudding, suffering from a terminal disease, runs off to the magical world of Arcanus Cella, a sort of personal universe for its creator, Despina the witch. Her childhood friend, Souma, follows her there to try to protect her, but she wants to go treasure hunting, while new characters frequently show up to act as merchants and party members. The story ends whenever the player decides to leave Arcanus Cella, with the resulting conclusion depending on how much progress the player has made. I started to skip the story sequences early on, as I don’t play a game like this for story. Of the writing, I faintly remember references to JRPG and anime tropes -- cosplay and "Dragon Ball" and loathsomely young heroes -- some of which I assume the localization team contributed.
I’m too busy creating characters and making runs on the 99 level randomly generated dungeon to really care that much about the catatonic story-telling or the goofy dialogue that presents it. Much like From Software and Atlus’ recent PS3 title, 3D Dot Game Heroes, Cladun offers a sprite editor, which has prompted people to come up with some brilliant facsimiles of anime and video game characters in faux 8-bit pixel art. I can’t resist character creation, which was enough to save even the broken Soul Calibur series, at least in my eyes.

There are a number of classes, each of which have different level up bonuses depending on whether they are the main character, or a sub-character placed on the “magic circle.” The magic circle is Cladun’s approach to character customization, in which characters are equipped like items on a grid, which often bequeaths special bonuses to them as they gain experience. The actual gameplay is in real-time (unlike the average turn-based roguelike or dungeon crawler), so the player controls one character and equips that character with shields, weapons (swords, axes, or staves), and armor, as well as deciding on which magic circle to use and which characters to place on it. While the characters on the magic circle earn experience and bonuses, depending on which magic circle the player picks, and what area he places the character, the main character receives bonuses and protection from the characters on the magic circle. Sub-characters can equip artifacts that might increase the main characters attack, defense, or skill abilities, while also absorbing damage for the main character.
Outside of customization and party builds, the gameplay feels something like Diablo by way of The Legend of Zelda. The game derives its momentum from the promise of number-crunching, level-grinding mathematical progression, but the actual dungeons feature real-time combat that necessitates attention. Running around and slashing enemies with wild abandon will get your character killed off fast, as the enemies can do considerable damage and there are traps littering the floors of every dungeon. The combat itself is fun, but it has the added benefit of rare loot drops. The real meat of the game is its character and party building.

I hate that NISA relegated Cladun to a PSN download. I recognize the difficulty in releasing physical media on a console as plagued by piracy and indifference as the PSP, but Cladun is a really fun game that genuinely deserves better. As much as the faux-retro fad irks me, I think that Cladun: This is an RPG actually transcends the obnoxiousness of its retro persona. It is a perfectly good game, and would be regardless of graphics. It might not be as visually creative as 3D Dot Game Heroes, or as deftly nostalgic as Retro Game Challenge, or as thematically coherent as Half Minute Hero, but, ignoring the retro-graphics and music, Cladun is something that some of us can’t get enough of: a number-crunching grind-fest that appeals to the inner OCD at the heart of, I believe, anybody willing to play video games into their adult years. There are so many options for character customization, and then to customize characters by using previously customized characters and adding to them rare items culled from runs in the randomly generated dungeon.
Cladun: This is an RPG caters to the sensibilities of retro-gamers in terms of its graphics and music, but the actual gameplay system is as complex as anything else published (or developed) by Nippon Ichi or its American branch. It’s part of a recent revival of interest in genuinely challenging games, and might have reached a wider audience if not for the digital distribution, a double edged sword that cuts manufacturing costs while ensuring that nobody but the devoted will discover the product. It’s a shame. Cladun is a fast paced, deep, and easily understood dungeon crawler.

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