New-old is the new new. Retro reboots are a dime a dozen, but the recent homage spin-off, one that seems to deliberately replicate the aesthetic 8 and 16-bit classics while simultaneously lampooning their respective genre conventions at every turn, is considerably fresh in its approach. Half Minute Hero, with its ridiculously fast paced spin in JRPG conventions, 3D Dot Game Heroes, which basically reinterprets the original Zelda, and Retro Game Challenge are the best representatives of their burgeoning medium, and now they have a brand new member; NIS' Cladun: This is an RPG. And yes, that's actually what it's called.
Cladun's name on the other side of the planet, Classic Dungeon, makes slightly more sense. It's the bizarre lovechild of Dragon Quest and a rogue-like fused with a few amenities from modern game design. To create distance from its peers (both old and new), Cladun doesn't necessarily turn the genre on its heels as much as it engineers a brand new, expertly crafted system into the framework of a traditional Japanese Role Playing Game. Cladun is literally a new old game. Admirable, for sure, but is it actually fun to play?
This is a Review
First out the door is the narrative. "Narrative," might be too strong of a word, because the events in Cladun can best be described as a mostly non-sequitur collection of scenes loosely tied together on the basis of practically nothing. Basically, Souma and his sister Pudding accidently fall into the world of Arcanus Cella, which happens to be the private domain of Despina, whom is trying to rid herself of a sentient, mischievous mask that may or may not be in league with a talking cat. Along the way, other people, like a nervous shopkeeper and a fancy hairdresser, drop in for other vague reasons. It's complete nonsense, and deliberately so. Plot is not Cladun's strong suit, and it has no delusions of such either. Story segments are mercifully brief interludes between successful dungeon conquests, and serve little purpose other than to break the pace of a potentially monotonous dungeon slog. A heavy handed plot is sacrificed for light, witty dialogue that pokes fun at the genre, and Cladun emerges much better for it.
In fact, one doesn't really need any aspect of Arcanus Cella's over world. Confined to a single, rather small village, there is one shop, one bar, two dungeon entrances, a door to go to the end-game, and a scattered collection of characters. However, character dialogue excluded, every potential option is accessible via the menu. Buying equipment, entering the dungeon, and creating your own characters out of thin air are available at the press of a button. It's also the only place to save your game. Aside from the small story segments (which can also be skipped), you really don't need to go poke about town unless you're interested in the absurd character banter. Once again, Cladun is delightfully blunt in its objectives; it's a pure dungeon hack, plain and simple.
The remaining presentation aspects are actually quite strong. The colorful, top down aesthetic calls to mind 8 and 16-bit RPGs of generation's past, although character animation suggests a few modern day technical tricks. The soundtrack was also quite a surprise, often featuring exceptionally produced tunes with strings, bagpipes, and/or harmonizing vocal samples. If that doesn't do it for you, the entire soundtrack has also been produced with 8-bit samples (and can be flipped over at any time), further authenticating the faux-retro experience.
A reliance on character progression and combat mechanics could have gone sour quickly, but Cladun's battle mechanics are actually its greatest strength. Within an hour of playing, several characters of different classes are at your disposal. Any of these characters can be the main character, which is the only character that physically travels the dungeons. Other characters are relegated to sub characters, which, despite their invisibility on the field, still allows them to participate in battles and gain experience through the Magic Circle. The Magic Circle is an intentionally stupid name for an edit screen that allows configurations of predetermined positions, which translates to you surrounding your main character with slots for your sub characters. Sub characters take damage for the main character, meaning it’s technically more important for your sub characters to have decent levels than your centered, main character. Dungeons often feature enemies resistant to all but one type of class or weapon type, necessitating a healthy stable of well rounded characters. With each character class having a vast array Magic Circles, Cladun has little trouble getting you to constantly tinker and experiment with potential setups.
Each Magic Circle slot may carry incentives, like an experience bonus, but is also quick to balance the risk/reward with HP sacrifices or other afflictions. Sub characters can also be fitted with dozens of artifacts, which greatly affect stats like defense, critical hit rate, attack, walking speed, and magic. Artifacts are governed by character's mana, but in the end have the potential to play a more significant role than your main character's equipment. They're also what I spent a majority of my cash on, as their versatility and pure potential is the real heart of Cladun's customization.
It's a lot to take in. I honestly didn't have a good grip on what the hell I was doing for a few hours, even though Cladun provided a fairly in depth tutorial and in-game encyclopedia. Making sense of the Magic Circle is on par with Final Fantasy VIII's junction system in terms of how long it takes to fully comprehend its complication, but, again like FFVIII, its depth really pays off once you get it down. Grinding isn't terribly necessary, but the lure of getting better artifacts to outfit the perfect Magic Circle became too large of a carrot for me to deny chasing. I had to have the best of the best, and Cladun appeared to be aware of my obsession by seemingly always having an even better artifact to buy just when I had enough cash saved for the previous best.
Dungeon progression is also fairly simple. Dungeons are completed by finding the exit, which is usually unblocked after completing a not-especially obvious goal. Usually you'll be slaughtering every enemy you can find, opening black treasure chests, or defeating a boss, but there are a few clever exceptions along the way (with a corpse often providing you hints). After you beat a dungeon, another opens, and shortly thereafter gives way to completely new set of dungeons with a different art. This progresses over several dozen unique dungeons good for at least 20+ hours before you're through. Dying in a dungeon results in you losing every item you acquired along with most of your gold and experience, though it's usually not much that can't be found again once you know what you're doing.
Dungeons aren't merely mazes filled with monsters. Traps, often invisible until you're a precious few tiles away, both help and harm the main character (and enemies). Heal traps, the only way to regenerate health in this item-less game, work to your benefit, but others that put you to sleep or flat-out explode in your face represent another challenge.. Invisible walls, certain tiles that slow movement, fire, earthquakes and other hazards do well to add further complication to Cladun's dungeons. Enemies are similarly complex, with a host of elemental affinities and strengths based on their color.
Honestly, the top-down presentation is responsible for the only glaring flaw in Cladun's combat presentation. An action-RPG at heart, most of your interaction occurs with real time sword swipes and magic attacks. While your character is granted the ability to run, jump, use a shield, and slide, sometimes it's not quite enough to deal with the speed of the opposition. Cladun isn't a truly tile-based action-RPG, you can run and jump diagonally with a little practice, but, with certain enemies that require you to hit their side or back, getting around without getting damaged can be a pain in the ass. That, along with the inherent trial and error of figuring out what enemy is weak to which class/or weapon type, occasionally makes for a frustrating experience.
It's worth mentioning that each dungeon also has a goal time to be completed. Finish under the designated time, which at first blush almost always seem impossible, and you're rewarded with fame points, which allow access to special equipment at the store. All equipment also has its own title, which has every designation from "rise" to "crap," and can stack performance.
Randomly Generated != Definitely Awful
Killing time in preset dungeons not your thing? Great, Cladun also features a randomly generated dungeon dubbed the "Ran-geon." Usually a kiss of death for dungeon crawlers, Cladun avoids the pratfalls of failure's past with a dynamic approach to its layout. Consisting of 100 floors, each floor has one of four gates to proceed to the next floor. Each gate affects how a collection of variables is affected for the next floor; good and bad gates are obvious, but for hilarious/tragic results there's also a special, ultra-bad hellish gate with impossible enemies thrown in too. The item drop rate, rare item drop rate, and the enemy level range from start at 100 and can go up to 999 or down to zero depending mostly on which gate you choose to exit. Should you want to leave with whatever loot and experience you've acquired thus far, a normal exit gate is usually within reach as well.
It's not difficult to get completely absorbed in Cladun's random dungeon. I played through the preset dungeons because I was reviewing the game, but if I were playing Cladun on my own time you'd be hard pressed to pry me away from the ran-geon. The risk/reward is ideal, and though it suffers from the same control issues, it fairs much better as a journey into the unknown.
I feel like I'm drowning whoever is still reading this with a surplus of information, but I can't go without mentioning the character creator. Eventually Cladun allows you to not only customize your existing party members, but also bitmap your own characters. You can also select a personality to reflect their dialogue options in the bar and their very own antagonist for the end game. Furthermore, you can do this for up to 99 characters, creating your own proverbial army if the personal need arises.
Note: 2-4 cooperative and pvp multiplayer are also available, but remained untested due to a single review copy. Sounds like a great idea, considering the character creation and customization options.
Other note: all screens gathered using the in-game screenshot feature.