There are few things more irritating than someone asking a question where the answer couldn’t be anymore obvious. This is how the protagonist of Cladun Returns: This Is Sengoku! is greeted when they wake in Arcanus Cella with the question of “are you alive?” Before the player can respond to this inquiry with a smart retort, the truth is revealed that despite the fact they are engaged in discourse with another individual they are in fact dead. The individual introduces himself as Yukimara, though he looks like he really could be Johannes Eckerström without the makeup, and he goes on about enlightening the player on how to adjust to the newly introduced set of circumstances.
Arcanus Cella is a plane of existence where lost souls wind up that are burdened with regret. Death can be inconvenient for the dying, due to its somewhat unpredictable schedule, and can cause people to exit life with some unfinished business that is important to them. The soul fixates on the source of regret and are unable to continue in the cycle of reincarnation, ending up moping around in Arcanus Cella lamenting about whatever their personal issue might be. Yukimara advises the protagonist, who will henceforth be referred to as Saliphat, to speak to a troubled soul in town which then will open up the dungeons.
Cladun Returns: This Is Sengoku! (have to admire a game that declares its identity with such authority) is divided into chapters, with each chapter focusing on helping a troubled soul which is done by completing several dungeons. Each dungeon is short and there are many that can be completed in under a minute once the player learns the layout. Completed dungeons can be replayed at the player’s leisure for grinding purposes, and when a chapter is completed additional optional dungeons for the chapter will open up. These are called Ex Dungeons, and feature more powerful monsters but offer greater rewards. The Ex Dungeons also contain the souls of notable warlords from the Sengoku period that will join the player once they are freed, whose names will be recognized by those who are well versed in Sengoku history or have just played a lot of Samurai Warriors. Hell, you even rescue the wife of the man who built a castle in just one day.
None of the dungeon maps are large but they are varied in their layout. Completing a dungeon simply requires the player to wander to the exit point without getting killed by the various monsters and traps. Traps are easy to avoid since they become visible when the player is a square or two away from them, unless of course the player decides to aimlessly run around everywhere. Combat mechanics are pretty simple, but there are a couple things to consider in forming strategy. Angle of attack does factor into some situations where attacking from the side or behind will do additional damage, and in some cases enemies are immune to straight forward attacks. Some weapons will cause the player to move forward during an attack combo which can result in the player getting damaged by enemy contact. Most enemies encountered are easy to dispatch but the difficulty drastically increases with boss battles, who tend to receive very little damage but can dish out some devastating attacks that are tricky to avoid, forcing the player to either grind to build up levels and gain better equipment or figure out the cheap way to kill the boss monster without suffering damage. Personal preference is to go for the latter option.
While stating that none of the dungeon maps are large, some are designed to be as aggravating as possible. Of particular note is Osaka Castle in Chapter 5. This is a dungeon build around using gates to teleport from room to room, with no discernible design cues to lead the player. Most warp back to the beginning of the level, forcing the player to start all over. So, through trial and error, the player is forced to guess their way through an incredibly long series of rooms, many identical, until finally reaching the end. Imagine my pure, unmitigated glee when it was discovered that this level was a two-parter. Fortunately, the second half relies more upon what makes dungeon exploration in the vast majority of the stages here fun, with less guesswork. Seriously, Osaka Castle, eat an entire bag of Wangs.
The player is able to choose from several different classes for their character, which include typical RPG choices in the forms of samurai, magician, saint, and a few other options. The class the player initially chooses doesn’t matter that much for a couple of reasons. One is that at a certain point the player can change classes, this restarts the character at level one but the Magic Circles, abilities, and a portion of the attributes will carry over, which can lead to an incredibly powerful character if done repeatedly. Another reason it doesn’t matter is because of the Magic Circle system. The player can talk to some owls and create allies for themselves, which can be any one of the available classes. The Magic Circles are a system of enhancement where the allies passively assist the player in the dungeons. The character controlled by the player is the Lord, and the allies placed in the Magic Circle are Vassals. Each class has a different set of Magic Circles and more are unlocked as the characters gain levels. The Vassals provide passive assistance to the Lord. The Vassals are not visible in the dungeon but they absorb damage for the Lord until they are defeated, and their placement in the formation will determine which one takes the damage based on the direction the player is facing. Various artifacts can be connected to each Vassal to augment the player’s attributes and abilities. The player is able to change who the Lord is, so if the player created a Merchant but doesn’t like that class too much can create a Swordsman ally and then swap the Swordsman into the Lord position. There are over 200 Magic Circles in the game so there is virtually endless options when it comes to customizing a formation.
In addition to the wonderfully (or woefully, depending on personal preference) complex customization that can go into building a team of heroes, there is also a Fort system to add passive buffs to the team. A bit into the game, the player will be able to speak to a carpenter in the castle to the north in the hub. Here, the player can slot in pieces of stone that are either found or purchased from the town in the store. After a floor is completely filled out, they can purchase an expansion to keep going. This isn’t even factoring in item customization, where the various weapons can be imbued with “titles” that boost or hinder stats in any number of ways. People who love to tinker with games, using the systems to eke out every ounce of bonus they can get to dominate will find plenty to do here.
As one may guess by looking at the screenshots, Cladun Returns: This Is Sengoku! is patterned after retro games. This does not apply only to graphics and sound, as the gameplay feels like it would be right at home on a cartridge based Nintendo console from the 20th century. All action takes place in an overhead 2D plane with very simple attack and jumping mechanics. The retro approach is Cladun’s main source of charm but also a limiting factor as combat controls feel rather primitive and clunky, though to be fair I often feel that way when I go back to games I enjoyed in my childhood after spending time with modern games. Recreating the feel of old JRPGs extends into the NPC’s having brief random sentences in talk bubbles, such as a person wondering if someone would notice if they used a kitchen knife to replace a broken katana.
One of the quirks about the 8-bit graphics that was particularly amusing is that whenever Saliphat jumped it became apparent that her arms and legs are not attached to her body, but I suppose one of the perks of being a wandering ethereal being in the land of the newly deceased is dismemberment isn’t as debilitating as it can be in the corporeal world. Some modern touches are added to beautify the gaming experience. The player has the option to choose old fashioned pixelated text or go with a more modern looking and smoothed version. The same freedom of choice extends to the music, where the player can choose to go with the retro chiptune sound or the arrangement with higher quality instrument samples.
There is a lot to keep players busy in Cladun Returns: This Is Sengoku! In addition to the regular dungeons and Ex Dungeons, there are optional quests that offer unique rewards. Later on new environments to send the player to an early second grave open up in the form of the Tri-geon and Neo-geon (no affiliation with SNK). Online multiplayer is supported for up to four players which can be played in both competitive and cooperation modes. Customization is encouraged throughout the game. In addition to being able to fill a Magic Circle with a large party of player created characters and Samurai Warriors alums (no affiliation with Koei Tecmo), there is a variety of weapons the player can choose from in both ranged and melee varieties. The player can edit the appearance of their character and the weapons with a pixel editor, and can even compose their own music to play in the dungeons, albeit through a rather slow process of typing in notes. Though to my own amusement and wife’s annoyance, I enjoyed having D#4, A4, A#4, A4, F4, A4, G#4, E4, G#4, G4 play on loop during a level. Seriously, this was painful to listen to. The source material is easy listening by comparison.
Cladun Returns: This Is Sengoku! is a well done throwback to adventure games of the late 80s and early 90s. Combat mechanics are not quite as smooth as they could be and the Magic Circle system is a bit more convoluted than necessary, but these minor issues do not deter from the overall enjoyment of this title. The brevity of each dungeon allows progress to be made rapidly and makes the game ideal for both extended play sessions along with just using it to kill a short amount of time, especially true of the Vita version. The customization options and additional challenging dungeons give this title a lot of content. This isn’t a game that has an excessively drawn out story and numerous CGI cutscenes; this is an old fashioned pick and play action RPG and one that fans of retro games should check out.