Perfect, just what we need. Another adventurous tale of teenage heroes out to save the world. Psyche! Had you there didn't I? Don't let that one quote fool you, NIS America's Cladun: This Is An RPG isn't your typical JRPG. In fact, it's a hack and slasher dungeon crawler complete with a real retro presentation. Step into the shoes of Pudding and Souma - or many other characters, original or homemade, for that matter - as they explore the many dungeons of Arcanus Cella in search of, well, adventure and glory, or at least something along those lines.
The story of ClaDun isn't something easily put into words. It basically takes a backseat to the addicting gameplay; however, what it does present is usually wisecracks and slapstick jokes about stereotypical archetypes common to the RPG genre, specifically JRPGs. You play as Pudding, a rather tell-it-as-it-is young girl with some kind of weird disease - Die Laughing Disease - and she has six months left to do whatever it is that she wants to do. Her childhood friend, Souma, tags along reluctantly and they eventually discover the world of Arcanus Cella.
Arcanus Cella has many descriptions and they vary according to each character. In reality, it's not much of a paradise as it is a shut-off world created by the one and only inhabitant, the sorceress Despina. Unfortunately for her, Pudding and Souma violently barge into her hermit life and soon after, many more interesting characters start to enter the scene, including a talking cat, a transvestite (only due to some magic spell - to put it crudely) and a mysterious "Mask of Happiness." Most of the story revolves around Despina trying to get rid of said mask. There isn't much in terms of character development and each character is mostly there for mere comic relief.
For the most part, Cladun is knee-deep in hack and slash gameplay. Dungeons are relatively easy to get into from the get-go and the game gets progressively more difficult. Characters can be equipped with three different types of weapons: a blade, blunt weapon or a rod. Combos can be performed with blade weapons while blunt ones allow for charged attacks. Rods typically cast ranged magic spells and have a cool down meter for moderation.
However, that's not all there is to the game.
In fact, Cladun probably has one of the most in-depth character building and customization systems in any RPG game as of late. There are numerous classes to pick from when creating your own character, including Warrior, Dragoon, Merchant and Wizard. Each has its own unique stats like high attack, low HP or low attack and high SP.
Speaking of which, you'll start off with only Pudding and Souma as playable characters and eventually gain access to the other characters as they are introduced throughout the game. After clearing a number of dungeons, you'll also get access to the tools to create your very own characters. The character creation toolset is surprisingly flexible and simple to use. Simply pick a template for the character and their final boss, and start editing pixel by pixel. It's possible to recreate Etna from the Disgaea franchise or even Barret (or Mr. T) from Final Fantasy VII.
Cladun also introduces a character progression system called The Magic Circle. You'll pick any character to be your main and within the selected Magic Circle, additional characters can tag along and level up. It's worth noting that these sub characters basically act as human meat shields, absorbing any and all damage from enemies. Depending on which Magic Circle is used, secondary characters can equip artifacts to buff up stats like additional health, mana, higher attack or defence points.
Another noteworthy point about the Magic Circle is that it encourages players to play as every other character that's available. If a character levels up while as the main character, they gain stats that are more oriented towards support actions, i.e. they're best suited to be a secondary character. On the other hand, if a character levels up as a secondary character in a Magic Circle, they gain stats that are beneficial as a main character. In essence, there is plenty of balancing to be had and the results can be quite interesting. It'll take mostly trial and error to find the proper balance for your Magic Circle but it is definitely quite the bit of fun to tinker around with.
Visually, the game presents itself in a humble 2D format with old school graphics. While it isn't incredibly impressive, it definitely works that nostalgia factor in the older generation of gamers. It looks and can even sound like any retro dungeon crawler. There's an option to switch to "retro" style music if you ever get bored of the default score. Unfortunately, monsters are usually just different coloured sprites and there isn't a whole lot in terms of variety. Levels vary from small and easily navigated maps to huge labyrinths, either of which are filled with plenty of monsters and booby traps that can be used strategically against the more difficult monsters.
Interestingly enough, while there is a set number of dungeons to explore, ClaDun also offers something similar to Disgaea's Item World, called the "Ran-geon." The Ran-geon basically offers randomly generated dungeons to explore and there are many "floors" to a Ran-geon. This is where the dungeon crawling really begins to shine. In order to proceed to the next floor, you'll need to search for a gate, of which there are several types: the angel gate, demon gate, hell gate and gamble gate. The angel gate provides good status effects and boosts while the demon gate does the opposite. The hell gate is the extreme version of a demon gate, usually doing something really nasty and the gamble gate is a bet on chance. The deeper you go, the higher the level of enemies and difficulty becomes. However, the rewards are great as rare items and drops can only be found here. Keep in mind though that if you go in way over your head, you'll be losing all drops and rewards as well as only half the experience should you not survive.
Cladun: This Is An RPG doesn't pull any strings. It is an RPG, but quite an impressive one. It offers far more than many other downloadable titles for the PSP, or even full fledged RPGs for that matter. In fact, while the story isn't a selling point, the Ran-geon is one heck of a time sink. Coupled with the addictive hack and slash gameplay and comprehensive character creation and progression system, there's plenty of bang for buck, especially for dungeon crawling and RPG fans. Not to mention that up to three other players can join in on the fun. All in all, Cladun: This Is An RPG is definitely worth recommending.