One of the games that really caught me by surprise last year, was NIS and System Prisma Co.'s ClaDun: This is an RPG
. It was a wonderful little PSP title that had a great look and was a ton of fun to play and I found myself throwing a lot of hours in to it. I was hooked by the simple action RPG gameplay and the unique visual style. So it should come as no surprise that I enjoyed the recently released sequel, ClaDun x2, a game that is perfect for on-the-go enjoyment and takes the best of action RPGs and the best of rogue-likes and merges them together for one of the best portable experiences in the PSP library.
For those who played the first ClaDun, you're probably wondering what could possibly encourage you to play the latest game, I mean, there's already a ton of content present in the first game, so there couldn't be much more to build upon. Well I'm going to pretty much concede that point, but the additions that have been made to the game also just make for a deeper and more fun game. First off the character growth system has been given some tender love and care. For those who don't remember the Magic Circle system, as your main character levels up you can unlock different configurations of Magic Circles, and this will let you place characters who will surround your main character, and they will function as a living shield. You can buff up these walking shields by making them the main character which will cause them to grow faster, and by rotating these characters to become the main character you'll increase their mana, which is used to attach artifacts to their Magic Circle. By doing this you can raise the base attack strength or defense, or you can improve your walk speed, or buff your resistances so you take less damage from magic. You're constantly unlocking new Magic Circles as each character class has different layouts to use so you'll want to explore the variety of characters that the game provides.
Gameplay has remained mostly unchanged from the original ClaDun, with a couple of gameplay tweaks that are greatly appreciated. First of all, jumping, it's a small thing to some people, and a huge thing to others, the previous ClaDun had a slight delay when jumping which made some of the controls feel clunky. This has been done away with completely for a more immediate response to user inputs, and I appreciate it greatly. Outside of that brilliant improvement (seriously this means so much to me), ClaDun x2 plays exactly like its predecessor, with new items to collect and new dungeons to explore. Players who remember the Ran-geon system will find that there is a new addition called Tri-geons, which function as three Ran-geons that a player can run in tandem and move between with the use of gates. Each of the Ran-geons found in a Tri-geon have their own attributes, the Normal Ran-geon is exactly what it sounds like, where enemy growth is consistent and it's possible to gain some good experience. Then there is the Chaos Ran-geon where monster levels accelerate at a rapid pace, causing them to be much more powerful than your team if it's your first run through, but the possibilty of rare items goes up exponentially. Then there is the Heaven Ran-geon, where items which special attributes are commonplace, but don't expect to stick around long, as gates back to the Chaos and Normal Ran-geons are plentiful. Running the gambit in the Chaos Ran-geon can be a thrilling experience, seeing a monster that is ten times your level barreling down on you while you're trying to loot some treasure chests in hopes that they aren't actually mimics, and you see that stairway that will get you out of the dungeon, and you run, you crush that right trigger button as you sprint for the exit. Only to get smashed by the wizard who decided to teleport right in front of you. All those precious items gone, but at least you get to keep some of that experience, so you're always better off than when you started.
The Ran-geons aren't the main facet of gameplay though, there's an actual story here, though it feels less involved than the previous game. Where as previously there were main characters that had a place in the story, the player now assumes a role of their own character who plays the silent protagonist role (sort of). Your character finds themselves trapped in Arcanus Cella, with no memory of how they got there, and they want to go home, unfortunately the warden of Arcanus Cella claims it to be impossible. So with dozens of dungeons ahead, it's time to do some good old fashioned exploring to find your way out. It's an incredibly minimalistic story but functional, with a decent dose of comedy that is thanks to the great translation work that NIS is known for.
Graphically ClaDun x2 stands out among other PSP games with it's refined retro look that has been tweaked to look even better than its predecessor. The pixelated look gives the game that retro look that old-school gamers can appreciate and give new gamers a different perspective on how a game can look. What's really impressive is how fluid these pixels move and scale. I could stare at the dash animation cloud for hours, but then my life would probably get whittled away by the enemies. The music is a funky mix of all types of music, with a lot of strumming guitars, horns, and synthesizers. Each collection of dungeons has it's own song, so the music is constantly being mixed and never gets old.
If you've got a PSP, and you skipped over the first ClaDun game, do yourself a solid and grab ClaDun x2. It's a perfect game for those who want to play a portable game in short bursts, or extended play sessions. The simple action RPG elements provide a surprisingly deep character growth system and the joy of finding some rare loot after deftly evading some monsters that can kill you with just the flick of a tentacle is one of those great moments of purely fun gaming.