You’ll find neither clans nor champions in Clan of Champions, a hybrid fighting/RPG game that delves into mediocrity from the start and never really offers anything new, or even improves on the flaws of its predecessors. This is the third installment of the Gladiator game series; released in Japan last year on the PS3 as Gladiator VS, the name change makes sense given that the game has nothing to do with its namesake ancient Roman fighters. A considerable departure from publisher NIS America’s usual JRPG import fare, Clan of Champions is hurt by a terrible presentation and boring, repetitive gameplay.
Unlike the previous two games in the series, Clan of Champions takes place in a medieval fantasy setting; this might have been actually be interesting if, well, it wasn’t so generic. The threadbare story (mercenary armies, necromancers, and relics of eeeeeeevil) is presented through poorly written mission briefings and the occasional badly animated cutscene. Not once does any of the “weaponry of invincible power” make an appearance, other than a short blurb at the end of the campaign. All you know is that, despite the champions moniker and the backstory claiming that you’re a mercenary, you fight because people tell you to and because apparently there are no other competent soldiers anywhere else; half the mission briefings end with someone saying “This is something no one but you can handle”, or “You are the only heroes who can possibly defeat the physical manifestation of this demonic god!” Uh, okay.
Even worse than the story is the overall presentation of the game; NIS America did an absolutely horrendous job translating and porting the game over to PC. On the Steam version of the game, menus will tell you to right-click to cancel, while on the same page you are also directed to use L2 and R2 to switch between menus. The translation/writing is incredibly stiff and wooden, though often unintentionally hilarious. To wit: “You little bitches are now under my direct command”. This, from an orc who two seconds later goes on to use the word “afore” with a straight face. The entire thing just has a rushed feel to it, with absolutely no attention paid to detail.
The three playable races in the game draw from the same archetypes that have been done a hundred times over: humans are pretty even stat-wise across the board, while elves are frail but skilled in magic and orcs just smash everyone in their way with higher-than-average strength. As you play, you level up and gain new skills. There are three fighting styles: dual wield, sword-and-shield, and close combat. Depending on what fighting styles, weapons, and skills you use, you gain upgrade points in that respective area after each battle, in addition to better equipment to purchase. I say purchase only nominally; gold is mostly an afterthought, since you accumulate it so quickly that it largely becomes meaningless.
There are tutorials to teach the basics of fighting, but one area where I feel the inclusion of tutorial really would have been helpful is equipment upgrading. Each piece of equipment has a letter rating and a colored gem associated with it. You can sacrifice equipment to power up others (e.g. to boost the attack on a sword), but the game never explains what the ratings or the gems mean. Why would I bother using an S-rated sword when this C-rated battleaxe has superior stats in everything? I ended up basing everything on stats and got through just fine, but this is just another area where the lack of polish is really obvious.
Gameplay is based around arena combat, where two teams of three (sometimes more in the campaign missions) face off in a duel to the death. The campaign is basically a series of these arenas, with absolutely nothing to distinguish one mission from another other than the enemies’ equipment, an occasional boss, and the arenas themselves. Sorry, did I say distinguish? That’s a bit generous, as all of the arenas are drawn from either an abandoned city or a creepy underground tomb setting.There are three game modes, but functionally they all boil down to killing everyone on the other team. Occasionally, after you defeat all enemies in an arena, the game will direct you to enter a doorway…only for you to end up in a room that looks almost like the room you were just in, except with even more enemies to kill. That’s all there is to the game; the uninspired art direction and gameplay is are so bland that it started to feel like I was just playing the exact same scenario over and over, which for all intents and purposes, I was.
The repetitiveness might have been forgivable if the mechanics of the fighting were interesting and fun, but they’re not. One of the main selling points of Clan of Champions is that fighters are free to change up fighting styles during the match, dropping or picking up weapons and equipment to adopt different fighting styles. It sounds nice, but realistically, once you enter a match there really aren’t very many good reasons to switch fighting styles. This also compounds one of the most irritating aspects of the game. To inflict damage on an enemy, you have to first break his/her armor. This seriously drags out battles, as enemies on higher difficulties often have pretty good armor that can take a long time to destroy. Shield-wielding enemies are definitely the worst enemies to face off against, since they can just keep picking their shields back up over and over. Eventually a lot of the game boils down to being patient and spamming your abilities over and over until you can eventually take them down. Exciting gladiatorial combat, this is not.
The technical aspects of the game are just as badly done as the rest of the game. All around, the graphics are just dated for this day and age, a reminder of the game’s console roots. The art direction is so lifeless and boring that there’s really nothing to comment about, other than its deadly blandness. Sound is equally as terrible, with a looping and quite generic music score both in the menu and on the battlefield. There are no spoken lines, which considering the quality of the writing is probably a good thing. Some enemies do “speak” through overhead text bubbles in battle, which invariably consist of taunts and expressions of disbelief when you finally cut them down. Other than thuds and clanks, there isn’t much to say, though some of the characters’ grunts and groans, in particular elves, are simultaneously funny and disturbing. Okay, just the elves; every time you hit one, it sounds like you’re beating a small animal with a baseball bat. It’s obvious though, that the game simply reuses a very small set of recordings, as you’ll hear the same moans over and over.
Clan of Champions is a very generic and unexciting 3D fighter; there’s absolutely nothing that it does well. Tedious gameplay, outdated graphics, and very sloppy presentation overall just make this one game that’s hard to recommend to anyone.