Clan of Champions, the second NIS America title available for PC download, is a serious-minded effort from the developers at Aquire (most notable for their work on early Tenchu titles and the Way of the Samurai series). As such, it doesn’t play like the more light-hearted fare that NIS America typically publishes. You’ll find elements to appreciate if you enjoy brawlers, but there’s a distinct lack of the sort of personality that might have made it stand out.
In Clan of Champions, you assume the role of one of three brave warriors venturing into a castle to vanquish evil. The opening text names interesting-sounding places and people, like the kingdom of Ematrias and the Al-waav Urban Allied Forces, and it hints at a deeper mythology. So does text that accompanies each of the available missions you’ll unlock. But that’s all a red herring--the game’s real focal points are combat and weapon customization.
Stages generally consist of two or three linked chambers. The scenery throughout the game is bland enough that you may have trouble telling one corridor from the next. That’s OK, though, because you’re not here to take in the sights. Your job is simply to destroy anything that moves. You’ll keep performing that task until finally you’re surrounded by nothing but fallen warriors and their fractured gear. Then you’ll head to a rather awkward menu interface that encourages you to upgrade your equipment before accepting a new mission and getting back to business.
Even though you’ll fight the same few enemy types throughout much of the game, combat remains interesting because your equipment plays a prominent role, much like it might in an MMO. Each character can equip eight pieces of equipment, which enemies will specifically target once you enter combat. Every component of your armor is capable of withstanding a certain amount of damage before it drops to the ground. You’ll be able to pick it up again if the enemies afford you some breathing room, but until you do that your character is left exposed to more brutal attacks, meaning caution is important at all times. You can’t afford to take too many blows to your head, for instance, or things will go bad very quickly. To be fair, your enemies must cope with the same handicaps.
As you fight, you’ll be able to aim at various parts of your opponent’s body by pressing a button or key that corresponds to a low blow, a torso strike or a higher swipe. Those attacks also fall into one of several disciplines. One option is the standard approach with a sword and shield, or you can equip iron knuckles and get up close and personal. Projectile-based magic attacks are also available. The skills you work to learn and then master may be assigned to one of several slots, allowing you to mix and match as you please. You’ll also gain experience based on the actual moves that are utilized in battle, not any arbitrary class considerations. That’s a nice touch.
One of the main ways the game adds difficulty is by allowing enemies to hit harder and more frequently, so you’ll need to constantly upgrade your equipment if you want to advance to the higher difficulty settings. Though individual battles quickly become redundant because there’s not much separating one from the next (aside from occasional boss fights that feature larger and more aggressive foes that otherwise resemble their more typical cohorts), you’ll likely still feel motivated to replay old missions in search of higher rankings and better equipment. The weapons and gear that you find strewn across the battlefield can either be sold or used as scrap material when you enhance your gear at the smith’s shop.
Improved equipment will come in handy if you find people to play with online. It’s possible to team up with as many as two other players and tackle familiar stages together, or you can go up against other human adversaries in a grand brawl. The quality of your armor and weapons will definitely matter when your opponents are actual humans capable of working in concert. Unfortunately, the game pairs you with AI characters if you don’t fill a lobby with six live players.
Those artificial warriors tend to be too powerful for their own good, and the resulting lack of balance saps some of the fun out of the experience. Unless a full crew is assembled, you’ll likely have the most fun playing cooperative matches. In that case, though, your options are limited to stages you’ve already completed while playing solo, so there’s no getting away from a solitary experience at some point.
Though it starts out with what appears to be grand narrative ambitions, Clan of Champions quickly abandons any pretext that it's anything more than a brawler with robust customization options. More variety and ambition would've been nice, but Clan of Champions is still worth a look if your inner warrior has been feeling neglected.
This game was reviewed on PC.