The Caligula Effect is a game that sounds fantastic on paper. The story was written by the guy who did the early Persona games, a unique battle system lets players input various actions and watch them play out (hopefully as planned) in real time, and there are hundreds of characters to interact with, among other things. For Vita owners, it is certainly a tempting offer, especially for those hoping for a strong exclusive release. It’s time to find out if good on paper means good in practice.
Aquria, who’ve cut their teeth on a few Sword Art Online games, are in familiar territory with this story. The premise is that people are being trapped in a digital world by a virtual idol in the vein of Hatsune Miku. Her name is µ, and her only goal is to steal sad memories from people so that they can be happy. While that’s an admirable goal, the problem is, a group of people who refer to themselves as The Go-Home Club want to leave this place at all costs. In them you find allies, and in µ’s supporters you find enemies. The goal is to track her down and get to her to send you home.
The initial premise is ripe with promise, and not just for the obvious reasons. Several members of the main cast are downright unlikable, and their goal to return home puts them in situations where they clash with other people who both know about the digital world and wish to remain inside of it. When the revelation comes that any one person leaving could cause the whole place to crash, the question becomes about the morality of forcing people to return to the real world. This topic would seem to be the crux of the entire story, but it ultimately gives way to a more predictable outcome. It all boils down to saving the world. This combined with some relatively slow pacing creates an overall tale that is disappointing.
As for the characters, there’s a good fifty-fifty split between interesting ones and boring ones. Between each chapter, you’re given a chance to spend time with each member of your crew, much like the social links in Persona. However, you can do these all at once from any hub instead of having to make time for them. Each time you hang out with someone, a little more of their story is revealed. This creates some great moments, such as discovering which character has a child to get back to, watching another character make tremendous personal growth, and so on. When these are interesting, you only want to see more. Unfortunately, half of the cast just ends up being boring. One character’s entire arc is whether or not she can invite people to eat lunch with her. It might sound like a genuine attempt to see someone overcome crippling social anxiety, but it clashes with how social that person is in the rest of the game.
All told, the story is serviceable, thanks to a killer start and some fantastic moments sprinkled throughout. It’s weighted down, however, by lackluster characters, for the most part, and a slow crawl that picks up around the second chapter and doesn’t end until about two-thirds of the way through the game. Most of it feels like filler content, and the game would have benefited greatly by reducing the amount of dungeons in the game… or simply by adding more character interaction, ideally with less (but more robust) characters. Overall, it’s slightly above average, but pales in comparison to other recent releases.
Visually, the game feels dated. We’re back to dungeons made up up identical corridors and bland character models. The Vita isn’t even close to being put through its paces here, as you’ll find fuzzy textures, boring menu screens, and so on throughout. The game also has a dull sheen to that sucks the life out of each location. There are some standouts however, such as a library with creepy dolls hung about, and a dimly lit aquarium. The animations are also quite good, with characters moving both fluidly and with character. Both the way characters move and attack feels true to their characters, which is always something you want to see. However, this does come at the expense of variation in terms of enemies. Apart from bosses, pretty much all the enemies you face will be people in the same school uniform. There are some different accessories that they might have, but by the end of the game you will probably be incredibly bored of the look. Nothing pops.
Things work out a bit better in the audio department. The voice acting is pretty great. It’s Japanese only, which might bother some, but the quality is there. Characters feel distinct, react appropriately to situations, and ride the highs and lows of conversation in a way that feels natural. The vast majority of lines are spoken, so the quality is very much appreciated. As for music, the game includes a handful of j-pop tracks that are supposedly sung by the game’s antagonist. Each dungeon has unique theme, but it is a theme that will play on loop the entire time you are in said dungeon. While the music is passable, the repetition means its gets old quick. The only thing that breaks it up is the fact that vocals only creep in during battles. It’s an admittedly nice touch, but not enough to save the monotony. During fights, however, prepare for a mess of sounds as sometimes up to eight characters all act simultaneously. It’s chaotic to say the least. Honestly, you’ll probably turn the volume down during gameplay, and turn it up during story sequences. It’s the best way to go.
Like many a JRPG, The Caligula Effect has a lot of things going on, but only dips its toe into the possibilities of each. It ends up with a shockingly shallow game, despite the myriad of mechanics and features it boasts.
First up, combat in the game is fairly unique. At the start of battle, you take turns issuing up to three commands for each of your characters. Each skill or attack takes a certain amount of time, so the key is to sync the attacks up to create devastating combos. To facilitate this, you move your commands back and forth on a timeline. This lets you delay your attacks or time them with an ally’s for maximum effect. You can also view the expected outcome of your choices beforehand, which will also include your enemy’s predicted movements. This ends up being a really neat feature. However, you can’t quite tinker with it to your hearts content. Once a character’s actions have been confirmed, they are set in stone. This means you need to have your plan ready from the get go. Secondly, your characters use up what’s called “SP” in order to use skills. While they can go all out at the start of battle, the enemy might survive the initial burst. The combat then slows to a crawl as your characters run away and recharge. As such, the game puts a heavy emphasis on being able to win on the first turn, even if it’s not always possible. Battles happen where they initiated, meaning narrow corridors. All to common is a scenario where someone gets hung up on a door frame or trapped in a corner with nowhere to go. While it’s fun to play around with combos and timings early on, the system stops introducing new elements after a few hours into the game and the hundreds of battles you fight all start to feel the same. Once you’ve learned a reliable way to win most battles on the first turn, you’ll keep using it. The inputs will become muscle memory and getting into fights will become just another chore.
Speaking of chores, the game has five-hundred plus characters for you to interact with. Apart from a small central cast of about eight people, the whole of this group is generic NPCs. The goal is to find people that you can befriend and them have them serve as gateway friends to allow you to befriend other people. Once they are your friend, you have them join your active party. This sounds amazing, but they end up being clones of the main cast, don’t have character portraits, and end up being far too costly of a time investment to be worth it. Why you might want to bring them along anyway is so that you can complete the side quests they bring with them. Each character has two of them. These include things like using them in a certain number of battles, giving them certain equipment, taking them to a another person, and so on. Generally, these tasks are boring. On top of that, deepening your friendship with each character amounts to finding them in one of the various locations and repeatedly pressing a button to scroll through a few bits of meaningless text. This slowly builds up the friendship meter, and you can do it several times in a row before you have to stop. Nothing they say matters, establishes a character, or even builds up the lore of the game. It’s just pointless. You can also text them from a menu, but this ends up being even more pointless. You can only text one of three different questions. How they respond will be completely random. Worse, if they ask you a question, your only response will be another question that doesn’t even relate to what they asked. It can be mildly amusing at first, but it isn’t a feature worth looking into at all.
There are nine dungeons in the game, and they represent the worst of the genre. They are simply an obtuse series of corridors and locked doors. Enemies mill about in droves, you can’t navigate without referring to the mini-map at all times, and so on. There are no unique puzzles, no interesting hooks, and not even different enemy types. It’s bland. You run about until you find a door that opens, beat an enemy or hit a switch that unlocks another door, and repeat this process until you find and defeat the boss. There are lots of super powerful enemies lying about though, and bumping into them will get you instantly killed and sent back to the main menu. You’re meant to grind or come back later to fight them. They typically guard a chest or are there simply because.
One of the features that sounded really cool on paper involves getting letters from enemies that lets you fill in code words that unlocks doors where you can fight extra powerful creatures. The letters are incredibly rare item drops though, so you’re meant to work together with an online community to find them, fill out the code words, and help each defeat all of these optional fights. However, it’s an absolute ton of work to get even a single letter, and the whole time you’ll be stuck in the same dungeon listening to the same music and fighting the same enemies, and using the same combos and so on. It s a massive time investment for very little payoff.
If you simply intend to see the story through to the end, the game can be completed within around twenty or so hours. That’s even with seeing all of the character episodes. If for some reason you enjoy trying to befriend everyone and get those pesky letters, the game can last dozens of more hours. That’s a big “if” though. That’s not a bad deal, so long as you’re fine essentially doing busy work instead of playing something better.
Short Attention Span Summary
The Caligula Effect is a game mired by underdeveloped ideas. Sure you can befriend and recruit five-hundred different characters, but none of them are interesting. Sure the combat system is unique, but you can solve it in the first hour. Sure the story starts off interesting, but then slows to a crawl before giving up a lame ending. Overall, it’s a repetitive and often times boring mess. If you end up liking it despite these flaws, the game can give you plenty of bang for your buck. For the majority of RPG fans, however, there are just too many superior options out there to give this game the amount of attention it wants.