Review: The Caligula Effect

On the Way Out

The PlayStation Vita – the little system that could…but never really did.

The Vita was a system that I was quite excited for on its launch. I was a huge fan of its predecessor, the PSP, with its wide selection of JRPGs and story-heavy titles. Having high hopes for the same on a more powerful system, I went out and bought the handheld on launch day.

Much like the Nintendo 3DS, launch titles were slim, and didn’t really pick up for a while. Also like the 3DS, I ended up selling my Vita off after a few months due to the lack of releases.

Unlike the 3DS, though, the release schedule never really picked up. At least, not for the general gamer.

As I personally hoped, the Vita ended up following in the PSP’s footsteps, becoming a haven for JRPGs, random little Japanese titles, and story-heavy games. The lack of mainstream titles, though (along with the lack of the piracy potential its predecessor had), have lead some out there to dub the Vita a failure.

Nowadays, the Vita has a rabid cult fan base all its own. Its focus has pretty much fully shifted to Japanese titles, with many being released on PS4 and Vita concurrently. Every once in a while, even Vita-exclusive titles manage to make their way to our shores.

Developed by Aquria and published in the west by Atlus, The Caligula Effect was released in North America on May 2nd, 2017, exclusively for the Vita.

Life Without Pain

The Caligula Effect begins with you, the nameless main character, attending a high school opening ceremony. Life is normal and everything is well and good, until you step up to give a speech to the school. That’s when you notice something’s not quite right. Peoples’ faces seem to be glitchy and distorted.

Freaking out, you sprint out of the school and into the city, seeing these now-distorted figures all around you. Arriving at the city train station, you attempt to enter, only to find it’s impossible – there’s some kind of barrier keeping you out.

That’s when you’re approached by the local super popular idol, μ (pronounced “myu”). She explains that this isn’t the real world at all. Rather, you’re in a digital world called “Mobius,” created by μ as an escape from the pain of the real world. Everyone here has, apparently, come willingly to live out their lives in idyllic peace.

The Caligula Effect starts with a bang, managing to grab my attention right out of the gate. The plot slows a bit once the main plot thread is introduced: you and a group of others aware of Mobius, taking on the “Ostinato Musicians” – composers for μ who are out to reassimilate your group into the brainwashed collective.

Things quickly become character focused, with each portion of the game generally focusing on one or two characters in your group. The main story is somewhat entertaining, although it can quickly become formulaic. Somewhat better off, though, is the “Character Episodes.”

These portions bring full focus to specific members of your group, diving into their lives and struggles, as well as why they decided to give up on the real world and enter Mobius. The writing during these portions fares better than the main plot, but they suffer from the opposite of it: most of these stories start slow and dull before picking up later.

Pointless Additions

While the story does have its moments, I can’t really say the same about the gameplay. The Caligula Effect tries to do so much, yet fails to really nail any of its aspirations.

This game is essentially a dungeon crawler. You’ll be exploring mazes based on modern world locations, like shopping malls and libraries, to find and take down the Ostinato Musician hiding at the end. These stages can be rather large, but are unfortunately very repetitive and often require you to backtrack repeatedly across large portions to accomplish required tasks.

The battle system presented is actually quite intriguing. Battles take place directly on the field, with attacks dictated by a constantly moving timeline. Each character you control (out of a max of four) can execute three attacks per turn. The gimmick here is that you can adjust and set the timing that your attacks execute, allowing you to set up combos betweeen your party members.

Assisting you in this is a system called the “Imaginary Chain.” As you select attacks, holograms of your characters and enemies act out the most likely scenario of your inputs, letting you fine tune your combos. The system sounds quite fun and customizable in thought, but it’s a whole different thing in action.

Using the Imaginary Chain greatly draws out battles against standard enemies. I eventually just settled on an attack set that I used in every battle to get them over as quickly as possible. Boss battles never really required much strategy either, as spamming my best attacks was all that was ever necessary.

The other main system featured in The Caligula Effect goes by the name “Causality Link.” This game features 500 NPCs that you can build friendships with, eventually allowing them to join you in battle or give you special skills. All 500 of them are linked in a web chart in the game’s menu, showing each of their relations to each other, which you’re supposed to leverage to build these relationships.

It feels like the developers tried to put a lot into this system…and I ended up skipping it altogether. The obvious downside of having 500 NPCs is that absolutely none of them are given any personality. Conversations with them are pointless, the in-game texting system that lets you contact NPCs results in incoherent dialogues, and the amount of effort required to build these relationships just plain isn’t worth your time.

A Bit Past the Limit

Unfortunately, the graphical design of The Caligula Effect doesn’t fare much better. The sprite artwork of the characters is done well, if a bit mundane. The actual 3D figures on the field, though, are rather rough around the edges. Outside of the main cast, character designs are extremely repetitive.

The environmental design is just as unremarkable as the characters. I said earlier that the dungeons are very repetitive, and I didn’t just mean that in reference to gameplay. There’s simply nothing unique about the dungeon design – it really feels like the same few wall and floor designs were copy/pasted throughout the entire level. It occasionally reached the point where I’d become lost if I didn’t have a map pulled up on screen, not due to complexity, but lack of any unique visual cues.

Pushing this all further down is the fact that this game just doesn’t perform well on the Vita. The game suffers from poor framerate, even during simple exploration. Loading times between areas can be annoyingly long, adding further pain to all of the backtracking you’ll be doing in each dungeon. The game also seems like it can’t detect fast button presses, requiring you to be deliberate with your inputs, rather than rushing through commands (as I tried to do once I had my basic battle strategy set).

Like Top-40 Radio

On the plus side, the music featured in this game is pleasant at worst and insanely catchy at best. With your antagonists being an idol and a set of musicians, it makes sense that the soundtrack would be a priority.

Each dungeon has its own track, fitting the theme of the Ostinato Musician you’re out to eliminate. The way the songs are integrated into the dungeon was interesting at first, switching seamlessly between instrumental and vocal versions as you enter and finish battle, respectively.

However, following the theme of this review, it doesn’t seem like The Caligula Effect can have a good thing without ruining it somehow. The issue here is that these songs are relatively short. Also, they play on a loop. Also, outside of some plot moments, they’re the only song you’ll be listening to throughout each multi-hour dungeon. Even the boss theme for each dungeon is a remix of the song you’ve spent the last few hours listening to. In a couple cases, it eventually grated on me so much that I just ended up shutting off the music.

Mostly Forgettable

Overall, The Caligula Effect is a title that showed quite a bit of promise, but ended up being a plain chore to play through. The gameplay is tedious and repetitive, with its multiple featured engines being completely ignorable. The game doesn’t perform well on the hardware. Graphical design is uninspired and also repetitive, and the game grinds its catchy music in your face until you hate yourself.

The only real saving grace here is the plot, and even then, only during certain moments. With the flaws present in the rest of the experience, the story here just isn’t good enough to deal with them.

With all of the great JRPGs that have been releasing lately, I see no real reason to seek out this title. It’s a game that imploded on its ambitions, creating a title that doesn’t really offer anything worth experiencing.

Final Score: 4/10

Review copy provided by Atlus for Vita. Screenshots taken by reviewer.