Review: The Caligula Effect: Overdose
A couple of years ago, Atlus published an ambitious little title for the Vita known as The Caligula Effect. Many compared it spiritually to the Persona series, which is no surprise, since the writer that penned the game’s narrative, Tadashi Satomi, was also the mind behind the first two Persona games.
Unfortunately, many also considered The Caligula Effect a rather disappointing title…ourselves included. While having an interesting plot and some great character writing, the game was bogged down by just about everything else.
Between confusing gameplay, a stunningly bad framerate, and a core feature involving 500 NPCs to build relationships with, the original release overall felt just too ambitious for its own good, especially for a handheld title.
A year later, the game received a port to a system much better suited to its needs: the PlayStation 4. However, it wasn’t really a port so much as it was a full-on remake from the ground up, and it therefore also received a new name: The Caligula Effect: Overdose. Now a year after that Japanese release, this remaster is making its way to Western shores. The question is, will this release be able to polish up the original’s tarnished reputation?
Developed by Aquria and published in the west by NIS America, The Caligula Effect: Overdose is set for release on March 12th, 2019, for PS4, Switch, and PC. The PS4 version was played for this review.
The Other Side of the Story
The base story is much the same as the original Caligula Effect: the nameless main character discovers the world they are living in is not the real world, but rather a digital creation named Mobius. Ruled over by what is essentially an evil Vocaloid named μ (pronounced “myu”), the main character joins up with a group known as the “Go Home Club” to find a way to escape Mobius. Standing in their way is the Ostinato Musicians, a group of composers for μ who wish to remain in this digital world, and set out to brainwash the Go Home Club back into the mass collective to keep Mobius from falling apart.
As a ground-up remake, Overdose features a number of changes and additions to the story. You now have the choice of playing as either a male or female protagonist, which can significantly change portions of the story and character relationships; I chose to play through as the male protagonist again, mostly for comparison to the original game, so I did not have the chance to view these changes for myself.
What I did get to see, though, revealed itself about five hours in after the second dungeon. Where I was expecting to begin the third dungeon as in the original, I was instead presented with a new cutscene where my character was approached by the leader of the Musicians, offering to show him the “other side of the story.”
Yup, the biggest new feature in Overdose is a new storyline where you get to become a dirty traitor! So, of course, I pursued this plot thread, becoming a Musician named “Lucid” and getting to interact more with the game’s antagonists.
Unfortunately, this new “route” is less of a separate storyline and more of some extra dialogue and stages weaved into the base game. You essentially become a double agent, still working with the Go Home Club but occasionally donning your Lucid persona to assist the Musicians. The opportunity to get more backstory and characterization behind the antagonists added an extra interesting layer to the original plot, but the way the new storyline was actually handled left me somewhat disappointed.
Overdose also introduces four new characters, two each for the Go Home Club and Musicians. I can say, I was surprised at how well these characters were weaved into the story, although I’m sure it helps with how much of the game was rewritten to include them. The writing for them is just as strong as the original cast, and one of them (a man-hating student named Ayana) even became part of my regular team in battle.
While I did (and still do) have some issues with the storyline, it was the gameplay of the original that really killed The Caligula Effect for me the first time around. I can say, though, that Overdose does a great job at cleaning up some of the original’s main issues…although the key word here is “some.”
Like the original, Overdose‘s battles take place in a blended turn-based/real-time system. At the beginning of battle, you input three commands for each of your characters (out of four total in your party) and then they execute all at once according to a constantly-moving timeline.
Using the game’s “Imaginary Chain” system, after inputting commands, you’re given a preview of how your attacks will connect and affect the field, assuming they’re executed perfectly. Here, you can adjust the timing of your attacks, allowing you to string together some impressive combos between the members of your team.
In Caligula Effect, while an interesting idea in concept, the actual system was a confusing and cluttered mess. Battles against trash mobs were slow and plodding, each character had three “sets” of battle options with obtuse names which led to confusion when planning attacks, and much of the game could be pushed through by using the same attacks over and over.
Overdose alleviates many of these issues. For one, just the extra screen space on a television makes things much less cluttered and easier to navigate. Each of the battle option categories are now much clearer (attack, support, and movement), with the effects of each skill much more obvious. Unlike the original, I was finding myself actually having fun setting up combos and watching them execute gracefully in Overdose.
Unfortunately, my final point of contention with the original wasn’t fixed. Nearly every fight can be completed by using the same set of attacks over and over; once you find an effective combo, it’s simple just to use it to steamroll everything. The only time I had to deviate from it was if an enemy happened to put up a barrier at an inopportune time.
Adding to the ease of battles is a new limit-break-style “Overdose Attack.” Once a meter is filled, you can execute a flashy cutscene attack that knocks off a significant chunk of your enemy’s health. If you’re a patient player like me and save your Overdose Attacks for the boss of each dungeon, they often become trivial. While the second boss in Caligula Effect was a bit of a time sink, here in Overdose, I busted out all my charged Overdose Attacks and took her out in the first combo. She didn’t even get a chance to move around the battlefield.
Most disappointingly, two of the things that irked me most in the original remain unchanged in Overdose. First is the dungeon design – incredibly repetitive massive mazes that twist and turn on themselves, with dead ends hardly being worth exploring. Overdose had an extra slap to the face where the first dungeon I explored as Lucid was a replay of the the first dungeon, but mostly in reverse.
Secondly is the “Causality Link,” the relationship-building with 500 NPCs I mentioned at the beginning. The system returns here, and is just as utterly useless as in the original. Pointless conversations, incoherent dialogue, it’s all still present in this remake. If you do decide to play Overdose, just ignore this system completely.
If there’s one massive improvement over the original in Overdose, it’s the fact that the game actually runs well on the PS4. Gone are the chugging framerates, with everything here running incredibly smooth.
It still ain’t much to look at, though, as the actual visual design is just as unappealing as the original. I have no idea how the game’s intriguing concept art was translated to such a boring in-game presentation, but here we are, and it’s just not pleasing to look at.
Environments are just as repetitive to look at as they are to explore, character animations are limited and rough, enemy variety is non-existent, and there aren’t even any basic lip-flap animations when anyone is talking during cutscenes. Everything about it just screams “budget game,” which is hardly the aesthetic you want to go for when remaking a game from the ground up.
Being a bit more positive, the music here is just as well-written and catchy as the original. The new songs for Overdose fit right in with the original tracks, and I can say I enjoy the theme song for Lucid.
Of course, Overdose stumbles into the same problem as the original, with only one song playing throughout the course of an entire dungeon. The game still does the thing where it plays an instrumental version of a dungeon’s song during exploration, and seamlessly switches to a vocal version during battle, which I still find to be a fun gimmick. However, even with some excellent songs, all of them eventually begin to grate on you once you have to listen to them loop for two-to-three hours in each dungeon.
Not Enough Polish
Overall, The Caligula Effect: Overdose does quite a bit to fix up the stumbles of the original, including a few massive overhauls. It doesn’t do quite enough, though, carrying over a number of the Vita version’s questionable choices.
This is actually my third time experiencing this story, having played the original Caligula Effect on Vita and watching the game’s anime adaption which aired last year. Each outing with this franchise so far has been disappointing in one way or another.
I guess you could say that I’m a glutton for punishment, but I see things in a different way: I really wanted for this franchise to succeed. The story has some unique ideas and great writing, and the music in each entry has been legitimately great. It just seems that nobody whose gotten their hands on the concept has been able to make it work.
If you were intrigued by the Vita version but held off on playing it, Overdose is obviously the best way to go about it. There’s enough cleaned up here for really hardcore JRPG fans to take a look, and I can’t really say that this is a bad game not worth experiencing anymore.
If anything, it’s stepped up to “aggressively mediocre.”
Review copy provided by NIS America for PS4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.