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The Caligula Effect (Vita) artwork

The Caligula Effect (Vita) review

"Living in Persona's Shadow."

Iíve always found the most memorable games to be the ones that leave me conflicted. Theyíre rarely perfect, or even especially good, but I just canít stop thinking about them. Atlusí The Caligula Effect is one such game.

The story begins as a high school student discovers his school is actually a virtual space known as Mobius, which was created by a virtual idol named Mu and designed to fulfill everybodyís hopes and dreams. Itís an escape from the real world, where those suffering from various ailments (both physical and mental) can find respite. Of course, things that sound too good to be true often are. The player character soon joins up with other students, who have formed the ďGo-Home ClubĒ in an attempt to discover the truth of the world and escape.

If you think this scenario sounds similar to something you might find in Persona, you're right. The story was penned by Tadashi Satomi, the man responsible for Persona and the Persona 2 duology. Fans of those earlier games will have a good idea exactly what theyíre in for. The Caligula Effect weaves a dark tale about the Internet age, exploring the ways it allows us to conceal our true selves and the benefits of embracing who we are even if itís easier pretending to be someone else.

I certainly enjoyed the main narrative, but the true strength of The Caligula Effect lies in its characters. Like in Persona, each party member has a private reason to seek refuge in Mobius. While these stories seem simple at first (e.g. ashamed of their body, afraid of relationships), they become more nuanced and far more interesting later on in the game, to the point where I became disappointed that its peers, like Persona 5, donít feature similarly relatable characters.

Unfortunately, The Caligula Effect gets a little too ambitious for its own good, by allowing players to also form bonds with over 500 NPCs that litter the world. Not only are their stories overly simplistic, but the rewards for exploring them are disappointing. Once a player befriends an NPC, they can invite them to join their party, but these NPCs are often weaker than the core party members and efforts to improve them waste precious skill points that could be better spent developing the core party. Itís certainly an ambitious idea, but the execution is half baked and seemingly worthless; the party members that join over the course of the story are far more compelling both in a narrative sense and as allies in battle.

Speaking of battle, The Caligula Effect features one of the more interesting battle systems Iíve seen in an RPG recently, but squanders it with boneheaded difficulty spikes and a sluggish pace. Itís easiest to describe combat as an SRPG with a setup similar to the Final Fantasy active time battle system. Both the party and the enemy group move around a battlefield where position is key. With each turn, party members--who each have their own class and skill set--can input up to three commands. These include attacks, buffs and movement skills. Once a skill and target are selected, the game shows players a hologram depicting approximately what will happen. This preview function allows players to either go ahead with confidence, or to alter their decision to better counter any potential moves made by the opponent. It opens up a lot of interesting tactical abilities, but it never really amounts to anything because every battle (including boss encounters) can be won using the same skills ad nauseam.

Interestingly, the game encourages one-turn KOs and rewards the player with double experience for engineering them. Players must ensure that each party memberís attacks feed into the next. For example, the first party member can knock an enemy into the air and keep them airborne with gunfire, at which point the next member shoots them with a high-powered blast that only hits airborne enemies. As the enemy drops toward the ground, another member can catch them in mid-air with a punch combo that ends with an explosive punch to knock the enemy back into the air, allowing the final member to spear it multiple times. There is a neat system in place so players can alter where on a moving timeline they unleash skills, with the hologram showing potential outcomes and making it easier to determine when each member should get involved.

As you might have already guessed, this system is very time consuming. Clearing a simple battle might require upwards of 30 seconds to a minute. It doesnít seem that bad until youíve watched the same animations play out repeatedly over the course of 20 hours. A fast forward option would have been much appreciated.

The game also suffers from an absurd difficulty spike in the second dungeon. Everything seemed fine throughout the entire first dungeon. Then I hit a roadblock in the second one, with normal enemies suddenly proving far too powerful for my party to handle. I finally restarted the game on the available ďBeginner Mode,Ē which I found veers in the opposite direction and makes the game too easy. I completed the first three dungeons in the time it took me to complete just the first on the normal setting. I've read that the beginner mode was added post-launch, in response to complaints about the difficulty. Unfortunately, its rushed execution is apparent.

The Caligula Effect is at its core a dungeon crawler, and itís not a particularly good one. Every one of its dungeons presents a series of uninteresting hallways crammed with too many enemies and those aforementioned 500 plus NPCs that make the game chug. The second dungeon in particular runs at what feels like a constant 10 frames per second. After the third dungeon, I started running past most enemies simply because I just couldnít be bothered dealing with them. I was already frustrated enough by uninspired mazes that were seemingly designed first and foremost to confuse the player. Available way points pushed me in random directions and got me more lost than ever.

All of this makes it seem like Iím super down on The Caligula Effect. To an extent, I am. Itís a technically incompetent JRPG, with mediocre dungeon design and a battle system with squandered potential. Despite all of that, though, I still loved my time with the game thanks to the strength of its story and characters. I wish there was a better foundation to prop up those more positive qualities, but ultimately The Caligula Effect managed to win me over and might well do the same for you.

Phazonmasher's avatar
Freelance review by Zachary Walton (May 08, 2017)

Zach Walton likes JRPGs, visual novels, horror games and anything that gives him an excuse to drink.

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Nightfire posted May 09, 2017:

What I want to know is, what does this game have to do with Caligula, one of the most twisted and infamous Roman emperors of all time?
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Phazonmasher posted May 17, 2017:

You know, the game was just called Caligula in Japan, and I was wondering the same thing during my entire playthrough. It's never brought up once. I'm sure there's a Japanese interview somewhere about the name, but I honestly don't know.

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