I’ve only got eyes for µ
Having freshly wrapped up Persona 5 after investing over a hundred hours into the game last month, I’ve felt my love for the JRPG genre return with a fury. That said, it didn’t take long for me to set my sights on the next game to scratch that adventurer’s itch. And as a longtime fan of Atlus’ flagship RPG franchise, I was pretty excited to find out that the publisher’s latest release, The Caligula Effect, shares a certain bond with the Persona series.
The game’s story is penned by Tadashi Satomi, the writer of Persona 2: Innocent Sin and Persona 2: Eternal Punishment – two of my favorite games in the series. Suffice it to say I had high hopes for the title. Unfortunately, the end result doesn’t quite live up to the hype. An interesting story just isn’t enough to carry a game that’s plagued with serious performance problems and some of the least compelling dungeons I’ve delved in recent years.
Let me tell µ a story
The plot of The Caligula Effect is certainly a novel one. Players begin the game in the well-shined shoes of a student in a virtual world known as Mobius that’s governed by an enchanting vocalioid idol named µ. It’s here in this artificial high school that students live their daily lives in an everlasting three-year loop, oblivious to the fact that they’re actually existing in a state of digital purgatory.
Before long, the player becomes aware that something isn’t quite right with Mobius, and joins forces with a group of fellow “woke” students fittingly dubbed the Go-Home Club who seek to find a way out of their simulated prison. Joined by a diminutive idol named Aria, the team gains the ability to channel their inner fears into powerful weapons to help them on their mission. Unfortunately for them, µ and her loyal acolytes, a colorful band of pop stars known as the Ostinato Musicians, have been tasked with keeping the experiment running at all costs. And they don’t take kindly to a gang of plucky, super-powered kids meddling in their affairs.
The Caligula Effect’s story unfolds like a mish-mash of equal parts Persona, The Matrix, and Serial Experiments Lain, albeit with a liberal dash of saccharine sweet Hatsune Miku thrown in for taste. And while the game is pitched as a rather dark and mature, I found the narrative struggled to ever find its stride, teetering between brooding and goofy with reckless abandon. This, coupled with a cast of characters comprised of tired tropes with shallow motivations, lead to an ultimately forgettable story despite the game’s unique premise. In the end, those looking for a story on the level of Tadashi Satomi’s previous works probably won’t find what their looking for here. Though to be fair, Persona 2‘s gripping pair of dueling stories steeped in the occult did set the bar pretty high.
No mere schoolyard tussle
Despite the game’s high school setting, The Caligula Effect‘s battles are anything but childish brawls. You’ll spend plenty of time cracking the skulls of distorted students known as Digiheads using the “Imaginary Chain” system, which brings a welcome amount of depth to the table. Basically, each member of your party is able to unleashed three consecutive abilities – so long as they have the SP to do so – such as attacks, support moves, or evasive actions. After you select your moves, a distorted preview reel will play showcasing the possible outcome of the actions you’ve selected. By adjusting the timeline of your party’s actions you can coordinate your attack to unleash crushing combos, potentially landing a dozen hits on your enemies in one turn.
However, you’ll find out quickly that most attacks can only hit an opponent when they’re standing, in the air, or knocked to the floor. You’ll have to take careful consideration into the moves you choose, as it’s easy to just mash buttons and end up missing virtually every hit if you’re not paying attention just because you chose a type of attack that won’t damage an enemy because of their stance. It can be maddening when fights grind on for too long solely because you lack a character in your party who can land a decent shot on an enemy while they’re simply standing in place. Other times, fights with enemies of the same level seem to end just as soon as they begin.
While balancing issues are unfortunate, they aren’t what really hurts The Caligula Effect‘s combat system. That dubious honor goes to a camera that frequently finds itself lodged in walls due to the tight corridors that make up most of the game’s dungeons. I’ve even had the camera somehow manage to get stuck in different rooms than where the battle is happening. Situations like this are alarmingly common. And they make it nearly impossible to get a clear view of the action, often at the worst possible moments, like when you’re surrounding by a pack of bloodthirsty Digiheads.
The transparent command window is also bound to give players grief, as particle effects will often wash out the description text for your attacks. All of this visual clutter can leave you clueless as to what the move you’re executing actually does. Without a doubt, a more polished and refined UI would have done this game wonders.
Still, when everything comes together it can be incredibly satisfying to unleash a lengthy combo on your opponents. Boss fights are often lengthy affairs that require solid strategies to come out on top. And hatching out the perfect plan to shatter these mighty foes’ defenses can be hugely entertaining. This is thanks in no small part due to the fact these encounters happen in large chambers, which ensures the burdensome camera is much less likely to sour the experience.
Putting the dung in dungeon-crawling
If you’ve played your share of RPGs, it won’t come as a surprise to discover that the Go-Home Club spends most of their time exploring the dungeons of Mobius during their quest to return to the real world. And maybe I’m just a bit jaded by the excellent dungeons featured in Persona 5, but the labyrinths you’ll explore in The Caligula Effect just aren’t that fun to traverse. Most of these locales are haphazardly arranged mazes of identical corridors. And all of them feature the same repetitive types of Digiheads, who vary only in the types of shields or weapon pods that float around them.
While dungeon-crawling, you’ll often discover points of interest that can net you extra skill points to upgrade your move-set, and Stigmas, accessories which can boost your stats, are nestled around nearly every corner. Occasionally you’ll come across green markers on the map which will trigger Character Episodes, and completing these events will shed light on the backstories of members of the Go-Home Club. These side-missions are entertaining enough, and add a welcome bit of depth to the overall story.
It’s just a shame that the dungeons themselves are so uninspired. With no real compelling puzzles or enemy variety to keep things interesting, these winding mazes quickly overstay their welcome, and feel like one long slog to the boss chamber.
Seeking strength in numbers
If you’re a fan of Persona’s Social Link system, The Caligula Effect throws more friends at you than you can shake a weird, mutated gun-hand at. There are over 500 NPCs to make nice with in the game. And deepening your bonds with these characters will allow you to recruit them into your party, or unlock special abilities.
Of course, keeping track of that many characters would be a doozy. That’s where the Casualty Link menu comes into play. Similar to the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X, the Casualty Link system maps the relationships of all of the NPCs you’ll meet. Occasionally you’ll only be able to friend characters after you’ve forged bonds with their associates. It’s an interesting system, for sure. Sadly, these interactions are mostly mundane and offer no emotional payoff. So don’t expect any gripping side stories to pull you in like those found in the past few Persona games.
Thankfully, you pretty much ignore the Casualty Link system altogether. Personally, I’d focus on unlocking all of the Character Episodes for your party members instead, as they’re much more interesting in the long run. Still, if you’re a completionist, you may find some satisfaction in amassing a legion of 500 virtual friends. Have at ’em, you social butterfly, you!
I know it may sound like I’m being a bit hard on The Caligula Effect. The problem is that with so many great RPGs available right now, FuRyu’s latest adventure does very little to stand out from the pack. With ho-hum dungeon designs, a half-baked Social Link system, and numerous technical issues (don’t even get me started on the constant frame drops and lengthy load times), this Vita exclusive is a pretty hard sell.
Still, the game offers an original and often trippy story that may appeal to some, and the unique and innovative combat system, when not marred by technical issues, can offer some satisfying and strategic melees. When all is said and done, The Caligula Effect tries hard to do a great many things at once. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the end result is a game that’s perfectly mediocre.
Final Verdict: 2.5/5
Available on: Vita (reviewed) ; Publisher: Atlus ; Developer: FuRyu ; Players: 1 ; Released: May 2, 2017 ; ESRB: M for Mature ; MSRP: $39.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of The Caligula Effect given to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher.