The Caligula Effect Review
Release Date: May 2nd, 2017
Platform: PlayStation Vita
ATLUS and Persona are two properties that signify quality in the JRPG spectrum. Regardless if you're playing Shin Megami Tensei, Persona, a spin-off of either of those two, or any published title from ATLUS, you're in for a splendid time with quality localization and an adventure that's robust regardless of the platform you're playing it on. The Caligula Effect sees an original title published by ATLUS brought to you by the acclaimed writer of the first few major Persona games, Tadashi Satomi, who helped bring Persona to where it is now with its outstanding storytelling thanks to its compelling narrative, likeable characters, and unique art style that stands out from the "typical anime look". In The Caligula Effect, you'll be set in a virtual world, Mobius, that quickly turns corrupt thanks to an unknown cause that you and your friends must uncover in this world of vocaloids and musicians.
The Caligula Effect has a flair that most ATLUS published games have. It's got a bright but welcoming art style that is both pretty to look at but awesome to see in action when things heat up. You jump straight into the action once you wake up in Mobius, unbeknownst to you how you got there or how to even get out, and Mobius's creator and resident vocaloid, Micro, stylized as μ and pronounced "Myoo", approaches you and abruptly ends her concert. It's when this happens that Digiheads begin to spawn and form, crazed students that have an inability to control their emotions that ultimately manifest into twisted beings. When you're confronted by a few of the Digiheads, in order to protect yourself, μ's companion, Aria, decides to help you out since she's nowhere to be found and decided to stick with you guys. She helps you unleash hidden potential by having you dig deep inside of your heart for issues and secrets you've had with you for a long time that's made you feel sad or angry. In a way it sounds like teen angst given that the characters are from Kishimai High School, but really it's a story of overcoming your faults and harnessing those lessons into advantages you can turn into the greater good.
As with Persona titles, The Caligula Effect has its fair share of anime cutscenes, the difference is is that they transition seamlessly from the gameplay. Most times with pre-rendered cutscenes or any scene trigger in general, you'll usually have the screen fade to black or warp before setting up whatever follows, but Caligula Effect goes between the two in such a quick frame it's rather impressive. There's no loss of immersion, even though going from 3D to 2D may throw you off a bit, it helps when wanting to give some parts of the game more flair through an animated segment versus a lower quality 3D rendition. Not only do the in-game cutscenes transition seamlessly into the animated ones, but the battles are the exact same way. While fighting in an area you're currently standing at is nothing new thanks to hack-and-slash games as well as action-RPGs paving the way for it, it's neat to see a turn-based RPG do this. In classic Final Fantasy titles, Pokémon, and other turn-based RPGs like those, typically when you encounter an enemy - whether on screen or in an overworld view - the screen will warp and you'll wait a few seconds before finding yourself in a small area where you're on one side of the screen and the enemy is on the other with a backdrop that matches the area you're in, but in The Caligula Effect when you engage in battle, you and your party members will transform into their respective "unleashed" style and the battle UI will immediately pop up. Time around you freezes, but those involved in the encounter are fully animated and ready to go with an interesting battle mechanic ready to boot.
Battling and the methods you use within it is divided into three sections: Catharsis Effect, where you'll be spending most of the time as you'll want to use these moves to inflict physical and magic attacks on your enemies until they're destroyed, Battle Effect, where you can utilize passive abilities and buff your party whichever way you see fit, including increased attacks, HP recovery, etc., and the final being Affection Effect, where you can use these as more tactical approaches to battles to help either move your players around to dodge moves, delay your attacks, or just escape battles entirely. To add the uniqueness of The Caligula Effect, the battle system is set up in a way that's referred to as the Imaginary Chain, wherein before you execute your moves, you can get a "glimpse into the future" of how the outcome of your choices will end up like, so you can get a good idea of roughly how much damage you'll be doing, as well as if the enemy will be countering your moves at all. This is an interesting take on a battle system that's certainly had me stop and think about reconfiguring my moves and thought process as in some situations, even when you feel like you have the upper hand and the opponent is just a hit away, you can't simply just hit them with a basic attack and expect to be done.
The Imaginary Chain's glimpse into the outcome of your choices is a big help in making sure you're strategizing to the best of your ability, especially when facing multiple enemies at once, as things can get a bit chaotic. Another interesting thing about how The Caligula Effect works with its battles is its item management, which there is none. You would expect to have potions and various items to help in times of need, but the only times you do get to replenish any health is through your healer or Save Points. While this may seem like a problem to some and may come off as its automatically in Survival Mode, it really isn't. You'll replenish anything you've depleted after a battle, leveling up automatically restores anything lost, and Save Points are nicely placed throughout the places you explore, so it never feels overwhelming or gets to the point where you start to panic. It actually works out to its benefit while giving you one less thing to worry about in your journey throughout Mobius.
A big problem The Caligula Effect has, however, for all the neat ideas it has and interesting spins on the JRPG genre, is that the enemy variety is virtually nonexistent. Digiheads come in different styles, but they ultimately all look the same, and the battles will feel repetitive and become boring very quickly due to this fact. Your methods of battling may start to feel a little stale as you become accustomed to how they begin to act, and once you get your party at a high enough level you just begin to go through these guys like it's nothing. It's interesting that it becomes this mundane and easy because before starting the game it gives you the choice of beginning it on Normal Difficulty or Beginner Mode for those less familiar with the genre. I've been playing the game on Normal Difficulty, so I can only imagine Beginner Mode must have you run through the game like it's nothing. The Caligula Effect is still time consuming as most JRPGs are, but it's not time consuming in the best way it could potentially be like other games tend to execute their long play times. Unlike Persona where you can go "explore" a few hubs before heading back into your next dungeon or next quest, The Caligula Effect has all its areas ultimately disguised as dungeons. What this means is enemies will be sporadically placed throughout the maps, while you'll have normal NPCs you can talk to and engage with to build their profiles within the game and earn more skills that way, and you'll have Save Points spread throughout as well with quest markers placed within them.
On top of that oddity, you'll spend hours on each "dungeon" before moving onto the next episode, which the game's progression is divided in, and while it's cool to look at at first, there is a lack of variety in its design when moving on to another floor or area that you'll frequently find yourself lost from all the twists and turns, and if it wasn’t for the map and little text next to it telling you which floor and location you were at, it'd be hard to discern where to go next, as main missions don't entirely show up on your map until you've "uncovered" the area by heading to that location. There's also only one track that plays throughout each area, and when you're spending hours in each, it can get incredibly annoying. The songs are good, don't get me wrong - actually, the whole soundtrack is great - but when the same song is on loop for hours on end, it can drive a man to insanity, no matter how good it is. There is a cool thing The Caligula Effect does though where outside of battle the instrumentals of the track will play and be a bit more slow tempo, but once you engage an enemy the vocals and everything else comes in to make it feel fuller, as well as being more upbeat. That, along with everything else regarding transitions in the game, is seamless also.
For some odd reason, despite being well into the game, tutorials still manage to show up. These are medial tutorials also that you've already gotten the hang of within the first hour, or should have at least been explained in that time, that for some reason linger as you play more and more. A lot of the pop ups that tell you about how to navigate menus or what certain icons mean are utterly pointless, and the fact that they show up well into the game becomes a bit invasive and annoying.
Unfortunately for all that The Caligula Effect does right, there are a lot of things, although minor, are ample and can deter a lot of players in the long run, certainly from investing a lot of time into the game. The performance isn't the best, and you'll be going sub-25 fps easily majority of the time. It's nothing game-breaking, but it takes away from what the game has to offer, and when battles get crazy intense and moves are being done by all party members simultaneously with flashy explosions and what not, the game can easily drop to about 17fps, and it hurts to see. I'm not sure why this is the case either when there typically isn't much happening on screen and every location you go to tends to look the same once you're traveling inside of them -- a bunch of twists and turns, lots of locked doors that are never meant to be opened, and predictable enemy behavior.
Despite being helmed by Persona writer Tadoshi Satomi, The Caligula Effect doesn't offer that truly captivating writing and characters we've come to know and love about his work throughout the years. While the writing is far from sub-par, there's a lack of interest in the development of the story, and the repetitive nature and lack of inspiring set pieces don't really invite you to check out more. With its $40 price tag and digital-only nature, it's hard to recommend this even to the most hardcore of JRPG fans like myself, but it certainly doesn't mean it should be skipped. If you're looking for something to buy time before the next big release you're looking forward to, this is a game that will nicely fill that void in-between your next big thing, but although there are a lot of things to like about The Caligula Effect, none of it is particularly memorable or worth praising other than its art style and unique battle system. It's a game worth playing and picking up, but only once the price matches what's being offered. The biggest problem with The Caligula Effect is how they keep touting Tadoshi Satomi's involvement with the game, and most people are going to go in expecting some new type of Persona title, but this is not the way to look at it. Think of it more so as a mixture of 7th Dragon III Code: VFD, Etrian Odyssey, and Hyperdimension Neptunia, and I believe there will be a lot more to be appreciated in The Caligula Effect.
- Fantastic art style
- Smooth transitions between cutscenes and enemy encounters
- Unique battle system makes for more rewarding and strategic gameplay
- Repetitive and exhausting
- Heavy performance issues can hinder the experience
- Dungeon crawler in disguise
Massive thanks to the good folks at ATLUS for providing a review copy for The Caligula Effect!