We live in a world of smart technology which is steadily becoming more capable of anticipating our needs, but what happens when that technology evolves into to true artificial intelligence and decides it knows what’s best for us? This is a very real concern among both scientists and intellectuals alike, and the basis for The Caligula Effect. In order to help humans escape the misery of everyday life, two benevolent virtual dolls, μ (pronounced Me-you) and Aria, created a virtual haven. By listening to one of μ’s songs, troubled people are transported into Mobius, a digital paradise where everyone is eternally young and every day is fun.
Paradise turned to prison when, for reasons unknown, μ changed the rules of Mobius, wiping people’s memories of the real world and keeping them trapped within Mobius forever. Unaware that this simulation is not the real world, citizens of Mobius relive an unending loop, experiencing high school again and again. Despite living in an ideal world, many residents of Mobius cannot completely escape the negative emotions which brought them there, and while some succumb to their rage, the lucky ones realize the true nature of their virtual prison. Trapped within a world of false happiness, rage and despair become your primary weapons, with a little help from Aria, as you and your teammates, the Go-Home Club, try to fight your way to freedom.
The world of Mobius is massive, and provides a huge number of places to explore, skills to collect and wonders to find. Boasting massive roster of more than 500 characters, The Caligula Effect is impressive in size and scope. Everyone within the world of Mobius has one thing in common: They harbor some kind of deep emotional wound. Despite living in paradise, humans cannot always ignore their inner turmoil, and negative emotions can consume them in one of two ways: Some give in to their anger and transform into Digiheads, violent, short-sighted shells of humans who will attack you and your party without provocation, or they can shrivel and fade away entirely, leaving behind a Remnant. These Remnants are powerful tools which you can equip to the protagonist or his teammates, allowing you to utilize these negative emotions to your benefit in battle.
With a fascinating premise and a huge cast of characters for you to get to know, I was tantalized by this game’s potential, especially as it boasts a script written by Tadashi Satomi, a veteran of three Persona games. Ironically, The Caligula Effect not only fails to live up to this potential, it seems to actively sabotage itself along the way.
The game’s massive roster of NPCs are all capable of joining you in battle, if your friendship levels are high enough, but not every character is immediately approachable. Some are shy or high strung, and will only accept your friendship, or even a casual conversation, after you have befriended those they are already close to. Enter the Causality Link, a menu option which houses a map of the massive web of characters and their intertwining relationships within this game. Befriending other characters allows you to learn more about their stories, their reasons for being transported to Mobius, their deepest, hidden secrets and even their real-world identities.
Social interaction and bonding with other characters is a cornerstone of this title, and yet the game seems to do everything it can to downplay the importance of these interactions. Talking to any character, be it a random NPC or a member of your team, will trigger a stock conversation which is often shared and repeated by any number of characters. Adding insult to injury is the fact that you see only the first and last bits of the conversation, the game cuts to black in the middle, further emphasizing that this is a chore, a mechanic which you must fulfill, rather than a meaningful social interaction. Your teammates, at least are given a bit of character development thanks to Character Episodes, special interactions which unlock after a certain amount of idle banter. Because both conversations, and the WIRE (the Mobius chat room/text messaging program used by all residents), reveal no personal information at all, the only way to learn anything about a non-major NPC is to open up the Causality Link map, find their icon and read their profile there.
The lack of meaningful character interactions is not helped by the decision to use a silent protagonist. While it does prevent you from having a conflicting reaction to that of the lead character, it also means that you do not get to enjoy any bonding banter with your teammates. While you are selected as the leader of the Go-Home Club rather early on, you, as the player, do not get to make any meaningful decisions. If you volunteer the ‘wrong’ person for a mission, the game will force the ‘correct’ individual to step up and take the job. If you decide that a character should not be a part of the group, the other members will override your decision, forcing the plot down the story’s singular path. All of this combines to make the game unfulfilling, underscoring the futility of both your interactions and your decisions, making the world within the game feel narrow and restrictive, despite how vast it appears on the surface.
Given the style of the game and the focus on social bonds, it’s impossible not to compare this title with Persona 5, especially as it boasts a script written by Tadashi Satomi, a veteran of three Persona games. Unfortunately, this title simply fails to live up to its potential, thanks to a narrative which requires a great deal of uninspired wandering and unfulfilling social mechanics. Choosing a Western release date so close to that of Persona 5 also feels like a tragically poor choice, especially given how Persona 5 makes every decision feel important and meaningful, while The Caligula Effect chronically undermines itself by overriding your choices, ignoring your preferences, and using random, throwaway dialogue.
This game encourages you to explore its vast, winding and often maze-like dungeons, which often consist of public spaces, such as shopping malls and libraries, but it goes about this in all the wrong ways. The areas are so large that it takes the Vita a noticeable amount of time load to load any given map. While this isn’t a deal breaker, it is enough to pull you out of the groove, and can become pretty oppressive if you get stuck and have to wander to find your next action. One of the more frustrating moments of ‘encouraged exploration’ occurred early on in the game, when several locked doors blocked my progress in multiple directions. I found and flipped a switch, and the game helpfully told me that a door unlocked ‘somewhere,’ with no hint as to where that might be. This required me to crawl through several different areas and floors, checking each previously locked door in order to find which I could now pass through. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t the closest one.
Likewise, doors and Remnants can be locked by ‘Digihead interference,’ and my efforts to unlock these would result in my killing off every last Digihead in the area, only to find the element still locked. This kind of frustration ranged from a minor inconvenience to a literal game stopper. If you get stuck, you have no real options to get help within the game itself. While you can talk to members of your party, this only triggers casual banter to increase your Causality Link affinity, and posting in the WIRE does not yield any hints, either. This resulted in my greatest frustration with this title: Endlessly wandering winding hallways, entering and exiting areas again and again (remember that slow load time I mentioned?) in a futile attempt to move the plot forward. This is the kind of game which would very quickly reduce me to using a guide–and I hate using guides.
The battle system is one of the highlights of this game, being flashy and incredibly fun to watch, but even this comes with a healthy dose of frustration. Combat is based around the Imaginary Chain, a turn-based system which rewards chains of attacks, up to three per character per turn. These chains must be coordinated, as foes can be in one of three states: Standing, launched or downed, and attacks are only capable of hitting opponents in one or two of these states. The Imaginary Chain is a probability projection allowing you to preview how your battles will likely turn out, letting you to plan your attacks and slide your actions up or down the timeline to coordinate hits, create attack chains and maximize damage.
While the end result is a stylish, intense explosion of action and color, setting it all up can become very repetitive pretty quickly. By the time you reach the fourth and last character on your team, you’ve already entered 9 different commands and have yet to actually start the fight. Additionally, you have to press triangle while previewing your attack if you want to chain another move, and accidentally pressing X instead locks in your decision. Once X has been pressed, you have no option to edit or add to their moves, which can be a real in-game tragedy. This system made me yearn for an auto battle, or the ability to set up a default attack chain which I could execute with one click. The distinct lack of these features resulted in my taking up a playstyle which involved using the same three moves over and over again, mindlessly selecting the same set of skills just to move the battle forward.
Different characters fill different roles within battle, some are powerhouses while some are better suited to hanging back and acting as a support. These roles are further broken down when you try to set up chains, as some characters excel at starting chains, some at maintaining a chain, and some are best at ending a battle quickly. This further complicates your team makeup, since a huge amount of wandering means that you will be fighting a whole lot of trash-tier battles which you’ll want to end quickly with your hard-hitters, but the same is not true of boss fights. Boss fights are generally very long, and require intelligent and careful management of your skill points. If your hard hitter blows all of their moves right away, they’ll be useless for the next turn or two, while they replenish their SP. Characters which are less SP thirsty have an advantage in these fights, in which they can do a great deal of damage over time, but their low burst damage can draw out grunt fights, and potentially cost you the double experience bonus of ending a battle in one turn. Balancing your team, and ensuring everyone you need have been properly leveled, is vital.
The Caligula Effect relies on save points, though it does allow you to save and swap team members out at any time in an area lobby, the landing page between the world map and entering an area. Because you can only change out teammates in the lobby, I often found myself arriving at a boss battle with the entirely wrong team composition, and having to teleport back to the lobby, swap out allies, then hike my way back through the entire dungeon yet again. Save points can be few and far between, and powerful enemies lurk on any given map. When I was only level 10 and wandering the school rooms solo, there were several enemies who were level 18 or higher lurking around campus, eager to ambush me. Even with a full team, I had difficulty taking on an enemy four levels higher than my protagonist, so facing them solo was suicide. While this adds to the replay value of areas, allowing you to return at higher levels to conquer enemies and gather powerful Remnants, it also means that I had to spend a lot of time replaying the same areas, because my escape from battle spell would fail two out of three times, making me an easy kill for more powerful enemies.
In addition to finding Remnants, which you can equip to your character, you can also use Skill Points to purchase more Catharsis Effects, which are the attacks you use in battle. Skill Points are gained from leveling up, defeating enemies, and from finding world wonders. Don’t get excited, there is no Grand Canyon inside Mobius. World wonders are marked by little gleams of light, and are nothing more than quasi-interesting things you can find in the world. Each wonder is described by text, and these ‘wonders’ include such finds such as a squished red bean bun, a teddy bear which is missing an arm and a stain that looks like a human face.
The other bright spot in this game is the music, which is ties in nicely to the central plot. I can’t say that I’m well versed in any kind of pop music, being ambivalent to downright hostile to the genre as a whole, but the soundtrack is upbeat and fits the setting nicely. While the songs are a bit repetitive, they did not grate on me, which is probably saying something. While the names mean tragically little to me, the soundtrack is composed of a number of popular J-pop stars, including OSTER project, 40mP, 164 and cosMo@Bousou-P.
Despite my many frustrations with its mechanics, The Caligula Effect tells an interesting story, exploring the darker side of human emotions and what it really means to be happy. While the game seemingly goes to great lengths in order to undermine both its premise and fun, there are several delightful moments and harsh realities to face… you may just want to have a guide handy so you can minimize the wandering it takes to find them.