Publisher: Atlus USA
Platform: PS Vita
Release Date: May 2, 2017
ESRB: T for Teen
It has been only one month since the release of Persona 5 and Atlus USA is already eager to publish another role-playing game full of traumatized high schoolers. The Vita exclusive RPG: The Caligula Effect is a bit different than the countless knockoffs of Atlus's flagship series, however.
For one, it actually has the writer behind the first three Persona games behind it (Persona, Persona 2: Innocent Sin & Persona 2: Eternal Punishment), Tadashi Satomi, which should imply a more bleak tone to storytelling akin to older Shin Megami Tensei games, so that immediately piqued my interest it. I think it would have been warranted too if what narrative potential it has was not squandered in the mobius loop of disappointment with the gameplay's pacing.
The intro to The Caligula Effect feels rather distorted, with some of it being intentional. Something along the lines that the mostly mute main character learns that he's trapped in what was supposed to be a digital utopia called "Mobius". Of course, something is not quite right with the digital world which causes the lead to accidently get magical powers based on unstable human psyche (NOT-Persona), and meeting like-minded individuals of the "Go-Home" club who want to Go H-- um, return to reality. So, the lead, and his eventual and slightly crazy posse, decide to confront the famous digital idol "Mu" (Technically "Î¼"), whom (partially) created Mobius, about their desire to escape from it. The premise made more sense in my head.
The early portions in The Caligula Effect feels like an bigger mess of systems it does not really know what to do with. There are functions like being able to recruit over five hundred party members from random 'classmates' wandering dungeons, text messaging system called "Wire", and a nightmare of an ability tree called the "Causality Link" if you earn friendship points with the five hundred non-main story party members. However, most just feels superfluous in the monotonous dungeon crawler grind that is the overall experience that I avoided dabbling with it entirely except for when I was forced to in the main story.
The bulk of the experience (about 80%, I'd wager) is primarily within its clumsy dungeon design and repetitive combat system. It is all the more unappealing to behold when it is presented so ruggedly with a choppy frame rate (battles primarily), messy animations, long load times between the lifeless environments, and the like.
Before I get too critical, however, the most promising of the two main gameplay facets is the combat system. Battles are kind of like a weird hybrid between turn-based with real time elements (think Final Fantasy IX's ATB system), a juggling based combo system, and random MMO styled cooldowns tossed in. There are bit and pieces of the combat system that truly I like. For one, before inputting any action you see a sort of general playback of how both enemies and allies will react if you do it in the small time frame it is playing (...assuming the attack doesn't miss, or the character gets interrupted by the geometry). I also like that you can get pretty granular to potentially optimize combos or perfectly time a guard break/counter skill, which is neat.
...Until the repetition sets in, which is very quick. The Caligula Effect really does not reward creativity in combat -- just efficiency (even that being debatable). The enemies that would survive long enough to weave fancy party combos around them you frankly should not be fighting. It is often best to have a bread & butter combo of using your most powerful skills at the offset so you can get the experience bonus and save time. If enemies don't die from that initial barrage the pacing slows down quite a lot. Early in I would try to fight foes several levels higher and... that's a bad idea. Basically, the player's stat disadvantage against foes a few levels or higher gets pretty huge, to the point where allies will even miss more than half of their attacks in addition to paltry damage, and the game just kind of throws such overpowered foes around every other corner despite the player not needing to be that high complete the dungeon.
Oh, and if the main character dies it's an instant game over. You can imagine how pleased I was to learn that after being in a single battle for over thirty minutes, try to extrapolate what combat depth I could, and randomly getting one-shotted.
Now, admittedly, the main reason I put up with the frustrating gameplay was to witness the sporadic storytelling and listen to more of the soundtrack, which I would say it is more intriguing than it is actually good. Well, okay, the music is actually quite good despite its J-pop styled flair. Though not quite as masterful, it does a similarly neat trick as something like Nier Automata where the audio will dynamically shift based on whether you are in combat, waltzing around the obnoxious dungeons, or facing the main boss of the level. That said, as good as the dungeon/battle tracks are, you can only be entertained by the short music loops in such lengthy, and often more than several hours, treks through dungeons for so long. Each of the main story dungeons felt like they gave me just one more reason to dislike the title with its shameless backtracking to trigger scripted events, countless copy & pasted corridors, and mashing the X button to talk to, or recruit, for one reason or another.
As for the main storytelling in The Caligula Effect, it is intriguing, but hardly paced well because of the game's design. Despite the setup that easily paints the Go-Home club as the good guys, one of the more curious aspects about the storytelling is that the members that follow you around are actually deeply flawed individuals, to the point of being quite unlikable at times (even if a few are somewhat redeemed in their optional character events, I think), that becomes much apparent each new dungeon. This is where "The Caligula Effect" name pretty directly comes into play because it touches upon various taboos. And it does not really shy away from uncomfortable subject matters like various forms of depression or a desire for escapism. Still, for as much as it drummed up my curiosity, the dark storytelling overall is simply not good enough to really warrant a playthrough because of all of the frustrations around the entire experience (despite not being all that long for RPG standards).
The Caligula Effect is a real strange case study where I was quite intrigued to see what it'd have to offer going forward but every time I picked it up I could not have been more eager to stop playing because of the actual gameplay. I know Aquiria is capable of making of making decent games after playing Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization not too long ago (despite how much I hate the source material.) but The Caligula Effect is a gameplay-oppressive mess despite its good intentions. I suppose I was not too unlike the main characters in the story where I was saw promise of a digital utopia and ended up in a nightmare that I, and others as well, should desperately try and escape from instead.
+ Some intriguing, darker themes that are brought up with each character's arc
+ Great soundtrack that dynamically transitions from vocals to instrumental compositions mid-gameplay
+ Being able to see how combat skills are likely to play out in advance before inputting them to is a nice touch
+ I like the character portraits?
- Obnoxious, lifeless dungeon design that makes a big habit of backtracking and fetch quests
- Combat system is incredibly repetitive even with over 500 playable characters
- Several inconsequential gameplay systems that next to nothing overall aside from another number value to grind
- Long load times and choppy framerate throughout
- Main character KO = immediate Game Over to title screen
- Several main party members remain quite unlikable despite some intended moments of redemption, which can be offputting
Overall Score: 4 (out of 10)
For as much morbid curiosity as I bore towards the grim storytelling The Caligula Effect excels at so little as an actual game to really be worth breaking the taboo of actually playing it.
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable Vita code provided by the publisher.
Edited by barrel