Ever since Persona 3 shook the foundation of Japanese console RPGs, we’ve seen loads and loads of me-too games that are all about students and school life. It’s a formula that continues to work, after all, as we see in games like Persona 5.
The Caligula Effect is another take on this genre from publisher Atlus, one that seeks to expose the darker edge of this sort of escapism, and it ends up being a quirky and interesting experience despite the limitations of its fading PS Vita platform.
Living an idyllic high school life is one thing, but how about living it forever? How long could you exist in a world designed to be perfect before you started to pine for reality? The members of the Go-Home Club of the world of Mobius are facing that question, having started to face the truth: that Mobius is just a simulation built by the virtual singer μ. As part of the Go-Home Club you’ll work to find a way out, but the path is fraught with danger, both from μ’s deranged Digihead servants and from the Ostinato Musicians who seek to keep the status quo in Mobius.
The other part of this that bears mention, though: it’s not like you came to Mobius for no reason. Everyone who’s here wanted to be here on some level, and that typically means they were running from something. Escape, then, will mean confronting the trauma you initially tried to get away from, and in many characters’ cases that trauma can be surprisingly bleak. The Caligula Effect refers to the urge to break taboos and do what’s prohibited, after all, which should give you an idea of what we’re talking about.
The point remains the same, though. You’re trying to escape, and you’ll have to do more than just run away; fighting your way through problems is certainly an option. Your characters wield a power called the Catharsis Effect, essentially a means of manifesting their repressed emotions as weaponry and taking out their frustrations on baddies. It’s a fancy term that basically boils down to an excuse to beat the crap out of Digiheads while pink flower petals fly around everywhere.
Combat in The Caligula Effect has a lot in common with Supergiant’s RPG classic Transistor. As in that game, you’ll stop time and queue up attacks, then watch how the results play out. Unlike the quasi-turn-based mode in that game, though, here you’ve got multiple characters to work with and victory revolves around teamwork. Many enemies have powerful defenses that you won’t be able to break through with brute force.
Instead, combo attacks are the way to go; try knocking them into the air then having one of your gunslingers blast them while they’re helpless. After queuing up your attacks, you’ll get a visualization of how your actions will play out in the coming round, allowing you to refine your choices as the battle goes on. You can also delay characters’ actions in order to time everything just so. The whole thing’s very satisfying once it all comes together.
What’s less satisfying is the game’s performance. The poor, overworked Vita simply can’t handle The Caligula Effect. The game struggles to maintain a consistent framerate. More crowded battles slow to a crawl, and even running around between fights is a slog. That’s a shame, because the visual design here is intriguing and battles seem like they’d be quite the spectacle if they weren’t running at a shaky 10FPS. Given the trend of Vita games eventually finding their way to Steam, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a vastly superior PC port of The Caligula Effect in a year or so.
On the other hand, the sound design is absolutely fantastic, as you’d expect from a game about singers and musicians. μ’s music is central to the plot and plays throughout each area; in a particularly nice point, dungeons and battles use the same music, as when you engage in combat the soundtrack kicks into gear and a vocal track is added. It’s incredibly endearing and clearly a lot of attention was paid to making the game sound great.
At around 25 hours it’s a shorter RPG than some might expect, but the darker themes that The Caligula Effect touches on make for a unique experience that’s worth checking out. As mentioned, the battle system is a lot of fun once you’ve gotten the hang of it as well. On the other hand, the Vita’s simply outclassed by this title, so you’ll have to endure some really questionable performance issues to see your way through. If you can look past that, however, then it’s an escape worth attempting.