As unhappy a thought as it is, there are plenty of people across the world who wish they could escape the confines of their life. To break free from the shackles of unhappiness that bind them and live the way they truly desire. However, there are no true shortcuts to attaining said end goal and, though it is far easier to say from an outside perspective, one must work hard to reach their truth through personal choices. Of course, most choices don’t involve dumping your brain into a complex virtual reality system, but hey, video games.
Take, if you will, the VR concept that has permeated anime for quite some time now, wherein a number of characters are separated from their bodies and trapped inside a digital world. Now combine this with the personal development arcs that comprise Persona and hey presto: The Caligula Effect. With the Go-Home Club leading the cast, as the only group of students who realise the world they live in is fake, the story is a relatively simple “Let’s get out of here!” affair. And by relatively, I of course mean a bevy of villains oppose our heroes’ attempts to return to the lives they left behind. Violently oppose. With music.
As it was created by the highly advanced virtual idols Mu and Aria, Mobius, the aforementioned VR world, possesses a heavy reliance on the power of music. With each song she creates, Mu is able to absorb the negativity of those in Mobius and keep them in a happy, and oblivious, state. Whilst this is an interesting concept, I never felt as if it had any true bearing on the story and served merely as a way to explain the mechanics of Mobius. Despite constantly reminding us that music possesses an inherent power, it was not integrated with the vibe of the game to make any lasting impact and instead felt somewhat disjointed from the darker, personal driven dramas of the cast. Perhaps more glaringly disconnected is music from the apparent direct followers of Mu. Known as the Ostinato Musicians, none of their abilities revolved around music per say, instead simply using weapons to fight. Not even instrument oriented weapons, just regular tools like axes and guns. I will say, however, that I appreciated each major opponent possessing their own song, as said Musicians additionally serve as Mu’s songwriters.
Speaking of weaponry and disconnection, the main cast held one major flaw when it came to acquiring their unique powers: It was too easy. Said to be born of a heart running wild, disrupting the parameters of Mobius, no character showed any great effort in attaining this state. The game begins by laying out that the protagonist must express their deepest truth, turning such a raw output of repressed emotions into a weapon. Though a brief sequence, it at least sets some degree of tone when it comes to this initial transformation. After that however, the members of the Go-Home Club simply get mad at a villain who is oddly relateable to them and gain their power in an instant. Hence, moments of personal discovery become by-the-book expressions of, “This situation is personal and bad and I feel personally bad about it.” One character simply gains their power because they feel like it and, though somebody very briefly comments on the oddity of this, it really amounts to nothing special. I can tell what each level was trying for, focusing on an individual, developing their identity, but it mostly fell flat. All at once.
You see, this game has a rather large problem with front loading. From the second you press Start, terminology, characters, plot points, battle mechanics, tragedies, personal beliefs and a bevy of other intricacies are thrown at you, leaving little time to catch breath. It is this same methodology that makes the main cast caricatures until about a third of the way through the game, once you’ve had time to process each of their unbelievably tragic tales. Before that turning point however, it is quite difficult to buy into this world and those who struggle within it, especially since their true motivations are unveiled even later into the adventure. You are able to go above and beyond somewhat, learning a little more about each character and aiding them in healing some old wounds, but these side quests amount to a few dialogue choices that are swept up in a flow of exposition and loading screens. You can apparently fail these quests however, something I did not even know was possible until towards the very end of the game, when a dialogue option was presented in a far different way to how it was enacted, something that appears occasionally throughout the game. This is most noticeable in the WIRED App the game utilises as a hint system…if it can be called such. Though meant to aid you should you lose your way in a dungeon, it seldom provides any actual direction and instead has an ally remind you that you are supposed to “Beat [Insert Bad Guy Name Here]” to advance. And if you decide to ask a second time, every other character simply asks if there’s anything you need help with. It’s infuriating. There is another purpose to WIRED, in that it can connect you with the 500 NPCs who roam Mobius and are in need of help. Doing so nets you an equippable item, but seeing as you can win those from battle, this function is largely unnecessary. Especially since every NPC uses the same seven stock responses when you talk to them, providing no additional story or interest. Which is a shame.
And now we come to the combat of The Caligula Effect. In short: It’s pretty confusing. In concept, you are supposed to plan out the attacks of your team, placing each along a timeline to best utilise each character’s particular skillset and create a healthy, and rewarding, flow. In reality, this takes a tremendous amount of time and the frequency with which basic enemies attack will make you want to avoid doing any of this after about ten minutes. For the most part, I resorted to selecting all three available attacks per character per turn and assaulting the enemy all at once, timeline be damned. And more often than not, it works fine. The viability of this timeline system does increase exponentially when boss fights roll around but, as there are about ten of these in total, you can find yourself out of practice very fast. I will say however, that having your team employ a combo strike is satisfying and multiplies damage like crazy, turning tough battles into a walk in the proverbial park. So if you feel like doling out some true punishment, practice up your timing because, though you can alter when each character can personally strike, you cannot return to a character you have already locked in. Which can be troublesome. Though the Imaginary Chain, which showcases how your selected moves may play out, helps mitigate this a fair amount. There are also technically three forms of ability: Catharsis Effect (attacks), Battle Effect (stat buffs) and Affection Effect (healing). To be honest though, other than the need to heal the SP needed for attacks, most of this game is played in the Catharsis Effect column. Or at least it can be.
As much as I try to avoid comparing games to each other, The Caligula Effect is, in its main execution, a watered down Persona. With character developments that are handled with all the delicacy of parody and a world that never truly meshes with those trapped inside it, the entire experience gives off the vibe that it is trying to live up to expectations that it has set for itself, yet cannot reach. And though thematically relevant, in an odd meta way, it does not inspire confidence or promote interest. Though I did find myself caring about some characters of the Go-Home Club, I am not entirely sure it wasn’t because their stories were so by-the-books sad. The death of relatives, the crumbling of a relationship, the loss of innocence, sad to be sure, but lacking in that level of character that fosters a feeling of uniqueness. That propels them above the sum of their parts. The Caligula Effect does not truly achieve this at any point and, though a pretty fun, if not overly complicated, foray into the JRPG genre, it is very much the sum of its parts…if not a little less.
Embrace The Caligula Effect (Note: The Caligula Effect is a psychological term that notes the desire to do that which is forbidden)