The pitch for The Caligula Effect is a great one: a new Persona-like from the writer of early games in that series, but with a Social Link system that includes everyone and a battle system that relies on true synergy and teamwork. A soundtrack from accomplished artists and a theme that puts that music front and center. A tale that explores loss and trauma but gives you the tools to overcome those troubles.
It’s such a good idea on paper.
The Caligula Effect, out now on Vita in the West, is named after the psychological idea that something being prohibited makes it more tempting. Many of the characters in the game have succumbed to temptation or otherwise been affected by objectionable behavior, and much of the story is spent attempting to explore these ideas. The game’s script was written by Tadashi Satomi, a veteran of Persona and Persona 2, and its school-based setting certainly reinforces those feelings. So does the aesthetic, the sort of clean-but-cool look associated with those games and their many imitators.
The game’s set in a world of perpetual high school, a virtual reality in which graduates become first-years and no one realizes it. Or, well, almost no one. The “Go-Home Club” is formed from those who begin to realize the truth and see through the world’s illusions, and it’s your job to save who you can, fight those who are too far gone and generally investigate what’s happening and try to escape.
A story that deals with trauma and psychological issues is difficult even with the lightest touch and the best writing, and The Caligula Effect has neither. The idea that our character is shaped formed by our toughest moments is a promising one, and the manifestation of that — equipping various problems to manipulate player stats — could work if the developers were very careful. They… weren’t, though. Games in general, and Japanese RPGs specifically, have long been really bad at portraying psychological problems, and putting them front and center didn’t change that. Caricatures and stereotypes abound.
A story that deals with trauma and psychological issues is difficult even with the lightest touch and the best writing, and The Caligula Effect has neither.
Even outside of those problematic elements, the writing is just plain flat. And there’s a lot of it. It’s a cool idea to be able to develop relationships with everyone and recruit them to your cause — hey, we miss you, Suikoden — but in practice that needs smart, interesting characterization. And what we get here feels like machine-translated placeholder text that’s repeated over and over again and not particularly tied to any one student. How about when you get the students, though? No, they’re not mechanically diverse or interesting in a way that makes all that tedious effort worth it.
The battle system is The Caligula Effect‘s most innovative feature, and one that could be very cool: a hybrid turn-based/real-time system in which you choose actions that take place over time and can time party members’ moves tom create synergies and combos. You can see a projection of what could happen (it’s usually right, but sometimes arbitrarily very wrong), and it allows you to, say, knock an enemy in the air with one character and then uppercut them with another. This lends itself to experimentation, letting you find just the right strategy to topple a foe.
Or it could, theoretically. In practice, there’s one ideal solution for a given enemy, and you just go through the tedium of setting up that same exact sequence over and over. There are a few different ones to work out, and what exactly these sequences entail can change when you swap out party members, but managing the party doesn’t feel like it provides much of a tactical advantage so much as it makes you use trial and error to get your combos working again.
Caligula‘s aesthetic is a strong one, and one that will be familiar to anyone who’s played one of the many Persona-inspired games of the last decade. The combination of bright colors, simple shapes and textured, largely-monotone environments actually works well, which is… probably why we still see it a lot. It’s held back by some programming deficits, though.
The Caligula Effect is less than the sum of its parts.
First, the battles. They take place in the world itself rather than spawning a battle arena, which lets you take that into account when preparing to fight. The problem there is that these environments aren’t designed for battle and end up being very glitchy, blocking much of your view and generally being inconvenient. Second, just the general performance. A rough frame rate is more forgivable in a game that doesn’t have a lot of real-time action, but this one’s so low that it’s headache-inducing.
But hey, the music’s really good! There’s some solid work by talented Japanese producers in the soundtrack. I don’t have anything bad to say about the music.
The Caligula Effect is less than the sum of its parts. It’s a disappointing JRPG on a system full of great ones (many of them from publisher Atlus), and it’s understandable why this title wasn’t backed by a retail release and marketing campaign. We’re happy to see weird and different efforts get localized, but players simply have much better ways to spend their time and money.