PlayStation Vita is home to dozens of JRPGs so it takes a lot for one to stand out. Does The Caligula Effect have what it takes to get the attention of genre fans or would you be better off replaying some of the classics?
The Caligula Effect tells the story of a strange place known as Mobius that's ruled by a pop idol known simply as μ. In this place, inhabitants are forced to loop through high school. Meanwhile, music is brainwashing the students who then transform into evil "Digiheads" which you battle throughout the adventure. You play as a mute protagonist who realises that he's in a virtual world and meets similar-thinking people in the Go-Home Club. You could think of the plot as a Matrix-like story except the Matrix here is a perpetual high school loop with evil pop idols. It's a strange premise indeed but it's also undeniably intriguing and will keep you playing to see what unfolds.
Each member of the Go-Home Club has a unique personality and as the plot unravels, you'll learn that everyone has some deep emotional baggage. It's enjoyable to form relationships with them and discover their pasts. The most interesting part of the plot is how it portrays people's behaviour and how it relates to their insecurities. You could consider Mobius to be a metaphor for the internet in that the students within don't have filters and gradually grow into Digiheads the more they try and cover-up their own shortcomings. It has the potential to make you think: will you be happy with who you are as an individual or will you give in to self-hatred?
The Caligula Effect's soundtrack is fantastic with plenty of catchy songs that'll have you bobbing your head as you play. The music is mostly energetic complete with live instruments and vocals which give it a much fuller sound than you'd expect. The Japanese voice cast also does a great job of fleshing out the world although Aria (the fairy-like idol who follows your party around) can get annoying.
On a visual level, The Caligula Effect isn't all that impressive. The menus and character art come across as competent and smooth but the 3D models look like they belong in an original PlayStation game. The stages are enormous with many corridors, areas, and floors to traverse. However, they look the same throughout. Considering each area can take hours upon hours to complete, the lack of graphical variety makes working through them feel like a chore. Also, the fact that the enemies are all students makes the experience even more unvaried. Finally, I was surprised by how bad the frame rate is. I usually don't care about such things but the stuttering visuals here severely detract from the gameplay. Trying to avoid enemies as the graphics stutter can be a nightmare.
The battle system featured in The Caligula Effect is intriguing in its simplicity as all you do is select from various attacks that you can chain together. On the other hand, there are loads of factors such as guard breaking, performing combos, countering, choosing when to perform each move on a timeline, and watching potential attacks via the imaginary chain system. That being said, I found that all you have to do to win battles is make sure you don't accidentally confront foes who are a much higher level than you then just spam random attacks. Honestly, I didn't have any problems doing this and even beat the bosses without any effort. As a result, it's a needlessly bloated battle system that boils down to be extremely tedious seeing as you have to select plenty of menu options in order to just watch your party cut through enemies with ease. It's monotonous, time-consuming, and ultimately unchallenging.
On the plus side, The Caligula Effect features tons of content to master. First of all, you can recruit fellow students to join your party although the Go-Home Club members are interesting and capable enough on their own so adding more folks is likely an unnecessary task. You can also act like a therapist and help students deal with trauma which unlocks some powerful skills. On top of this, each main character has optional episodes to complete and there are mysteries to solve for each class and secret words to find that the game encourages you to work with people online to figure out. Honestly, I don't understand much of these aspects as of writing this but by looking at the trophy percentages, I can tell that barely anyone currently does.
The Caligula Effect tells an engaging story that has a deep thought-provoking message. However, the gameplay falls flat in almost every way which ends up making it a chore to play. In the end, Mobius is a virtual prison and it's fitting that it sure feels like one.
- + Thought-provoking story with a diverse and interesting cast of characters
- + Awesome music and voice acting
- + Plenty of content to master
- - Battle system is needlessly bloated and extremely tedious
- - Environments are incredibly monotonous
- - Awful frame rate and constant slow-down