Review: The Caligula Effect (PSV/PSTV)

Review: The Caligula Effect (PSV/PSTV)

Formats:

  • PlayStation Vita

Format/Hardware Used:

  • PSN Download
  • PS Vita

Extras:

  • PlayStation TV Compatible Yes
Title: The Caligula Effect
Format: PSN (1.18 GB)
Release Date: May 2, 2017
Publisher: Atlus
Developer: Aquria
Original MSRP: $39.99
ESRB Rating: T
PEGI: 12
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

Going into The Caligula Effect, I was really hoping for something good. As a fan of handheld platforms, and the Vita in particular, I wanted what could be one of the last Vita exclusives to be good. The pedigree seemed like it was there: the director worked on Persona 2 and many other staff members are veterans of the JRPG industry.

Sadly, it’s a bit of a let down. There are some very interesting and unique systems at work in the game but none of it ends up going anywhere. The whole package is further dragged down by a tale and cast that are well trodden and not particularly groundbreaking.

The story sees the unnamed player character suddenly realizing one day that the school life he has been living isn’t real. With the help of some others, he finds that he is stuck in Mobius, a virtual world created by a virtual idol named μ. Mobius was created with good intentions: a way for people to escape the stressful real world but μ’s desires have since warped.

Together with the Go-Home Club, the player character seeks to find μ and discover a way to leave Mobius. Naturally though, not everyone who is aware of Mobius’ existence wants to return to the real world. A group of songwriters seek to protect Mobius, and by extension μ.

Gameplay:
The game actually starts off pretty quick for a JRPG. After a couple of cutscenes, the player is introduced to the Go-Home Club, the game’s combat, and is dumped into the first dungeon. The first thing I noticed was how many NPCs were walking around. Even amidst the enemies of the dungeon, there are dozens of school students just milling around.

It turns out there are 500 unique students to interact with. Well, uniquely named. I think there are just a few variations on the same couple of character models. In typical JRPG fashion, all of these students have a friend level that can be increased by talking with them.

However if writing 500 storylines for each NPC seems like a tall order, it apparently is. Talking to most NPCs simply offers a few lines of canned, repeated dialogue before giving the player a “Congratulations! You got to know them better” popup.

Slogging through this enough to rank the characters up will give a few rewards and the ability to use that person in the party but it’s largely not worth the time investment from what I could tell.

While certainly novel for including that many characters, the whole thing seems like a middle finger to completionists. Tracking down specific characters can be a chore, characters will only respond to texts so many times, and not every character is available from the outset. Some require that others be friended before they’ll talk to the player.

Interestingly, these NPCs all exist in the same spaces as the enemies. In fact, entering battle with enemies is all done directly in the dungeon so even while fighting enemies, NPCs can be wandering by.

There’s a bit of a shoehorned story reasoning that most people are so brainwashed by μ that they don’t notice the enemies. Since battles all take place in the real space, it’s possible to even draw enemies to specific places to fight them.

The combat in the game is very unique, with the closest battle system I can think of being a combination of a traditional Final Fantasy “Active Time Battle” system and Valkyrie Profile.

… planning out each ally’s moves to hit some combo feels like wasted time …
Like the former, attacks happen in real time but are picked from menus like a turn based game. And like the latter, each character can use up to three actions and there’s an element of trying to combo off of each other party member, with a couple avenues to do so.

While attacks happen in real time, when a character is ready to pick moves time stops as the player queues up attacks. And the unique thing is that during move selection, the players get a preview of how those attacks will play out with shadowed representations of enemies and allies acting out the currently queued actions.

This means the player can use the preview to help them time movement and dodges to avoid the enemy’s attacks, which is one of the more interesting parts of the battle system. They can also see how their own character’s moves will combine, such as whether a move will properly air-juggle the enemy after being knocked in the air by another character.

Of course, there’s still an aspect of randomness. The preview shows the ideal situation but moves can miss, depending on character stats, and some moves rely on a random chance for bonus effects.

Also, sometimes the enemy can respond to a later ally’s actions so the preview isn’t always set in stone. Still, it’s a very helpful part of the game’s combat and one of the very unique things it brings to the table… which is why it’s sad that it rarely matters.

Characters heal damage after each battle and most foes at or below the player’s level aren’t very tough. So spending several minutes planning out each ally’s moves to hit some combo feels like wasted time when it’s possible to beat the foe by just spamming a few basic attacks.

… the dungeons all feel very poorly designed …
There’s a slight bonus for doing cool combos, but doing this for every battle would just make the game excruciatingly long.

And on the flip side, enemies that are even just a few levels higher than the party take next to no damage from the party’s attacks. While it might be possible to get through battles like this, it can be a slog that’s rarely worth the time which could be spent grinding through a bunch of easier enemies to level up first.

The game’s dungeons are decently long, a few hours each, and I found myself either avoiding foes or just mashing out attacks to quickly clear the ones that saw me. The complexities of the battle systems only really mattered to me when I was fighting bosses or enemies in the exact right level range, which is unfortunate.

The real kicker is that the dungeons all feel very poorly designed. There’s the usual array of “go here, get item to open door, continue to new locked door, repeat” type main quests.

But even with quest markers showing up on the in-game maps, it can be confusing as to where you need to go or what you need to do. I got stuck and unsure where to go several times and finally gave up on one of them so I have yet to complete the game.

Because the neutral NPC characters are all part of the normal dungeons, there really isn’t anything to the game besides those dungeons. The story shunts the player from area to area, to clear and then likely forget about. Without much to break up the gameplay, like towns for instance, it can start to feel a tad monotonous.

… There’s a kernel of an interesting idea in the story …
There are a few optional parts to attempt to break things up. The main cast has some special character episodes to get to know each of them better. Unlike the 500 other NPCs, these are individually written.

And there is the occasional high level enemy guarding an item that’s clearly intended to be the “return here later” mechanic. Though I doubt the rewards for doing so warrant it.

Story cutscenes are abundant, though it seems light for a JRPG, and they don’t help with the monotony. There’s a kernel of an interesting idea in the story in the fight between escapism and being willing to face life’s challenges head on, however I’ve seen the theme handled better before. The Caligula Effect really doesn’t add anything new to this kind of story.

Visuals:
The graphics are pretty standard Vita fare. In terms of aesthetics, the game passes fine but never pushes too far. The way the characters activate their powers is pretty cool and there are some decently animated attacks in combat. However the school uniforms and locations boarder on bland with nothing to set the game apart from the million other anime school settings.

The amount of on-screen characters is impressive for a Vita title, though the game has some pop-in and occasional framerate stutters because of it. I never felt like those issues impacted the gameplay.

The camera can impact it though, as a lot of the locales are filled with tight hallways. During battle, sometimes I found myself swinging the camera around a lot to find a place to watch the action.

… I’d like the music more if I didn’t have to listen to it for so long …
Audio:
With the world being created by a virtual musician, clearly meant to be a Miku stand-in, I figured the game would have good music. At first I liked how the soundtrack was handled.

The background music in the dungeon and for battle are the same song only the vocals are stripped out for the former. The game transitions seamlessly whenever a battle starts up, with the vocals suddenly cutting in.

It’s a cool effect but the problem is that using the same song for both means essentially listening to that song for the three or four hour dungeon on loop. I feel like I’d like the music more if I didn’t have to listen to it for so long. Most of it is pretty typical j-pop fare.

Voices are only in Japanese and are pretty passable. Of course the ton of side NPCs aren’t voiced and some smaller side or incidental content isn’t voiced, not that I’d expect it from a game of this size or scope.

Online/Multiplayer:
This game is one player only with no online component.

Conclusion:
Overall, The Caligula Effect feels like it’s on the cusp of something decent and just falls short. There are cool ideas in the game’s combat and the story but neither quite hits home.

The combat is just a little too involved to warrant how many enemies there are in the game, meaning either actively avoiding foes or slogging through a ton of similar battles.

The unique parts, like the huge cast of NPCs to friend, might be enough to hold the attention of some players but I feel like those people are the outliers. For the rest of us, the game ends up being average and it fails to live up to its full potential, which can sometimes be worse than being outright bad. Sorry, but I’d rather live in the real world than fall into your escapism.

Score:
5.5

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Vita’s built in screen capture feature.

Written by Andy Richardson

Andy Richardson

A longtime PlayStation fan who enjoys JRPGs and rhythm games when he’s not tweeting about his parrot.

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