There are multiple narratives told within a single video game release: that which the developer intends for the player to experience during a playthrough, as well as the experience the player actually has. The objectives of the characters within the game, as well as the objective of the directors, programmers, and writers that contributed to the project. The literal events of a story, and their nature as a response to the real-life events that have influenced them. With that said, it’s important to acknowledge that the meta-narrative – the events and objective chosen by the developers in order to influence the eventual product – is an element that is not-often discussed in video game reviews, though it does creep into journalism on occasion. One has to consider how much this meta-narrative will impact their enjoyment of a title, or even if the choices informed by the meta-narrative benefit the product as a whole.
If you’re wondering what this all has to do with The Caligula Effect: Overdose, this became a huge consideration for me when reviewing this title. Simply put, this is a game that is a wonderful conversation piece, with a number of philosophical themes and seemingly intentional design influences centered on the human experience, the nature of omniscience, and artificial existence. Appreciating a game’s intentions, however, is very different from enjoying them, and this is primarily where The Caligula Effect: Overdose tends to stumble.
In order to understand the context behind the development of this game, there’s a bit of required reading that is necessary. If you’d like a better perspective on supernormal stimuli and its impact upon society, check out this Digitally Downloaded article and review of The Caligula Effect: Overdose. For a condensed overview: supernormal stimuli is an artificial representation of a thing that is perceived to be superior to its inspiration. This can be an act, an object, or what have you, but the effects of supernormal stimuli are more powerful than that of the original, leading us to anticipate and even desire the effect of the supernormal rather than just the normal. If all this seems a bit of a strange jumping point for a review, let’s dive into gameplay in order to see how this concept develops within the game.
The Caligula Effect is an active-turn RPG centered around dungeon crawling and social link management. Players take on the role of a silent protagonist who has come to realize that the idyllic world of Mobius is not all that it seems. In order to break out of this realm, the protagonist joins forces with the enlightened members of a group known as “The Go-Home Club.” Together, they engage against Digiheads, converts of the Mobius mentality, and the Ostinato Musicians, the team orchestrating compliance and ignorance in Mobius, in musically-oriented turn-based battles.
Each of the four active party members can select up to three moves per turn in battle, which then play out in active time. Players can preview the result of their selections before confirming each action, each of which costs a certain amount of AP. This preview is crucial, as the entire party selects their actions before engaging in combat, so each individual party member’s actions will stack upon one another until you have confirmed all selections. This also enables the player to set up specific combination attacks, which is how party members tend to synergize with one another. If the protagonist counters a melee attack, they can force an enemy to the ground, where another character’s ground-exclusive AoE attack can be performed as a follow up.
The preview action not only allows players to witness when this would occur within the timeline of events, but it also shows how enemies are planning on attacking, as well. This is a bit backwards, seeing as a player can’t accurately select a proper counter move until they see what the enemy has planned in the preview screen, and it does cause frequent alterations to approach.
Party members each serve very specific roles, whether it’s as combination starters, ranged superiority, or for status infliction, but the game’s mechanics allow for a variety of party builds based around a relatively small number of mechanical nuances.
Each character has their own weapon style and function, but their use largely comes down to player preference, largely because the Caligula Effect isn’t very hard. Combat becomes more complex when more enemies are involved in battle, but due to the limitations of the original version, it seems that enemy encounters were spaced out far enough so that you’ll only be facing down groups of four at the most. Likewise, unless you are playing on the highest difficulty, most of your combinations and tactics will execute without fail, and considering the incremental encounters you’ll be facing, you’ll gradually gather experience and never really feel the need to grind. If you do choose to raise the difficulty, you’ll find yourself utilizing AP refreshes, movement, and guard commands far more often, but even with tangible challenge, the minimal enemy variety means you’ll be creating go-to command lists and party setups to combat certain engagements.
Dungeons are a mixed bag in The Caligula, as their exaggerated aesthetics fail to mask the lack of complexity found in each environment. Every dungeon in the game is based upon a representation of a real-life structure, such as a school, hot spring resort, or library, but corridors are often narrow and blocky, with each coat of paint being the most meaningful difference. You’ll have to perform different tasks and switch flips in order to progress to each boss battle, but considering the size of each dungeon, the width of corridors, and the frequency of enemy encounters, these areas quickly become a slog. Keep in mind, that’s simply from a gameplay standpoint.
Outside of dungeon crawling and battling, you can occupy your time by speaking to the astronomical amount of NPCs in the game. The social link system is sadly very shallow, yet still used to gate every single side-quest in the game. Talking to an approachable NPC (sometimes you’ll need to grind them out of their Digihead state) will register them as an “acquaintance,” at which point you can either waste your time texting them on the in-game mobile app, or waste your time speaking to them in person, either method raising their status to “friend.” Upon reaching this point, you’ll be able to recruit these NPCs as party members, and in doing so, solve their specific traumas. These traumas may require grinding them to specific levels, equipping certain stigmas (the game’s form of equipment), or having them meet another protagonist.
Sometimes, traumas can be solved simply by growing closer to other NPCs on the game’s vast relationship management network. Still, despite the massive amount of NPCs to befriend and manage, the rewards for these partnerships are negligible, starting small and growing proportionally in relation to the gradual progression of the game. If you wait to complete these quests, the special passive equipment sets trauma quests grant will be useless, but the amount of heavy lifting required to get to some of the more meaningful bonuses is an absolute slog. This would be far less aggravating if the NPC character dialogue were a bit more varied, but that’s rarely the case, even in scenarios where their trauma quest triggers additional dialogue. They’re also hardly worthwhile additions to the party, due to their limited utility in comparison with the main cast.
Aesthetics and Narrative
In Mobius, every character is represented as a high school student, the idyllic version of their self-image (because sure, high school was the best years of everyone’s lives). Likewise, all of the locations are superficial representations of real structures, stylized to fit a warped and superficial perception of the world. While the game world features a mixture of saturated coloring in certain locales while opting for a more sterile and lifeless coloration in others, the stark black and white balance of the character designs makes for a unique and bold look that draws comparison to those found in Shin Megami Tensei.
Still, the unique look of the weapon design paired with the way characters seem to peel away their pale exterior to reveal their black catharsis forms gives off an impression not felt elsewhere. It is in these moments where the Caligula Effect’s concept of the supernormal seems to work best – everyone has a clean and professional appearance mixed with dangerous and alien weaponry. The simple geometry and layout of the environments mixes with the color scheming to create a surface-level representation of the places a teenager would frequent, but they never truly feel natural or lived-in, despite the numerous NPCs roaming the halls.
Battle animations push the stylish appearance further, with some snappy and fun animations found throughout that shove enemies around the field in spectacular fashion. Some animations seem overly long as a result of combat balancing, though, and the amount of ranged weaponry doesn’t really make for tense, in-your-face battles. The amount of animations occurring simultaneously also contributes to occasional slowdown in combat, which is a bit disappointing, considering the Switch version still boasts better performance than the Vita version.
One extremely frustrating element of the game, however, is its soundtrack, which features tracks composed by popular vocaloid artists from Japan. Because of the game’s musical context – Mobius being created and controlled by a vocaloid named μ and enforced by her Ostinato Musicians – the selection of composers seems valid, but the music is far too repetitive and energetic to sustain the two hour spells within dungeon environments. Although the tracks are dynamic, growing in intensity and gaining vocals when a battle is initiated, they are on extremely short loops that grow aggravating after hearing the same licks over and over. While some may justify this choice as a representation of the obsessive nature of their composers, there are ways that these tracks could have been remixed or repurposed between dungeon floors in ways similar to their boss battle remixes, alleviating their repetitive nature. Even if the choice to have them omnipresent was intentional, it does not make the game any more enjoyable to play.
The narrative of The Caligula Effect is one of similar duality to Shin Megami Tensei, in some ways, which makes sense due to writer Tadashi Satomi’s involvement in the first three Persona titles. However, the duality is actually a feature exclusive to Overdose, as it adds a new scenario where players can come to familiarize themselves with the Ostinato Musicians and better understand their reasons for remaining in Mobius. Despite their generally surly personalities and quirks, they’re not all that much more redeemable than the playable party, who possess their fair share of unlikable traits.
This is because Mobius is a realm created by μ to sweep all of the disenfranchised and despairing individuals into a world of supernormal bliss, where their traumas could be locked away in an eternal secondary school existence. The result is a mostly flawed group of characters and some equally – if not moreso – disturbed NPCs. While an exploration of the idea seems fascinating, The Caligula Effect is more concerned with showing off superficial slice-of-life skits involving the main cast and their interactions, while the larger group of NPCs have their traumas solved in questionable ways. Perhaps this is another bit of commentary regarding the superficial nature of the game and its simulated reality, but its never truly implied, as trauma quests never build upon one another, to my knowledge.
While the added Musician scenario offers new insight to the antagonists of the story, the way this plotline is integrated into the main narrative in order to give the player the stereotypical moral choice towards the end of the game is lazily executed. In short, much of The Caligula Effect’s writing lightly touches on the depths of its subject material, but it never progresses beyond the surface-level.
Impressions and Conclusion
When I first saw promotional material for The Caligula Effect, my curiosity was piqued due to its flashy combat and brilliant visuals, so I can safely say that I went into the game with a very open mind. However, once I settled into the gameplay loop within, I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated with the choices made with its design. Again, the idea sounds fine in concept, and it offers a fabulous talking point – if a god or idol existed that only wanted the happiness of its creations, would the world lack the depth and substance that it currently possesses? Would this world possess denizens satisfied to let their traumas fester, or would ignorance and/or tolerance require enforcers in order to make an idyllic realm exist?
If the world were truly more perfect, would it need such regulation and enforcement, to begin with? These are questions worth delving into, but the matter of mortality is far more pressing within the narrative and takes top priority over more philosophical matters. The world is not realistic and the social systems lack depth, and though these elements add to the idea that Mobius is nothing more than a simulation, they are too undercooked to offer a meaningful objective for the character. It is even hard to feel satisfied by the music in this digital world, as it lacks substance and breadth.
Most troublesome, however, are the technical hiccups I experienced over the course of my playthrough, which only exacerbated every qualm I had with the game. I continued to experience frame rate drops in both handheld and tv mode, often when combat animations were occurring simultaneously or when a large number of NPCs were roaming an area with a long draw distance. Oddly enough, a way of improving performance came in the form of reducing the game’s BGM and voice volumes, so I supposed the developers were aware of how irksome their OST was. The reason these frame rate drops were so annoying was due to the nature of the combat system, which requires players to view previews of their intended game plan in order to see if attack combinations will function properly.
Simply put, the way the game has these animations play out at their usual pacing results in an exhausting and repetitive experience, as any alteration to the timing of a move causes the preview to reset itself. Yes, you can reposition your moves in order to make sure they occur at the right points, but because you only view the “playlist” of your party and not enemies, this often takes several tries to nail perfectly. That means you’ll need to watch about ten to thirty seconds of gameplay again, which adds up over the course of a playthrough. Add frame rate drops to this concept, and a unique combat system with several neat quirks quickly becomes a tedious affair that is no longer enjoyable to play on higher difficulties due to how much time each engagement takes.
This brings us back to the start of our review, and a discussion of whether or not objectives, context, and meta-narratives can be appreciated despite a game proving to be mediocre. In the end, The Caligula Effect: Overdose is exactly that – a conversation piece worth discussing for its bold ideas and concepts, the commentary it hopes to provide on the nature of supernormal stimuli and the degradation of society. A game worth watching videos about in order to see how its combat can look when it plays out perfectly.
All of these are options that sound much more appealing than the act of actually playing the game. As an alternative to Persona with writing and style very much seeped in Japanese culture, the Caligula Effect: Overdose is worth consideration. However, you’ll need to ask yourself whether or not you can enjoy the idea of a game that only reaches its potential on a handful of occasions, and whether or not any of what you’ve read so far sounds worth checking out.