The ‘Caligula Effect’ is a psychological term referring to the desire to see or do that which is prohibited, something I’m sure we’ve all experienced at least once in our lives. The Caligula Effect is also a Japanese role-playing game developed by Aquria for the PlayStation Vita that, while being vaguely related to the psychological term in some capacity, didn’t explain it to me until I read the digital manual. Regardless, The Caligula Effect is a game I’ve had a great deal of curiosity about since its announcement in early 2016, being a PlayStation Vita exclusive (which is always a good thing) with a story written by the writer of the first three Persona games, Tadashi Satomi. Being an enormous fan of the Persona series, I found great potential for this game, even at its initial reveal, so I was pleased to see that Atlus, developer of the Persona games, would be publishing and localising the title outside of Japan. Unfortunately, even after playing it extensively, potential is all I found credible within it.
The Caligula Effect’s story revolves around a virtual singing synthesizer titled μ, which after achieving sentience and witnessing the hardships of daily life for every person that uses her, traps all of humanity into a digital world where they are their ‘ideal selves’; however, a small group of people can see the digitalisation of their surroundings and start a rebellion (in the form of a school club) to return to the real world. This includes the protagonist who teams up with a small group of fellow high-school students to…politely ask μ if they can return home. Seriously. In μ’s place as the villain are the Ositano Musicians, a group of μ’s obsessors who see the group as traitors to μ’s paradise.
The story is just saved from being yet another anime teen drama plot by its writing and likeable main cast but only barely. Every attempt to involve psychological themes within the game’s plot just comes off as childishly edgy and forced, plastering itself aside the colourful aesthetics and cheerful J-pop music, unlike something like Persona 5 which based its entire aesthetic around its theme. The writing does stand out within the bright aesthetic as the characters don’t take themselves too seriously most of the time, and there’s some quite entertaining banter between them, except for the occasional spouting of their ‘daily struggles’, something the cast of The Caligula Effect love to use as a blanket term. At every opportunity that the story calls for it, the protagonists talk about their struggles in the real world, but nowhere does the game explicitly mention what those struggles are, not even in the game’s ‘not Social Link’ events are they really given the attention that could resonate with the player, which is a shame because I did find myself enjoying them to an extent.
The best way I can describe the combat is basically ‘if Xenoblade Chronicles was turn-based’. The game uses turn-based combat with active-time element by allowing the player and party members to use a variety of skill attacks that can be chained together and timed accordingly to deal the most damage to enemies. This gives the combat a great strategic edge to it, and I occasionally found myself getting sucked into the battle system when facing tougher enemies; however, it took me much longer than anticipated to actually understand the combat as the game, instead of guiding the player along and teaching them the mechanics gradually, would much rather immediately present the player with walls of text explaining the new mechanics every time they are introduced, keeping them away from battle for as long as possible. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only time this technique is present. On multiple occasions the game presents the player with multiple walls of text in the place of easy to understand tutorials, essentially throwing them in to fend for themselves. As a result of this, every part of The Caligula Effect’s gameplay took me much longer to understand than it should have, from the main combat to simple elements, such as levelling up characters’ skills. The combat also suffers from the inability to simply skip through tougher enemies, instead you must plan an attack for every party member before a single one can attack, the one that may inevitably end up defeating the enemy too. There is still an admirable amount of enjoyment to find in this battle system though, as it is quite unique and, with further development and time spent on making it easier to understand, could be something special.
One thing I cannot defend about the game is its performance. The PlayStation Vita may be a 5-year-old console now, but it’s still a very impressive piece of technology with beautiful looking games, such as Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Persona 4: Dancing All Night, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel and Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls, some of which are comparable to PlayStation 3 titles. The Caligula Effect is definitely not an ugly looking game either, it’s actually got a very nice aesthetic with nice looking character models. What is ugly is its abysmal frame-rate. I don’t think there was a single moment of gameplay during my time with the game that ran anywhere close to 30 frames-per-second. The game fluctuates uncontrollably between 20 and at least 5 frames-per-second, and it’s just painful to behold. It’s not helped at all by the game’s terrible camera, which feels perfectly comfortable clipping through every wall and floor nearby during combat. It at least works a small bit better during the dungeon-crawling sections, but only because it’s tied to the protagonist’s back so closely it doesn’t even have space to find a nearby wall (and by association, neither does the player). Despite this, again, the game isn’t actually a bad looking game, at least in terms of actual visuals. The character models are nice, a little less animated than character models in other PS Vita games, but definitely up to the standard of how those games actually look. There are animated cutscenes sprinkled throughout the story which also look very nice, coupled with the great character designs that very nicely replicate the characters’ personalities and add to their admittedly limited charm.
This is one of the more frustrating examples of a game missing all of its great potential, because if you’re anything like me and are always craving a game that is in some way similar to the Persona series outside of just gameplay, The Caligula Effect comes the closest I’ve seen in a while to reaching that goal, especially with the writer of the first three titles in the Persona series penning the story; however, to compare Aquira’s The Caligula Effect to Atlus’s Persona series on a quality level is also a massive insult to the latter. The Caligula Effect could’ve been one of the most unique JRPGs to come out of a smaller developer in a while, but instead developer Aquira bit off way more than they could chew by making a game that has the makings of a great RPG but not the makers. With a lot more development time, money and skill, this could’ve been something special, but alas, it has very little of each. If you, however, are in dire need of a game similar to Persona, you can do worse than The Caligula Effect, and while it’s hard to recommend at all, I would for a heavily discounted price.
Publisher: Atlus USA
Platforms: PS Vita
Release Date: 9th May 2017