The Caligula Effect (CE), developed by Aquria, is a roleplaying game set in the virtual world of Mobius. μ (pronounced Mu) is both a pop idol and the architect of this world, with her want to create a refuge from the pain of reality filled with endless joy for all who visit. People who listen to μ’s music are drawn into Mobius to live out a perpetual life as a high school student. Life in Mobius offers all the comforts one could desire, making it an enticing artifice that its residents cannot separate from reality.
The main thrust of the story centres on a group of students who have become aware of their digital surroundings. They form the Go Home Club, a group dedicated to finding μ and convincing her to release them from their bondage. Each member of the Go Home Club has a dark secret that drew them to μ’s music and Mobius. Their trauma is explored in individual side stories that I found increasingly engrossing the deeper I went.
Heavy topics relating to body image issues, anxiety, depression, and suicide are explored in believable ways, as you earn the confidence of each member of the club and aid them with their maladies. Saying the wrong thing when a character is at their most vulnerable will force them back into their shell, severing a fledgling bond that requires repair before their story can be explored further. Just as interesting as their real-life issues is the gradual realisation of how each person is different both mentally and physically from their Mobius avatar. These are important stories handed deftly and with respect, becoming the best argument for playing the game.
Each character’s journey leads them on a path to accepting their pain as an integral part of life, with escape meaning a second chance at living in a better and healthier fashion. Standing in their way are the Ostinato Musicians, a manipulated group of pop idols who each have their own issues that lead them to defend Mobius at all costs. The members of the Go Home Club all have a moment throughout the story where the difficulties they are facing are twined in one of the Ostinato Musicians, helping them to realise and work on their weaknesses.
Where the story and characters are fascinating, the game built around these elements is a combination of nice ideas with frustrating design choices.
This is best illustrated in the maze-like dungeons that make up the game’s environments. These are well designed, with no shortage of twists and turns as you weave your way through mysterious corridors. They are also devoid of anything truly interesting. NPC students roam the hallways, as do the game’s rank and file enemies in the form of Digiheads, but apart from this they are bland, generic spaces like a shopping mall or unfinished skyscraper devoid of personality.
Worse than this is the structure of missions. All too frequently, the game begins a mission by pointing you in the direction of the doorway to the final boss. Upon reaching your destination the door is inevitably locked, creating a need to either explore the dungeon further or painstakingly backtrack to find keys or Digihead guards hidden about the dungeon. This is a fairly standard structure for missions that is awkwardly implemented, teasing the final location before turning you around. This introduces unnecessary frustration that wouldn’t have been present if the door to a boss was placed at the end of the dungeon rather than near the beginning.
CE’s combat system is built on a turn based foundation with a few unique tweaks. All four members of your party can choose up to three actions per turn. A preview visualisation can be viewed before executing an action, including any incoming Digihead attacks that will cancel them. SP (CE’s version of MP) is a scarce resource that is used up immediately upon ending your selections, even if they are unsuccessful. This risk versus reward quality makes careful planning essential, as exhausting SP requires a character to move away from the fray to recharge.
Each character serves a different role in combat, with the combination and order actions are executed making a massive difference in combat. Launching an enemy into the air or knocking them to the canvas with one character can set up a brutal follow-up from an ally when timed right.
Unfortunately, the aspects that make combat fun are undercut by some annoying design decisions. Perhaps the most easily avoidable of these is the overabundance of onscreen information. Digiheads each have a long status bar floating above them. These status bars have a habit of bleeding together when two foes stand next to each other, making it incredibly difficult to tell how much health each has. Health bars are also poorly implemented, with friend and foe alike having the exact same pink health bar which adds an unnecessary layer of confusion when looking about the field of battle. All this is further hampered by the massive HUD that hugs the edge of the Vita screen, complete with tiny text to describe a selected action.
The lack of a battle screen separate from the game’s dungeon environments is another issue I had with the game. Seamlessly shifting into combat creates the immersion breaking effect of having high school students obliviously walking through a supernatural battlefield without taking so much as a glance at what is unfolding. There is an explanation for this early on in the story, but it smacks of a half-hearted excuse than actual world building.
There is also the phenomenon of additional Digiheads wandering through a battle. The foes simply wandering about the halls are an annoyance given how little variety there is in Digihead designs, making it difficult at times to figure out how many enemies you are fighting. Worse still these wandering Digiheads will also join a battle in progress, which can tip the scales from challenging to downright impossible. Luckily, sneaking past a Digihead is a simple prospect, as is risk management in attracting a single enemy, but occurrences where I almost finish off a single enemy only for a pair of others appearing were frustratingly regular.
CE also suffers from a number of technical rough edges and performance issues. NPCs and player characters alike regularly stand on the same spot as each other, clipping into each other. Frame rate stutters also rear their ugly head throughout, while pop-in occurs while exploring dungeons and shortly after the initial load of an area to populate it with characters and enemies. These are far from experience ruining issues, but are significant enough annoyances to warrant mention.
Visually, the game looks fine without anything that stands out. Environments are fit for purpose, though decorations within the same space repeat throughout. Both the protagonists and antagonists are designed well, yet there is an odd lack of colour within the game’s palette. For a world like Mobius, filled with characters who are meant to be in a joy-filled safe haven, a little more variation in character designs and some brighter colours (especially when NPCs and main characters alike wear gray school uniforms) would have been welcome.
Because the game’s villains are all musicians, music plays an important part in the game. The Ostinato Musicians all have a theme song, with hard rock guitar riffs and pop music suiting the personality of the each character. All of these songs are great, but hearing them on a loop for the two or so hours it takes to clear each dungeon becomes irritating. The Japanese voice cast is stellar, imbuing their characters with emotion or menace where needed.
The Caligula Effect is a frustrating game, with a great story wrapped in an uneven package. The characters and plot offer a frank and important exploration of psychological trauma that deserves praise. The rest of the game far less so, with combat hampered by a number of annoying design decisions that can make it a chore, and technical hitches that are a frequent hinderance. What the game is left with is ultimately a story that provides the only solid argument to spend any time in Mobius.
Mark received a digital copy of The Caligula Effect from Atlus for review.