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07th Aug 2019 | 74 views
Game: The Caligula Effect: Overdose
High-school based JRPGs seems to be growing in popularity nowadays. While the fantasy setting is still the predominant and most popular for role playing games, JRPGs have been using school settings to try and offer audiences with urban fantasy. It makes a lot of sense, if you think about it. A school setting is familiar for both young and old gamers, it’s an already popular setting thanks to other media such as comics and TV shows… and it offers a lot of possibilities of interesting situations, characters, relations and dramas, which are essential for a good role play game. Since Revelations: Persona released in 1999 on the PS1, mixing young students with magic and mystical elements seems to have caught on slowly but surely. While most JRPG’s usually put the school in the fantasy world (making it a military academy of a kingdom, for example), taking the fantasy and putting in the real world scholar environment has been much less frequent, at least until Persona 4 and now Persona 5 came to the scene and really popularized it. Since then, we’re witnessing a rise of this kinds of games, usually with similar mechanics and structures to Atlus’ golden goose of a series, to the point I wouldn’t be surprised if it took off to call school-themed JRPGs “Persona clones”, just as First Person Shooters were “Doom Clones” for a while. The Caligula Effect: Overdose is one of them.
The Caligula Effect: Overdose is a dungeon crawler JRPG made by developer Aquaria and published by FuRyu and NIS America between 2018 and 2019, depending on the region. Before I start this review, I should mention that this game is an upgraded re-release of the original The Caligula Effect, released for the PS Vita in 2016/2017. As such, it has a lot of content and QoL improvements that I can’t comment on, since I’ve never played the original and thus can’t compare them. Also, I’ve played the game on the Switch in handheld mode, so whatever commentary I make about the graphics should take that into consideration. And finally, I will try to avoid spoilers as much as possible, but I will mention little kernels of info here and there to add context to the review, so reader’s discretion is advise.
The setting is very straightforward. You are a silent protagonist that, during a ceremony in your high school, suddenly are able to detect that the world around you is, in fact, a digital simulation called Mobius. After running away in panic, the creator of this digital world, μ (pronounced mu), an idol AI that has created this world with the aiming of building a perfect utopia, explains her goals to create a place where people can escape their troubles and everyone stays happy, by a combination of blissful unawareness and songs. People stay in this idealized version of high school indefinitely, eventually losing themselves in the process and becoming digiheads, brainwashed souls addicted to both Mobius and μ’s songs. The main character is saved by Aria, another AI that worked together with μ to create Mobius, but had grown weaker and weaker as Mobius grew out of control. Together, the main character joins the “Go-Home Club” with other students that also want to escape this virtual world. And for that, they have to find a way for μ to let them go. To reach her, they have to defeat the club’s counterpart, the “Ostinato Musicians” who protect μ and see the club as traitors and a threat to Mobius’ existence.
The first hours of the game are… slow, to say the least. All of the information about the world is crammed into first hours of the game, practically throwing you into the fray with little to no time to process most of it. And while I like games that don’t really take ages to start, the opposite is not good either, especially when you can be almost an hour between wall of exposition and wall of exposition if you don’t skip anything. The first hours of the game are slow to a crawl. Once you can actually start playing, the pace picks up, albeit slowly. Once the beginning is over, you will find a game with a lot of recognizable mechanics. You can explore the inside of the school (taking care in some areas due to the overleveled digiheads protecting some areas. Your main base of operations is the “Go Home Club”, a room in the school where the team stays and plans their operations to get away from Mobius, hidden from μ and the musicians.
The game follows a pattern similar to most JRPGs. Each phase makes a new part of the world available for exploration, you travel through maze-like dungeons, fight some digiheads, beat one of the musicians as a boss, get exposition throughout the run, repeat. It’s not the most unique structure for any game, but if you play JRPGs regularly, you’re probably used to this kind of formula. Between missions, you can explore the areas accessible to you for items, secrets, skill points, conversations with other students… You can also develop your relation with your colleagues. In a similar way to Persona games, you build up your friendship with the other members of the “Go Home Club”. One of the themes of the game is dealing with traumas, so they will eventually open themselves to you. The game makes a big deal out of this, with a warning popping up once you reach a certain point, and asking you if you really wish to know about their traumas, pretty serious stuff. And… yeah, some of this people are really fucked up. It depends on personal consideration, I suppose, but you will find things varying from your typical social anxiety to really heavy traumatic stuff. I won’t really spoil it here, but this game tries to be quite darker in this regard than its competition. Maxing them out gives you access to special abilities and moves.
Graphics are kind of nice, but the game definitely shows the budget limitations here and there. In particular the boss fights, instead of taking place in areas set up for them, they all take place in weird space bubbles, with an abstract sky and a square pattern ground, empty of any kind of detail. The design of the characters is good enough, though anything outside of any kind of named character will look generic. The game needed a thin extra coat of polish, though, with characters sometimes going through the ground during in game cutscenes. Music is, oddly enough, incredibly forgettable. For a game heavily influenced by idol culture, I cannot remember a single tune. It does this cool thing, using the instrumental versions for the dungeons and the vocal one during battle, but because there’s only a single tune on each dungeon, the gimmick ends up outstaying its welcome.
The combat is an essential part of the game. On every dungeon you will find random digiheads patrolling the corridors, and you will have to fight them to get to wherever the mission indicates. Once you reach a certain level difference you can avoid the combat, but for a while, getting closer to the digiheads means that a fight will ensue. The combat is surprisingly deep. Each character has a ton of options for attacks, movements, buffs, debuffs, counters, attack modes... Each move takes a certain amount of time to pull off, and each time a character moves can do up to three. You can also see a simulation on how that attack is going to turn out, so you can choose to go forward with it, or go back and change it. You can combine different character attacks and boosts to wreak havoc upon the enemies. You can also move around the map to avoid attacks, set up shields, recover all your SP for free (to compensate for the fact everything you do takes SP, and you can’t use items to restore it). The fight will take place in an immaterial arena, in which other enemies can enter, and you can time everything so that you take on the minimum number of enemies at once, or as many as there are around you. Skills can be unlocked rather easily, but you have to choose who is getting what, since all of the characters share the same skill point’s pool. This system is incredibly complex, and it would absolutely make people who focus on combat incredibly happy.
Or at least that would be it, if it wasn’t for the fact that the special attack is so broken I end up using none of that.
See, each character has access to a special attack, which charges up while fighting. It has 100% accuracy, takes no SP to use, can be buffed, can’t be blocked, and can be used alongside other party member’s specials. So, considering how strong that attack is, the strategy for the entirety of the game was to grind until I got the special attack charged up with the entire party, unlock the attack buff ability, use it to buff the special, and just unleash it upon the enemy. Most of the time two buffed special attacks will be enough to do the deed, and because you have to grind up to charge it, it will have the bonus of being overleveled compared to what the game wants you to be. Using this method, practically no boss battle lasts more than a single turn. I think only two actually lasted more, and it was because the bosses stun my characters after the buff. Once I recovered from the buff, I only had to let it rip, and boss over. Once you reach the final stretch of the game with the typical boss rush, you are so overleveled you don’t even need to do this, just buff your attack and your evasion and just spam the basic attack, that way you save the specials for the final boss. While some may argue that I’m playing the game wrong and taking away the fun of the game, the ability to do this is quite obvious from the very beginning. This is not a glitch, this is a tool the game gives you alongside the rest of the options, it just so happens to be so much better than the rest. Hell, the game fully restores your health and SP after every encounter, so not even resource management is a discouragement from grinding for the special. And even if you don’t use it, the game is incredibly easy anyway. If you want to have a challenge with the combat, choose level hard or higher, don’t go for normal.
Once you’ve reached a certain point of the game, you will have the chance of playing for the musician’s side, as a secret agent of sorts. You will have access to their members and play missions against the “Go Home Club”, talk to them… pretty much the same as with the main party, but with the bad guys. And it’s a good thing the developers included this option, because it gives a lot of depth to characters that might seem one dimensional if those conversations weren’t there, it gives them decent motivations to try to understand why they want to stay in Mobius. The “Go Home Club” never knows about this, of course, because you are disguised as a musician when you go with them.
While you are exploring the world of Mobius, you will find many, and I mean MANY, students just walking all around the place. Some of them can be talked to, and they will tell you their problems, which will lead to a special side mission to either unlock passive abilities or to recruit them for your party. While this is one of the game’s selling points and, in theory, should add a ton of post-game content, it horribly misfired. First, because there are more than 500 NPCs to talk to, you will immediately notice most of their problems are either not interesting, very similar to each other, or that they take monotonous missions to accomplish. Equip an item, defeat certain amounts of enemies… none of this is particularly interesting, and, in the end, it’s not particularly useful either. Because of the aforementioned special power, passive skills are kind of pointless. What’s the use for them if I can one shot bosses anyway? And as for getting them into your party… why? The members of your club are miles stronger, with better stats and more importance in the story anyway, so why bother with the NPCs? I cannot imagine any completionist enjoying the slog that is accomplishing all of the NPC missions. I ignored them as much as I could.
When reaching the end of the game, you will have a choice of siding with the “Go Home Club” and fight to free everyone from Mobius, which gets you the “good” ending, or betray and join the musician’s and accomplish their goals, which gets you the “bad” ending… Each one has different outcome, and both endings have its good and bad points, so I won’t spoil them here. There’s also a possible third ending, obtainable by maxing out everyone’s friendship, both the musician’s and the “Go Home Club”, but it’s very similar to the good ending, so why bother. Honestly, all of them are kind of underwhelming, especially because they are really vague and have not that much buildup on them.
The Caligula Effect: Overdose is an interesting take for a darker version of the high school JRPG, but it juggles with too many things at once to really make anything especially interesting. The story is dark, but not dark all the way through until certain point, and explaining little on how this world really came to be. The combat is deep and expansive, but it’s made pointless by exploiting the game’s own mechanics. The characters’ backstories are tragic, but maybe they should give you more motivation to explore them all. The music is not that great for a game in which music is one of the core points. There is a plethora of NPCs to talk to, and I have no incentive nor interest to do so. It is not a bad game by any means, and it has a lot potential, bit it's just flawed. If you like this kinds of JRPGs, you will enjoy it well enough. For its niche audience, it will do just fine, it just won’t reach the popularity its main inspiration enjoys.