What if Hatsune Miku went a crazy and built the Matrix? As far as elevator pitches go, that idea is certainly one to garner a more than a few confused looks and a request for more information, up to and including a drug test. That very concept is where Aquria hangs their new RPG, The Caligula Effect, and drives the story written by Persona 1 and 2 author, Tadashi Satomi. Based purely on that pedigree, there will be many a gamer interested in checking out this new tale set in a facsimile of modern Japan.
With the decidedly normal trope of engaging in quite a bit of narrative build up in JRPGs before the game proper truly starts, it’s remarkable how quickly The Caligula Effect tosses the player in. Basically, the protagonist realizes that there is something wrong with the world around him, what with the people around him glitching out like a damaged NES cart. Running away, he soon meets Aria, a diminutive not-fairy that explains that the world isn’t real, but is instead a construct of μ (who will be called Mu for the rest of this review). Mu is an artificial intelligence, a vocaloid, that took the lyrics to the songs she was performing a bit too literally, deciding to create a utopia by the name of Mobius. Here the denizens are trapped for eternity, living a constant, never ending high school life, because Mu figures that is the most magical period of a human’s life. She’s an artificial intelligence. Nobody said that she was an intelligent artificial intelligence.
The protagonist soon runs into others who are aware of their predicament, and are eager to return to reality. Calling themselves the Go-Home Club, they are dedicated to escaping despite not knowing what they will find. Each citizen of Mobius had their memories wiped before entering the world, and it is heavily implied early on that everyone present entered of their own free will. Despite this, the team goes to work finding the Ostinato Musicians in hopes that they will give up the location of Mu, who the team hopes will see reason when they speak to her. So…it’s a little weird.
This is all easier said than done, as the musicians don’t want to be found and other students don’t want their idyllic lives ruined. Viewing the Go Home Club as traitors, various students have become corrupted by the emotions to the point that they become aggressive Digiheads, also known as the creatures that must be defeated to level up and take on the musicians. To aid them on the quest, members of the Club can tap into their Cathartic Effect, which allows them to sprout various weapons to defeat all who would oppose them.
The fighting system found in The Caligula Effect happens to be one of the more interesting aspects of the game. It’s a weird hybrid of turn based/active time battle/and strategy systems that is wildly different from anything I have ever seen. Typically the player chooses all of the moves for each team member first, with the ability to chain together three moves per character across a party of four. When setting up the moves, the player gets a preview of how the actions will play out when executed so that timing can be adjusted across all of the teammates to inflict maximum damage. A simple example would be to have the first character knock an enemy into the air, and chain two anti-air attacks afterward. The player can then assign the remaining teammates to also fire upon the airborne enemy at the same time, completely trashing the foe. With the various stat manipulation that can be used on the Digiheads, along with the rapid rate that new moves can be unlocked, battles become a violent playground of blunt force trauma and bullets, limited only by the each teammate’s SP, which is a regenerating resource that only needs managing in longer fights.
This very battle system is simultaneously an excellent part of the game and a hindrance. When coming across a new enemy type with a whole new set of moves and behaviors, or when fighting a challenging enemy leveled way above the team, setting up the perfect chain of moves across all of the teams’ numerous abilities in incredibly exciting. Great play leads to one turn kills which grants experience point bonuses, making it beneficial to not just phone it in. On the other hand, low level junk enemies just eat up time. Not because they are difficult, but simply due to the fact that setting up and executing the attack can still take some time. The camera can also be problematic during the action, requiring a good deal of babysitting to ensure that the action is being planned correctly. There were a few battles where I thought the damage was going outwards during the planning stage only to find that a teammate was on the receiving end. The camera tricked me.
Considering that the plot revolves around a vocaloid, it makes sense that music features prominently during the dungeon crawls. What the team at Aquria did here, though, was extra cool. While wandering the halls and streets of Mobius, a J-pop backing track plays in the style of the Ostinato Musician that is being tracked. When a battle commences, vocals are layered on top, giving battles more of a separate, urgent feeling despite the fact that it takes place on the actual dungeon map instead of a discrete battle screen. When fighting a boss, that same song receives fresh backing tracks that succeed in upping the tension.
Since this game is primarily straight story, dungeon, story, one would have to wish that the localization was a bit better. I don’t know Japanese outside of a few words, so I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the translation, but the English text feels pretty cut and dry, as though the game was translated instead of localized with an ear towards giving the dialogue the intended texture of the original writing. It’s not humorless by any means, and the tale being told here, along with little touches like the fact that intangible “beliefs or hidden trauma” act as the equipment, needed a little bit more crunchiness that comes from the translators engaging with the original language’s intent.
When discussing The Caligula Effect, one cannot help but feel it will fall under the same umbrella as Resonance of Fate. It’s highly flawed and requires a bit of work to get the best out of it. Once acclimated, though, this is a game that will demand attention and affection from the player. It’s a strange, interesting tale that explores the nature of joy, sorrow, and choosing knowledge over bliss for those that want to think about it, or all of that can be ignored in favor of a silly anime-like story of friends overcoming long odds with superpowers. Either way, it’s a game that will probably gain more recognition and popularity as time goes on. Also, do not read page 24 of the game’s digital instruction manual.