Welcome to Mobius, an idyllic world where school is everything and everyone wants to be there. Or do they? The Caligula Effect is an action JRPG with a fun and challenging battle system. While you could be forgiven this is just another churned out RPG with very little original content to offer, actually, you’d be dead wrong. Both gameplay and story are intriguing and deep enough to warrant a good long hard look.
Things kick off when your protagonist has a moment of awakening. Something isn’t right about his school and he starts to see his fellow pupils in a weird and frightening demonic form. I don’t want to give away too many specifics about the early part of the story, but this school is absolutely not what it seems. What follows over the next forty something hours is a surprisingly deep story that deals with issues such as self-esteem, loneliness, shyness, fear, self-loathing and escapism.
Not fearing to tread into dangerously sensitive territory, The Caligula Effect takes multiple issues and deals with them head on. What makes people feel so bad about themselves? What makes them treat others so terribly? What happens when people feel they just can’t cope with real life? One thing the game does extremely well both explicitly and in the subtext is to demonstrate the link between inner self-loathing and the negative behaviour others may witness. Who was it that said rage is depression turned outward? Actually I think it was that psychiatrist in The Sopranos, but personal experience tells me it can be fairly accurate.
At heart, The Caligula Effect is a dungeon crawler. To shut down Mobius and escape its confines the protagonist and his friends (aptly named the Go-Home Club) must hunt down and defeat musicians (don’t worry, it will all make sense!). These “bosses” are the instruments of the school’s creator and while they still stand with her, no one is going anywhere. Each musician can be found in a different area around the school and the town, and your group must fight and puzzle their way around maze-like buildings and corridors. It’s here that a couple of chapters take a bit a wobble. Locked doors, backtracking, a few confusing markers – one or two areas take a huge commitment to get around. Who doesn’t love a bit of a grind, you may ask, and I would agree, but the trotting back and forth for countless hours around the same place occasionally touches the edge of tiresome. While the environments do look pretty gorgeous and distinct from each other, they can get rather samey four hours later.
Enemy encounters are waiting at every turn. Students who are filled with enough hate and loathing manifest demonic attributes and if you get in their line of sight a battle will begin. Combat is both turn-based and real-time. At the start of each battle you can assign each character three actions. Your party will develop an unbelievably large selection of skills so you’ll need to think carefully how you want the fight to play out and how you want your party to work together. For example you might use one character to raise the enemy’s risk to increase damage against them, use another character’s skills to launch the same enemy into the air, and then another character to perform powerful aerial attacks before your doomed enemy hits the ground. Together the party can perform devastating chains of attacks that can potentially wipe out an enemy in one round. Pulling off these chains are a suck-it-and-see affair. A simple chain is easy but the more complicated and powerful chains take trial and error. Luckily The Caligula Effect has a secret weapon.
Before you settle on each character’s attacks and actions, you can preview the effect it will have. A ghost battle will play out in front of you showing the consequences (good or bad) of your actions. As you confirm and then move onto assigning the next character, the ghost battle will change according to what you choose, how the characters play off each other and how the enemies react. When all characters are assigned, the battle will play out for real, pausing only when a character is ready for another set of actions. It’s beautiful chaos. Your Vita will suddenly be awash with brightly coloured whizzes, whooshes and kabooms. It’s wonderfully pretty and a fun and clever system even if it does take a while to master.
Each character has an almost overwhelming quantity of skills that can be unlocked with skill points collected throughout the game. By defeating particular enemies you can also pick up Stigmas (which are much nicer than they sound). Each character can equip up to six Stigmas and these will increase stats and sometimes lower others. Most Stigmas are a trade-off and something else to think about.
Before you enter into any of these battles you can set your party attack order in the menu screen. This is really useful once you’ve twigged how a particular chain can play out and how best to put together attacks to cause the highest amount of damage in one go. And don’t forget your support characters who can heal and boost you and poke the enemies to raise risk. These characters can seem weak at first glance but used tactically and in the right order they can change everything. Without meaning to state the obvious, don’t use too many of these characters at once and also assess which are better at short fights and which ones are capable of sustaining a longer and more tactical battle.
In addition to the normal party members you’ll pick up along the way you also have the option to schmooze no less than 500 school chums. Any student not classed as an enemy can be approached. Some are locked and require you to befriend their buddies first, but many are immediately open to potential friendship. Talking to them requires repeated presses of the X button until their social rank goes up. Once you are friends you can add them to your party and have them fight and level-up at your side. It’s a nice idea, particularly at the point during the game when you really do have to team up, and in fact during this phase I learned a few extra things from new characters with new skills. It’s also handy for harder fights when you have weaker characters in your group. You can kick them out and potentially find a much higher level temporary replacement just to get you through a sticky patch.
In addition to the main storyline and provided that you keep up your social interactions you will get the opportunity to play Character Episodes. Some of these are deeper than others but actually they do help you to understand each character and why they are in Mobius. These episodes are a definite highlight of the game and although technically optional they are actually essential if you’re looking for further story depth.
Although occasionally a little repetitive, The Caligula Effect is a complex RPG that offers a fun and colourful battle system. The story is hard not to relate to in some way and has a surprisingly deep subtext. If you like your dungeon crawlers and don’t mind a bit of grind, The Caligula Effect is well worth a look.
S J Hollis Rating – 7/10
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