High school sucks for many, but in Japan, it must suck even more. So many modern JRPGs deal with high school life (the Persona series is a prime example), and the differences between schooling in the east and west can be jarring. The Caligula Effect, the new game from FuRyu, Atlus, and developer Aquria, has a familiar setting and some familiar tropes, but once you get past that, the weirdness factor takes the game to a whole other level. Plus, it was created by veterans of the Persona series, which is very evident in many ways, and adds a solid pedigree to a game that uses a nonsensical title (this has nothing to do with Caligula, the glutenous Roman figure of history).
The story of The Caligula Effect follows the journey of a player-named protagonist, who goes to high school one day and gets sucked into a new twisted dimension called Mobius by a mysterious J-pop entity called µ (Mu), who has taken an entire high school hostage and given all of the students what they want: apparently, pop music and a carefree lifestyle. The protagonist knows that this is not real, so he teams up with a group of like-minded students called the Go Home Club to stop µ and escape the Mobius dimension.
The big draw in The Caligula Effect is that the players can create over 500 friendships in the course of the game. That’s a lot, no matter how you look at it. And it’s not just finding new students to befriend, the game makes you work for it, as you have to find connections to some of the higher standing students to get them to like you and allow you to befriend them. This feature becomes a running mini-game in itself, and its a neat little wrinkle to a game that could easily slide into another “JRPG in set in High School” game.
The mysterious µ has warped reality so much that she has turned some students into VidHeads, which are twisted, sometimes powerful enemies that roam the halls of the school and the streets of the town that can be avoided or battled, depending on the situation. The Go Home Club teammates are basically archetypes of classic JRPG characters, but each character has a flaw that first drew them into the twisted Mobius world in the first place. They aren’t all innocent, and these flaws create some unique interactions with the main character through the 30-hour journey. Personally, I enjoyed my teammates and their strengths and weaknesses, and getting to know them on deeper levels helped make the game more enjoyable.
Probably the best part of The Caligula Effect is in the stellar combat system. I have never played a JRPG with a combat system like this, where the player selects moves, gets to see how the move works with an in-battle preview, that also shows the probability of damage, and can then stack attacks in a chain, creating a combo move that can devastate, heal, and incapacitate all in one turn. Add other party characters to that mix, and the moves can be stacked and swapped out between them, and adding to this, the player can also set the exact timing of attacks to ensure that all of the party hits in near perfect unison for some incredible assaults. This might seem complicated, and it is in the beginning, but in time, combat becomes second nature and I found myself no longer avoiding enemies in the halls and going after them, just to eradicate them with my new skills and chains. Combat here in The Caligula Effect is a revelation, and makes the game as a whole stand out from the insipid genre it is set in.
Graphically, the PS Vita is a powerful system, but The Caligula Effect has issues with wall detection and frame rate dips when there is too much action going on. Some battles in a high school hallway are too big for that hallway, but instead of cramping the characters together, they just magically go through walls into classrooms, which makes them out of sight. The player must constantly adjust the camera to make sure all of the party is working together. This gets alleviated once the player leaves the school, but character spacing is an issue no matter where battles take place.
The music is another strong point in The Caligula Effect, as the J-pop songs are catchy as hell, but the voice acting is not localized, which means a ton of reading to understand the story — if you don’t speak Japanese. This isn’t a bad thing, but 30-plus hours of reading can get old after a bit, and with an amazing combat system at play here, all I really wanted to do was battle, battle, battle.
The Caligula Effect is a solid game that takes a tired, over-used setting and makes it new and fresh by including one of the best combat systems I have ever played, and by giving the player the opportunity to find and befriend over 500 characters. Sure there is grinding, and its very easy (and frustrating) to get lost or to come up to a dead end, but that just gives more opportunity to get into combat, which is definitely the shiny gem of this particular game. It’s nice that Atlus is still publishing games for the PS Vita, and The Caligula Effect is a must-have for any Vita game collections, or for fans of JRPGs, just for the combat system itself.
The Caligula Effect is available now for the PS Vita. This review is based off a code provided by ATLUS U.S.A.
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