Reality is a Social Construct
What excites me even more is that some of writing and dev team at the helm are responsible for the excellent Persona and Persona 2. Both these games had impressively mature plots so hopes are high going in.
In a nutshell, without venturing too deep into spoiler territory, the utopian paradise world of Mobius has become a boring place for our protag (choice of male or female). After experiencing some static-like distortions in reality, they are violently led to the truth that Mobius is actually just one hell of a VR-style experience. Eventually finding others who have suffered the same fate, the Go-Home club forms and, with their intentions given away by their group’s on-the-nose name, the gang sets out to escape this dystopian utopia.
Outside of the obvious novel and movie classic interpretations, the anime and gaming world has seen its fair share of takes on this popular sci-fi existential jive. However, The Caligula Effect takes the gist in an interesting direction as Mobius is at the mercy of song.
World famous songstress μ (‘Myu’) is revered across the land and it’s her power that makes Mobius the way it is. Her chibii-counterpart, Arya, acts as the Go-Home Club’s guide and adorable mascot, helping the group control their newly developed powers by keeping emotions positive and ‘tuning their hearts’. Failing to keep emotions down could send a person to go the way of the game’s standard enemies, the ‘Digiheads’.
Tune Your Heart
Digiheads are transformed residents of Mobius aligned with the antagonist group, the Ostinato Musicians, who are μ enthusiasts that know of the world’s secrets and will do anything to protect their warped paradise. You see, residents of Mobius are society’s victims who have been given the means to be who they want to be. On top of that they remain ageless and μ even grants talent to the talentless. Sounds like a fair deal, right? Not for the Go-Home club. They’re known as, ‘rouges’; the term used for those who have noticed the glitches; the more there are, the more the rift between Mobius and reality grows. Ostinato Musicians are out to ‘re-educate’ the rouges and, in order to escape, the Go-Home Club need to find μ; the. Honestly, you’ve heard it all before in other forms, but it gels nicely here, even if it begins somewhat incoherently.
Too much? Well that’s just the opening hour. It’s a strong plot that took a little too long for me to get invested in, as pacing is an issue early on and it’s not resigned to the main plotline. No, the pacing of character development is a huge problem, as the initial chapters have far too much lore trivia crammed in at the expense of any real notion of who anyone is or why you should care (a bit like this review so far, right?). Once the prolonged skirmish with the Musicians over opposing sides of the reality war grows wings, it makes for an interesting tale, eventually making way to deeper backstories for those involved, too, tackling a lot of heavy personal topics.
What’s more, there are also alternative routes that can see things go pear-shaped for the Go-Home Club.
Visuals, which are based on the original handheld release, have been upscaled competently but really show both their age and origin. When comparing more recent and similar structured games, including ones under the Sword Art Online moniker, things aren’t favourable for Overdose. This low-fidelity issue is most apparent on the character models during exploration.
The contrast here is the artwork used for dialogue, which is fantastic. I was already in love with the character designs so I’m happy to report that carries over to artwork. Looking like Persona-quality portraits, though marginally less inspired, the cast is brimming with character and their respective weapon designs are equally fun. Digiheads, in appearance, have digitally smudged faces and overgrown blackened and digitally enhanced limbs or weaponry, usually adorned with some funky spikes or blades. They look great. The Go-Home Club members, with the help of Arya’s power, can utilise a similar power but in a much more controlled manner. These powers manifest physically as Digihead-style stylistic quirks but in a sleek and refined way, taking the form of slick firearms, bows, giant fists, hammers and the like.
Environments are too samey throughout, consisting of narrow paths with right angles. There doesn’t appear to be any reasoning behind the layout and design beyond padding, with enemies dotted about and the obtuse, shallow social interactions with NPCs the only distractions.
For as bland the dungeons are and as tiresome as the nonsensical NPC dialogue gets, the battle system is the saviour.
The Caligula Effect has a perculiar and busy turn-based battle system. Combat takes place in a small boxed digitised arena in which you can choose to move characters by using a part of your turn. Chosing an action lets you watch a versions of the action play out before giving the go-aheads. However, the image you see is what plays out on the presumption your attacks land, with missing and fluffing timing a distinct possibility. If a certain stat is imbalanced with another, one attack will cancel out another. Once you’ve chosen the team’s full set of attacks, the action plays out in real-time, with all enemies and allies moving at the same time (depending on stat-determined gaps between attacks and turns). There are shield breaks, air-combo juggling possibilities, counters and all sorts of possible strategies. It’s a deep system that can create some thoroughly satisfying results.
Stringing attacks together effectively takes a lot of trial and error, though the Imaginary Chain (attack preview) allows you to change the timing of the attack by simply moving the bar along a timeline at the top of the screen. It’s an interesting mechanic that helps to bring the frantic nature of clashing moves, under control to form something resembling finesse.
My biggest complaint about the battle system is that there’s a little too much RNG involved. It takes a lot of time and effort to string together a flashy well-executed combo but the amount of times things fail to land errs a little more on the annoying side. That said, it’s otherwise a creative, original battle system that does more than enough to justify its relative investment.
A warning: the auto-battle option, however much time it saves you, is to be avoided at all costs. When activated, you still choose the main character’s attacks but the AI is allowed to decide the ‘best’ course of action for other party members. Given the relatively complexity of all the systems in play, what ensues is best described as janky chaos. And not in a fun way.
Okay, so while the pacing stutters initially, when the plot sets in and you become more invested in the team, The Caligula Effect: Overdose is something special. The battle system, while not the most fluid, is wonderfully experimental and works once cracked, but is not beginner-friendly and contains too many text-heavy tutorials with few practical examples of how to get to grips with timing and juggling. The visual upgrade didn’t go far enough, and dungeon design is an uninspired corridor-bore. Depending on your preferences, Mobius could be paradise or hell.
Overall Score: 6.5/10
Format: PS4, Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PC
Publisher: NIS America
Age Rating: PEGI 12
Release Date: 15/03/19 (UK eShop)
Review copy provided by publisher