When a game features a story written by Persona veteran Tadashi Satomi it’s difficult not to get a bit hyped for it. The Caligula Effect is an ambitious sounding action role-playing game set in a high school with over 500 non-playable characters to befriend and a very unique battle system. Sadly, if you were hoping for a game similar to Persona 5, only for the PS Vita, then you'll need to downgrade your expectations. While developer Aquria has obviously had many exciting ideas here, the execution falls flat.
The game starts off strongly enough with a compelling introduction: the protagonist realises that he’s actually trapped inside a virtual world called Mobius and that everyone inside is living the same three years of high school over and over again. He joins a group of like-minded students called the Go Home Club to, as the name suggests, go home to the real world. Mobius was created by a virtual idol called μ (pronounced Mew). She's a god-like program who has slightly misguided ideas about how to protect people and keep them happy. While the story is intriguing to begin with it's let down by slow pacing. It's only really towards the end of the game that it begins to pick up again, but there are many chapters in the middle where nothing really happens to move the story along.
Most characters that you meet have fairly obvious reasons for wanting to live within Mobius. When you've suffered from bullying, are a shut-in, or are seriously overweight, it's easy to see the appeal of a virtual world. Over time you'll get to view Character Episodes for all the main characters, and these will show you more about their inner torments and the reason why they came to Mobius; some of these Episodes will really have you empathising with them regarding the traumas that they've endured in life. In fact, at times, these are far more interesting than the main story.
Most chapters in the game have a very similar flow: after a small story scene you get a new dungeon to explore, meet a new musician who writes music for μ, and have a boss fight at the end of the chapter. This ends up making the game feel quite repetitive, and amplifying that repetition is the visual look of the release. You'll be spending the majority of your time trawling through long dungeons which, quite frankly, feel dull and lifeless. While there are plenty of enemies and students wandering around each location they don't add much flavour to things. Enemies only have a handful of different designs and most of the students look really similar, especially in their bland school uniforms.
The main highlight of The Caligula Effect has to be its unique battle system. There’s a combination of strategy and action elements, but the way they're intertwined is actually really refreshing for a Japanese RPG. At the beginning of each turn you can select up to three moves for each character, and after selecting a move, you can watch a preview of how things are likely to play out. However, there is always a chance that your attacks will miss or the enemy will be able to defend the assault. While it'll initially feel strange to be able to see how things are likely to turn out before you apply your commands, it's a pretty clever mechanic, and using the preview feature will enable you to plan out multiple moves to great effect. For example, you can use one character's skills to launch an enemy into the air and then get all your allies to use specific skills that deal great damage to airborne foes. Of course this also means that if the first skill misses and doesn't make the enemy airborne then all the follow-up attacks may be fairly useless.
All that said, the one thing that lets the battle system down is that, especially for standard enemies, it's far too easy to just use the same sequence of moves to prevent your aggressors from attacking and then quickly wipe them all out. It makes it feel rather meaningless to have a system that allows you to meticulously plan out all of your moves if you can just rush through with brute force.
The NPC 'Causality Link' system is unfortunately also a bit of a disappointment. There are over 500 NPCs to build a relationship with and doing so will give you access to side quests and new passive skills. While this initially looks like a fun system to investigate it won't take long for you to realise its faults. To build relationships you'll need to speak to each NPC repeatedly, but as they all have very similar and pointless lines of dialogue that repeat over and over again, it'll quickly lose its appeal. Many of the students also have the exact same side quests to complete: find a specific object, talk to someone, or defeat enemies. The developer could have easily made this system with a drastically reduced number of NPCs, and it would have made it far less tedious.
Another point that we feel is important to raise is that the game does seem to struggle on the Vita. There are frequent frame rate drops during battle, especially when there are lots of enemies on screen. What's more, the title can also take a ridiculously long time to load.
If you're a JRPG fan and can see past its dull dungeon design and grindy friendship system, then there is still fun to be had here, but you'll have to push through layers of tediousness to get to it. The Caligula Effect is a game with plenty of good ideas, but sadly, they're just not executed very well. It feels like developer Aquria has tried to implement so many ambitious concepts, but it doesn't actually take the time to flesh them out, and instead, repetition has been used to fill in the gaps.