A perfect world that actually doesn’t exist, unbeknownst to people living in it, has always been a popular topic in an entertainment media. From my childhood I remember a classic Fantastic Four comic story Terror in a Tiny Town, written and illustrated by John Byrne, where the foursome were living a good life in a quaint village but in reality, it was an illusion created by Puppet Master and Doctor Doom. One film I believe everyone knows is The Matrix, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. It depicted a dystopia where humanity was trapped in a simulation while their real bodies were harvested for energy by artificial beings. A Japanese role-playing game The Caligula Effect: Overdose, a remastered and extended edition of a PS Vita original, takes its cue from a similar existential dilemma.
Mobius is an ideal world created by a sentient virtual doll μ where she takes people that are unhappy with their real lives but without asking first. Inside Mobius, they can live an eternal cycle of high school life, happy and carefree, never entering a stressful adulthood. For such an education-centric nation as Japan is, it might be a dream come true but for everyone else, I think that would be a nightmare. The Caligula Effect: Overdose wastes no time in exposing this unreal reality to the protagonist who after a graduation speech suddenly sees everyone’s face melt into a digital scramble, runs out in panic and is soon given the glad-hand by Go-Home Club. It gathers together those few who can see past the rift and have set their goal to go back home. Together with the protagonist, quickly elevated as their president, they decide to track down μ and reason with her. Adding to the motivation to escape is the fact that bodies of those who live in Mobius are withering in the real world, prone to accidents and starvation as they live only on basic instincts.
In order to find μ, Go-Home Club figures that they first must seek out Ostinato Musicians. They are μ’s devoted minions who compose songs for her to perform and brainwash people with. If the audience gives in too much to the music, they turn into Digiheads, a menace for Go-Home Club to fight against before their inevitable confrontation with each Ostinato Musician. Not everything is so black and white, though. How about leading a life of musician yourself? Wouldn’t it be as meaningful or perhaps even better than the real life, where you can suffer from loneliness, not being recognized for your talents, not getting along with others, you name it.
To be honest, despite the exciting premise of The Caligula Effect, I wouldn’t have bothered with it unless I learned that the new Overdose edition lets you play as a female protagonist, too. I can't stress enough how important I think it is. Storywise, it doesn’t matter that much but for a personal gaming experience, it makes a big difference. I always go for a female character to play as whenever the game allows it but unfortunately, only few JRPGs do so. The lack of gender option for the protagonist is the reason why I have sat out of many JRPGs I otherwise was interested in, like .Hack-series that share a similar premise of a virtual world. I just can’t stand the typical Japanese idea of a cool male hero with spiky hair, crop top, angsty attitude and hatred towards everything, including the opposite sex. Here, the protagonist is of a silent type and dressed up in a school uniform, but still, give me a girl version and I’m happy. I also like the female protagonist's appearance here. She's not a bubbly, bug-eyed princess with big bosom and pigtails but rather, a serious young lady with gentle but attentive pale hazel eyes, a short, sand-colored hair, smart clothes and long legs (oh, I love long legs!).
Much of the gameplay is reminiscent of the Persona series which should come as no surprise as the scenario writer penned early titles in the series. Accompanying the protagonist is Aria, a virtual doll like μ but keen on helping Go-Home Club as she thinks her esteemed colleague has failed to give people a choice. Aria acts as a guide throughout the adventure, viewed from a third-person view, and helps the protagonist and her friends tune in with their bottled-up emotions that burst out as Catharsis Effect, a weaponized version of person’s soul that reflects their innermost feelings. Catharsis Effects are augmented with stigmas that replace the more traditional equipment of the role-playing games. Stigmas are divided into attack impulse, defense instinct and amplification, each pretty much self-explanatory in what they do.
In addition to battle personas, socializing with other people is pretty much out of Persona handbook. Mobius is populated by hundreds of high schoolers, each of whom you can interact with and befriend. A causality link shows a connected network of these students who all have problems in the real world, the reason μ took to her heart to help them. Well, with your help, they can actually overcome their suppressed traumas, whether by taking them into your battle party and equipping them with stigmas that resonate with them, or leading them to revelations in the game world, be they items, locations or certain enemies to defeat. As a reward, the protagonist gains new stigmas and improvements to her personality that boost her battle attributes.
Mobius is built on traumas and solving them runs the risk of collapsing the simulation, a fate that the Ostinato Musicians want to prevent. Thus, there are Digiheads at every corner to fight against and that’s when Go-Home Club members’ Catharsis Effects are put into action. The turn-based battles take place directly in the game world, with digital walls cutting them off from the surrounding area. Each turn starts with an Imaginary Chain where your chosen actions are first previewed. You can chain up to three attack, support or action skills and see their possible outcome in the preview before executing them. It’s important to adjust the timing of each skill, for example put up a shield just before enemy attacks and synchronize different skills between party members, like causing a knockback with a well-placed counter with one character and following up with an air attack with the other. When all party members’ skills are catered for (you can also execute them before a full round), they are played out without your input. If you have chosen the actions wisely and timed them effectively, the actual battles can be over in seconds.
Even though it might appear complicated at first, the fighting is fast-paced and flexible. I can’t remember the last game where I was able to defeat a boss character within one turn. Of course, such a feat takes not only a perfect skill chain but also characters that has been leveled up on par with (and preferably past) Digiheads, buffed up Catharsis Effects, and upgraded skills. With a full party of four go-homers, choosing and timing different skills might be a bit messy (temporary student members have only basic skills), but by putting emphasis on attack impulse stigmas, fights are over faster without a need for further involvement. Overall, the battles were such an exciting and satisfying prospect that I found myself engaging Digiheads even if I didn’t have to. Of course, not all fights are a breeze and some boss battles take consideration and keen previewing before pulled off successfully.
A smart and rewarding gameplay is one thing but it’s accompanied with a strong story. In many ways, The Caligula Effect: Overdose is refreshingly low-key and intelligent within its genre. It turns its obvious paragons into a personal drama of its own kind, choosing subtle while others swag, and going surprisingly deep while others pretend. Characterization, for go-homers and musicians alike, is nuanced and rooted very much in everyday life, and optional character scenarios reveal new sides to them. Some of the random student stories are eerily true to life. I could certainly identify with their emotions and struggles. You can also chat with people you have befriended via a pause menu app, though it amounts mostly to gratuitous tidbits. Whenever the story allows you to make your stand, there are rarely obviously wrong choices, just different sides to a matter in hand, all equally reasonable. Also, the characters’ juvenile way of thinking is captured well. Some of the dialogue is delightfully frank and people might speak off their mind but often come to regret that. The game doesn’t forget to be funny either, as there are some hilarious scenes that can have you laughing out loud.
Even though there’s a lot of talk in The Caligula Effect: Overdose, with spirited and sometimes even furious voice overs by the Japanese cast, it’s still fast-paced and compelling. Much of the player involvement comes from the existential dilemma the story presents. What is real and what is not, and why it’s not real? Is the so-called truth actually worth exposing, after all? From all this, the game makes some thought-provoking and reflective fiction. Would I trade my life for something superficially better? To make up your mind, Overdose edition adds an exciting chance to live a double life through the perspective of both Go-Home Club and Ostinato Musician. It’s both fun and spooky when you step into the shoes of your musician self, having μ instead of Aria in your pocket.
The Caligula Effect originates from PlayStation Vita, so it can’t compare with the likes of Persona 5 in its visual fidelity. However, the low-budget style with somewhat stilted events and unpretentious appearance is likable and immersive. Powered by Unreal engine, the graphics of the Overdose edition are sharp and accentuate understated but expressive character and costume design. Locations around the virtual city of Miyabi may look a bit samey but they are eye-pleasing in their pastel hues. Gradually expanding, the game world is relatively small (with an overlay map to help in navigating) but has lots of secrets to uncover. Each area has its own music, from Ostinato Musicians’ catchy J-pop to soothing jazz and whenever the battle ensues, vocals catch up with the current song playing in the background for a neat effect.
Outside, The Caligula Effect: Overdose might appear as just another JRPG, but that would be an understatement, if anything. The game has an important message of accepting (or incidentally, denying) one's everyday life and a strong script to deliver it. The fast-paced gameplay and sophisticated but easy to grasp battle mechanics streamline the experience into a meaningful whole. The encompassing social network may be a bit superfluous, but it gives a resemblance of life to the game's unreal world - the world I got sunk into so much so that I longed back to it whenever mundane tasks forced me to take a break from it. Japanese video games are often equal to anime and manga, it doesn’t matter in what format you’re enjoying the stories. The Caligula Effect: Overdose, too, makes you forget you’re playing a game but rather, experiencing a piece of Japanese popular culture.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.