Furyu isn’t giving up. Despite the flop of Lost Dimension, the small publisher signs again on PSVita with a new original RPG with tactical elements. The decent success of Caligula in Japan (50K copies shipped) and the reception of Lost Dimension in the West (freshly released on PC) urges Atlus to bring it to us under the name of The Caligula Effect.
Caligula’s beginning is pretty sudden : the main character finds himself in an unknown school, in the middle of a ceremony where he doesn’t recognize anybody. Startled, he tries to flee but comes across a student with a grotesque face. He quickly understands that he’s not in the real world any more, and will meet a strange group of students calling themselves the kitakubu. Those young men and girls a little cleverer than the rest, aware that this world they are in is pure illusion, are seeking a way to go back to reality. Kitaku litteraly means “going back home” : great pun since kitakubu generally describes students who don’t belong to any school club, thus going back home directly after class.
Those boys and girls have a special power called Catharsis Effect, metamorphosis that will alter their look almost as much as their enemies. The Catharsis Effect is a symbol of Caligula’s general design, purposely dark because based on layers of grey, all that so as to match with the main themes which are death and illusion. This trance gives them the strength to accomplish their goal : kill μ (pronounce “Mew”), the creator of this false world called Moebius.
But before reaching μ, you’ll need to defeat the fearsome gakushi who approve this world and help keeping it running by composing music. Μ is a female AI singer who lures students by singing. Every villain, every dungeon has its own music. And not some random music because Caligula is actually making a allegory of Hatsune Miku : every track is made of Vocaloid music. For this, Furyu has made a deal with famous Vocaloid artists like CosMo@暴走P and 蝶々P who had work on Project Diva F. Distorted Happiness by CosMo@暴走P has actually accents close to its Sadistic Music Factory in Project Diva F. That gives to Atlus’s game a powerful soundtrack that makes fights dynamic, notably Sin and Cosmo Dancer. Even more impressively, the lyrics actually fit the personality of the boss. The only black mark on Caligula’s musical record is that it chooses the slowest rhythm at the beginning, which doesn’t help getting into the game.
But Caligula’s greatest quality is its remarkably well written story. It deals with extremely serious topics (illness, loneliness, professional future…), but the point is the thinking behind it, because Caligula calls out to the player through the debates between the heroes and the gakushi. Those conversations ask relevant questions : do virtual worlds and social networks cut us from reality too much? Is reality necessarily better that fiction? Caligula does an impressive job raising those social issues and it’s fascinating from back to front. Despite the weak graphics, the general direction is clever enough (very good camera work for example) to deliver a great narrative. The somewhat disturbing design here again gives a strong effect to the events, and makes the game unique. You will remember it all your life.
Like any Persona-like, all our friends have their own story divided in various chapters throughout the game. Those might be side stories, they’re as well told if not better than the main scenario for they include huge surprises and a certain suspense. Like in the rest of the narrative, the clever writing goes along with an equally clever use of humor : the jokes that the characters are throwing at each other are excellent. Beside the main characters, the game allows you to recruit any NPC in your party, feature already used by the developer Aquria for Sword Art Online Hollow Fragment for example. But given those NPCs are duplicates of your own partners in terms of abilities, that option quickly turns out to be meaningless.
Progression system is where Furyu’s system gets far less impressive. Dungeons come one after another is a very linear way, without any side-quest or activity to unwind. That lack of overall content wouldn’t be bothering if Caligula had interesting dungeons or a good game structure, which is unfortunately not the case. Caligula is in fact a corridor-game plagued with uninspired level design and very unclear maps. Those maps are often nothing more that a long chain of battles before reaching the boss. It’s pretty easy to get lost in those areas, and to lose patience because of the great number of enemies in the tiny corridors. The very last stage is symptomatic of this : it features nearly identical sectors with no clear landmark, driving you crazy in no time. I mean, I’m OK with mazes and searching in JRPGs, but progression here was more tiring than motivating. Tech performance makes things worse because of excessively long loadings, outdated modeling, painful frame-rate and unacceptable freezes for an 1.05 version…
With such tiresome progression, Caligula had better provide enjoyable fighting. It indeed really succeeds in that department, Furyu giving us here an ATB/turn-based system capable of chaining attacks like you’ve never seen. First important thing : it shows you the future. When choosing your next move, you have an indication of what type of behavior the enemy will take, allowing you to adapt your strategy. Depending on the type of offensive coming, you’ll have to choose from different counters to get the upper hand. Once you’ve started a counterattack, you can build complex combos by throwing opponents in the air (and then use moves with aerial bonuses) or onto the ground (and launch moves effective against downed enemies). On the other hand, the timing to chain powerful moves is tricky and you’ll have to adjust the start of your turn on the ATB line to get your attack bonus. Fortunately, the time stops at this moment so that you can think and decide carefully. By the way, you can stop the action manually anytime if you want to take classy screenshots.
Last but not least, all enemies have a “risk” level that makes them increasingly dangerous. But it’s first and foremost an important gameplay leverage because your attacks benefit from the risk level of the opponent in front of you : Mifue for example will only be able to use her moves if the enemy is of risk 2,3 or more. Similarly, some overdrive attacks can be used only when the enemy has reached risk level 5, the highest. Building the perfect is thoroughly enjoyable and you never get enough of it, all the more true that the game grants you some little appraisal (Cool, Stylish, etc.) like Devil May Cry in its time. As much as the battle system is brilliant, the challenge isn’t always satisfying as bosses lack aggressiveness. Actually, only groups of enemies are tricky to defeat.
Caligula is as fascinating as it is wobbly in its structure and technics. That’s the kind of game you will inevitably remember for its writing/artistic qualities and innovating features features, despite having raged on the irritating dungeons. A rather good Persona-like all things considered, and a definite step forward for Furyu, who said they are working on that base for a future title.