Lost in a sea of highly awaited games, this year featured the quiet North American release of The Caligula Effect, an intriguing Vita RPG penned by Satomi Tadashi, writer of the first two Persona games, before that series went off in a radically different direction. Captivate by it’s premise and artistically direction, I had my eye on it for a long time, and was disheartened to see it receive negative reactions. Nevertheless, I decided to acquire it, and after struggling a little at the beginning, ended up falling in love with it in spite of it’s flaws.
While looking through the achievement list, I noticed that a surprising amount of players did not even defeat the first boss (with the related trophy only being obtained by 37% of those who bought it), with a sudden drop off to only 5% of players moving on to complete the game. Having a rough time myself getting used to the game systems, I’ve aimed to provide a little help in order to encourage somebody who dropped it to give it another chance, or help those who find the premise interesting have a smoother introduction to it. Do be wary that this are my own observations and specifically refer to what I’ve understood based on personal experience, as there is very little information in which to refer to on the net (a very complete japanese wiki does exist at http://spwiki.net/caligula/, but unless you speak the language, there is only so much one can recover from a Google translation!)
What’s the Caligula Effect?
It’s a turn-based RPG game for the PS Vita, chronicling the struggles of a group of people trapped in a never ending simulation of their high school years. Developed by Aquaria and published by Furyu in Japan, and by Atlus in North America, it is most notable for presenting a story penned by Satomi Tadashi, of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 1 and 2 fame (before the radical shift in that franchise’s direction). Character designs are the work of the artist Oguchi ,and the soundtrack features Reina Ueda on vocals and compositions from renowned Vocaloid song producers such as Oster Project and Cosmo Runaway. The game’s title refers to a term used in psychology for describing the human attraction to witness or participate in prohibited acts.
What makes it special?
Tadashi’s participation is reflected on a well written and interesting plot, rounded up by a relatable cast of characters, who struggle with much more grounded issues than those presented on modern Persona games; have in mind that these are people reliving their high school years, so the cast is mostly older than usual on the genre, and therefore the game functions somewhat as a deconstruction of tropes associated with the notion of “high school as the most precious time of your life”. On the gameplay side, it features a deep combat system, in the style of “Resonance of Fate”; that is, focused on setting up combos using a queue system and watching them unfold, therefore rewarding careful planning. The art style presents some high quality illustrations, helping to alleviate the somewhat low budget polygonal graphics; and the color palette plays with monochrome tones juxtaposed with colorful floral designs for some striking images. All of this rounded up with a dynamic soundtrack, which in contrast to the norm makes use of vocals tracks most of the time; each dungeon has their own instrumental track playing at first, with vocals fading in during battle. These songs tell the story and personality of that area’s boss, as well as having a clever in-game justification: they are being sang in real time by μ over that area’s speakers! You can listen to the whole soundtrack below:
So… why did it get mixed reviews?
Truth be told, the game is not without issues: the frame rate is a little choppy a result of the portable system struggling at times to keep up with the action, and there is also a degree of input lag on occasion, giving the product an overall not very polished presentation. However, I think most of the problem comes from the lack of well explained tutorials, not helped at all with the game's use of confusing terms for it’s systems in the pursuit of style, therefore making it hard for players to understand what is happening on screen and can end up giving the impression that battles are a frustrating, chaotic affair. However, it is totally worth it to bear with these issues until everything “clicks” in place (for me, that was upon starting the third dungeon).
Where can I get it?
Sadly, the game only got a digital release outside of Japan, so it needs to be downloaded from the Playstation Network. However, as a bonus, included in the purchase is a set of alternative costumes for all playable characters, a nice background theme for the system, and a collection of profile avatars.
Who are those Vocaloid looking characters?
- “μ”: an advanced AI who has gained autonomy, patterned after Vocaloid software. Due to being exposed to all kinds of negate human emotions trough the lyrics of songs composed for her to sing by her worldwide fans, she decides to provide them comfort by letting them relive in perpetuity what she considers the happiest point in human life, high school, in a virtual reality space named Mobius. During the course of the game, she can be heard singing all other characters theme songs, with “Orbit” being her very own.
- “Aria”: μ’s sister AI, she has reversed to a weakened state due to μ taking most of their shared processing power. She is aware of the desire of some habitants of Mobius to return to the real world, and provides them with the ability to use their will as weapons to overthrown her sister.
Who are the playable characters, and what do they specialize on?
From left to right:
- “Shogo Satake”: a mature, reserved character who functions as the leader of the Go Home Club at the beginning of the game. Wise beyond his youthful appearance, he maintains the group focused on the task at hand. In battle, he wields a revolver, and takes the role of a combo chain exploiter, waiting for other characters to stun enemies in order to follow with devastating attacks once they are vulnerable.
- “Izuru Minezawa”: an uptight loner, he conducts himself with an air of superiority around his peers, and prefers to act by his lonesome. He does opens up to the Go Home Club, and starts to show other facets of his personality in time. Wielding a rapier in battle, he excels at exploiting chain attacks to trigger special effects.
- “Kotaro Tomoe”: an energetic young man, with a strong sense of justice. While a little air headed and immature, he is always on the lookout for chances to help other people. In battle, he wields a pair of gauntlets to rush enemies and set up launch opportunities for other characters to exploit. He burns through SP very fast, so he must be used with care.
- “Kensuke Hibiki”: a thoughtful youth who tries to confront all situations with a methodical approach, and has a tendency to provide snarky comments event at the most dire of times. During battle, he wields a massive sword, and takes the role of a tank, shielding his allies from damage and triggering special attacks as a response to getting hit, so it takes some time to get used to his playstyle.
- “The Protagonist”: a stand-in for the player, who becomes aware of the facade after graduating for a second time. He can be named at the beginning of the game, and his willpower manifests in the form of a pair of handguns. A jack of all stats, he functions as a combo chain starter and damage dealer during battle, having access to two kinds of counter attacks, a guard breaker and an aerial attack to increase enemy airtime.
- “Kotono Kashiwaba”: a determined woman who conducts herself with calm grace, she takes the role of an older sister figure to the members of the Go Home Club. In battle, she wields a bow to attack from afar, and plays a supporting role through healing abilities.
- “Naruko Morita”: a youthful girl obsessed with social media, always on the lookout for exciting news to share with her online followers. Her eagerness tends to get her in trouble, though. She functions as another hybrid character, providing ranged support and damage with a pair of attack drones.
- “Mifue Shinohara”: an energetic girl with a cheerful disposition, she keeps the groups spirit’s high, and is eager to spring to action without hesitation. She takes the role of a debuffer in battle, using a hammer to raise enemy Risk levels in order to trigger special effects.
- “Suzuna Kagura”: a shy, demure woman who is good friends with Mifue. The most kindhearted of the group, she is able to empathize quickly with people. She functions in battle as a hybrid character, using a spear to raise enemy Risk levels, break guards and interrupt attacks, while providing support in the form of healing and buffing from a distance.
- “Marie Mizuguchi”: a kind girl who has also noticed the truth behind Mobius. While not a member of the Go Home Club, she meets them from time to time to exchange information and check on their week being. She is the protagonist of the spin-off light novel.
And what about the enemy faction?
Clockwise, starting from the bottom left:
- “Thorn”: the leader of the Obstinato Musicians, a group of μ’s song producers who are bent on maintaining the Mobius loop functioning. She appears to be personally connected to a member of the Go Home Club… Her character theme is “Distorted Hapiness”, an oppressive theme featuring both whispered vocals and threatening, distorted voices.
- “Shonen Doll”: a robed figure with an unkempt appearance, he is in charge of the City Library, creepily decorated with almost human-like dolls. His theme song, “Originality Incident”, makes use of harsh string instrumentation to accentuate his declarations of disdain towards unwanted visitors.
- “Sweet-P”: a manipulative young girl dressed in lolita fashion, she is known for holding lavish tea parties at the Papiko mall, and has a group of followers who identify themselves as the “Flower Princesses”. Her character theme is “Tokimeki Riverie”, a sugary, overtly sweet song which appears to present deceptive innocence.
- “Wicked”: an enigmatic figure whose whereabouts are unknown, but from which an unhinged personality can be glimpsed through their communications with Thorn. Their theme is “Cosmo Dancer”, a chaotic composition which alternates between innocent and deranged sounding.
- “Kagi-P”: the musician in charge of maintaining order at Kishimai High, not much is know about him, aside from his constant announcements over the school’s speakers. His character theme is “Peter Pan Syndrome”, a sorrowful theme from which a tinge of desperate confusion can be detected. He looks familiar, doesn't he?
- “Mirei “: a sadistic seductress who delights in tormenting her suitors with vile remarks, which seems to only make her popular amongst the other Mobius students. She has transformed into the Sea Paraiso aquarium into a vanity lounge where she set ups beauty contests with regularity. Her theme is “Sadistic Queen”, a melodic piano piece patterned after fashion runway events, with narcissistic lyrics remarking on her own perceived beauty.
- “Ike-P”: a handsome young man who is extremely popular among the female students due to his rock star looks and persona. He delights in this, spending his time flirting with girls at the fashion department of the Papiko Mall, and has absolutely no intention of coming back to the real world. His theme is “Angel’s Song”, a J-Rock composition with a concert-like feeling and guitar riffs that would not seem out of place in a Blaz Blue game.
- “Shadow Knife”: and edgy, shadowy vigilante who sticks to the darkness, dealing retribution towards those he deems unworthy. Speaks and dresses like an anime character, and spends his time moodily looking at the cityscape from the top of Landmark Tower. His theme is “Sin”, an extravagant theme declaring his intent to get rid of all those who prey on the weak.
How can I make my characters stronger?
- Playable characters grown up in strength naturally by fighting battles and leveling up. Experience point bonuses can be acquired by equipping related passive skills, using the Protagonist’s “Experience Booster” skill during battle, or defeating an enemy in a single turn. The game is expected to be beaten at Lv. 30 at most, which also serves as a soft cap of sorts due to experience gains being reduced dramatically after reaching it (as a result of enemy levels not scaling unless tackling a New Game Plus).
- Equipment (referred in game as Stigma) is divided on three categories: Manifestos, which grant damage bonuses and can be interpreted as weapons; Core Beliefs, which grant defensive bonuses and play the role of armor; and Traumatic Memories, which work as accessories and grant smaller bonuses to other stats (acuraccy, critical hit, etc.) These are obtained from enemy drops and treasure chests, and can be exchanged for skill points if needed (not recommended, as some of them are used to resolve quests). For the first two types, just equip the ones highest DMG and Shield values respectively, and choose accessories to cover each character’s specific weaknesses (for example: accuracy for Mifue, HP for Izuru and SP for Suzuna).
- Skills are developed by expending skill points, accrued from defeating enemies on the field or exchanging unneeded equipment. There are four kinds of skills: Catharsis Effects, basic attacks whose main function is dealing damage and triggering status effects on enemies; Battle Effects, which work as tactical options to help chain attacks or to move around the field; Affection Effects, consisting mostly of stat buffs for player characters or healing abilities; and Passive Effects, which are granted at all times by equipped Stigma and do not need to be manually activated. For best results, spend acquired skill points on Catharsis Effects first to expand your offensive options, and then move on to the other skill trees.
How does the Battle System work?
- Three systems are key to understanding how to make the most of characters skills: Imaginary Chain is the projection that appears when selecting abilities, and lets you simulate how the queued skills will be resolved; do have in mind that this is just a possible outcome, with a success percentage value shown for each step.
- Chain Bind, meanwhile, refers to a value which can be increased trough inflicting multiple hits on the same enemy before it either hits the floor, or escapes stunlock. Some abilities, like Izuru’s “Razor Blade” trigger special effects when performed during a specific Chain Bind level, so queue them with the intention of hitting last in order to benefit from this.
- Finally, Risk Break involves a number from 0 to 5, located next to an enemy’s health bar, which represents how much damage a foe can deal with an attack. However, by raising this number even further, either by dealing damage or by using some characters specific attacks, a state known as Risk Break can be triggered, which immediately cancels that foe’s current animation, launches them to the air, and enables player skills to apply their special effects without needing to satisfy their trigger conditions! Capitalize on this when possible.
- A common mistake is abusing ability chains, in the form of queuing all three attacks for all characters as soon as battle starts. Most of the time, this will end up with the targeted enemy bursting a defensive attack, followed by all queued attacks canceled, the four characters stunned for the whole cool down period and an almost depleted SP supply, as cancelled attacks costs are not reimbursed!
- Instead, the battle system is better approached by using a single attack per character turn, and saving chain attacks from when an enemy is either launched to the air or suffering from Risk Break. In accordance to which character party you are currently running, you’ll be looking to exploit either condition, as explained below (be mindful that this are just recommendations, and feel free to employ a mixed approach!).
- Air Juggle Team (Protagonist, Shogo, Kotaro, Kotono): use either Kotaro’s “Four-Star Impact” the Protagonist’s counter shots to to launch enemies to the air, while having Shogo in stan-by with the corresponding ability (Ground Strike, Fire Blast or Gunslinger), with Kotono decrease enemy defenses with Secret Snipe and heal when needed.
- Risk Break Team (Protagonist, Mifue, Suzuna, Izuru): this composition focuses on exploiting Mifue’s “Subpar Strike ” ability to raise foe’s Risk levels, in order for Izuru to apply his devastating attacks without needing to satisfy their trigger conditions. The Protagonist meanwhile provides sustained DPS through “Rapid Fire”, while Suzuna stands by waiting for opportunities to cancel enemy skills with her “Vintage Strike” or “Guard Break”, and to provide healing when needed. Once an enemy enters Risk Break, activate all of your characters ultimates to deal extreme damage!
- Somewhat hidden on the Skill Reel are two essential abilities that help to control the flow of battle: “Dash” costs no SP, and is crucial to evading enemy attacks; if an enemy winds up for an attack and you are unable to cancel it with a Counter Skill (check the Imaginary Chain projection!), use it to get out of the area of effect. “Power Surge”, meanwhile, lets a character recover most of their SP (300) in exchange for waiting a full turn cool down; so try to move them out of harms way first (use “Dash” as it costs no SP, and then chain “Power Surge”) to avoid getting stunned mid-cast.
- To summarize, just focus on one attack per character turn, and chain exclusively to capitalize on stun opportunities. This applies to bosses and Nightmare enemies too! Just have in mind that they tend to have much higher evasion rates than normal encounters, and are not stunned as easily.
What should I be have in mind while exploring dungeons?
- Normal encounters encompass most of the roaming Digiheads (students who have lost control of their emotions and will attack any perceived danger to Mobius facade), which tend to stick to the center of hallways, and can be avoided by hugging the sidewalls, as their vision cones are very narrow and might even just cover their immediate front. These encounters are the easiest, as long as no other enemies join mid-fight: all ordinary student NPC’s have an Erosion Meter next to their names, which raises as they observe battles around them; if it raises over 50%, they’ll join the fight! Therefore, try to enter battle as far away from open areas, remember you can “Dash” at the beginning of battle to get out of an NPC cluster! This enemies also won’t attack until manually provoked if the Protagonist is at leasts 6 levels higher than them.
- Nightmare encounters are identified by the NM designation, and are much stronger than normal encounters; think of them as minibosses, and be sure to save before challenging one! Do not engage until you at the very least equal their level, or most of your attacks will not connect at all. Thankfully, they are mostly stationary, and serve as gate keepers or treasure guardians, though some of them do roam on set paths and can therefore be avoided; however they do have better vision cones that cover most space in front of them, so wait for them to turn away before sneaking by (just hugging the wall won’t be enough). Sometimes there will be a Skull icon on their Erosion Rate gauge, this is not an indicator of their strength, but rather indicates that a battle with them cannot be escaped using the Protagonist “Escape” skill. Be on the lookout for the NM label during exploration!
- Treasure chests take the form of Blue, Red, Green and Orange “Soul Remnants“. Smallsones can be looted only once, while big ones refresh after a while. They mostly contain Stigma, and some are locked until a linked Nightmare encounter is cleared, though it is not alway very clear which one is connected to them; as a general rule, Nightmare encounters who are on their own in secluded areas tend to unlock nearby chests.
- You’ll sometimes find locked doors which prompt for a code when approached. This are gateways to endgame extra dungeons (referred as part of the “World Reward” system”), and can be safely ignored until you see the credits roll.
- Most dungeons have drastically overleveled enemies tucked in far away corners, so be careful when exploring: you are not supposed to fully map a dungeon on your first visit! This even includes at times entire sections or floors, such as the Old School Building or the Dinner section at Papiko Mall. They are somewhat easy to recognize though, as roaming encounters will have a much higher level in comparison to those in the adjacent sections.
- There is no big need to grind encounters, as the game progression is tailored towards just fighting those that manage to aggro while turning a corner or on scripted events. As long as you meet enemy levels equally, you should be able to progress with little trouble, and not turn bosses into anti-climatic one shot kills. On that matter, they do give lots of experience, so be sure to use the Protagonist’s “Experience Booster” skill when close to defeating them for a 15% boost!
What other activities are available?
- By striking up conversation with your party members on each dungeon’s entrance, their Character Episode can be progressed, these consist of dialogue events which shed light on their personal issues and struggles. More events are unlocked with main story progression, and the involved character will gain passive skills automatically at certain milestones.
- A similar system, known as the Causality Link, involves the hundreds of student NPC’s that populate the dungeons. Solving their fetch quests unlock passive skills that can be equipped by all characters, but it is a tedious process that is only needed to prepare for endgame activities; you can progress through the main story while ignoring it just fine.
What else is there to do after beating the game?
- After the credits roll, a Game Cleared save file can be used to either begin a New Game with toughened up enemies (resetting story progress, but maintaining experience levels and inventory) or to go back to the save point before the final boss in order to move on to challenge the extra dungeons or complete any other unfinished tasks, such as rematching bosses for extra equipment.
- A challenging new dungeon (Echo) is unlocked upon game completion, which can be accessed trough a previously locked door on the second floor of Kishimai High. The catch is that it cannot be left until cleared, and there are no save points inside, so extreme caution and preparation is required.
- Another series of dungeons are referred to as the “World Reward” system, and their entrances are locked under a series of codewords, intended to be discovered by the game community from very low percentage enemy drops, quests rewards or treasure chests, and shared with others. However, as the game community ended being so small, some of them are yet to be found, and no info on the ultimate challenge (The King Of Mobius) exists. This is the grindfest part of the game, as enemy levels rise exponentially, and only the most dedicated of fans would be willing to dedicate the timesink to it. I’ve yet to tackle this content myself, so not much more I can tell about it.
Hopefully this little guide is of help to both motivate people to try the game, and for those who dropped it to give it a second chance. Feel free to ask on the comments for any advice or detail I might have skipped over, and I will try to answer to the best of my ability!
While not a blockbuster hit, the game seems to have struck a chord with the japanese audience, with several promotional issues such as a light novel (featuring Marie’s point of view) and a soundtrack consisting of covers of all song by their vocal actors being released to celebrate it’s one year anniversary, a sample of which can be heard here:
Hopefully this will end up if not on a sequel, at least on a PS4 remake which fixes most of it’s issues.