Review: The Caligula Effect: Overdose
This engaging and creative JRPG with musically-themed boss battles is hindered by tedious pacing.
17 May 2019 – by Catarina White
Version reviewed: Nintendo Switch
Long-time JRPG fans on PlayStation Vita likely interacted with the first iteration of The Caligula Effect, originally released in Japan in 2016 and followed by a western release in 2017. Despite less-than-stellar critical feedback, the game endured in The Caligula Effect: Overdose, a remake for PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch. This new version of the game includes improved graphics courtesy of Unreal Engine 4 implementation, additional paths in the game to new alternate endings, and an entirely new feature known as the Forbidden Musician Route.
The plot - particularly how it progresses - is one of the game's major strengths. Playing as the protagonist, you are informed that a beautiful singer named µ (pronounced Mu) is responsible for the creation of the city of Miyabi, located in the synthetic dream-world Mobius, where you begin your journey. µ is a vocaloid, or vocal synthesizer software, who has become more than a simple conformist: over time, she became aware of the pain and suffering of the people sending her music, and in response, created the perfect utopia now known as Mobius. The world traps the souls of those who can no longer handle the hardships of the real world and forces them to live through high school again and again as the version of themselves they most wanted to be in the real world. Among the trapped souls, there are those that become aware that they are no longer in the real world; these characters band together to form the Go-Home Club, and their goal is to challenge µ and the villainous Ostinato Musicians who send music to µ to keep the inhabitants of Miyabi brainwashed. As you progress, you'll also face off against the corrupted inhabitants of Miyabi, who view the club members as the real enemies for trying to ruin the idyllic dream-world of Mobius.
The Caligula Effect: Overdose includes a turn-based battle system that has some fantastic action elements revolving around an "imaginary chain" timeline within the battle. I have experienced many battle systems in RPGs, but this is the first one I have encountered with these cool timeline manipulation options, which made the first slew of fights I encountered novel and interesting. Your fighting menu gives you three main sets of options including Catharsis Effect, Support, and Action. Learning the battle system is challenging - not overwhelmingly so, but it can take trial and error in multiple encounters long after the tutorial fights are over. There are many considerations you must keep in mind when fighting to be successful, including your opponent's level, fighting style, and more.
The imaginary chain aspect of the fight is the most intriguing: at the top of your screen there is a horizontal three-tiered bar that looks similar to what you would see on a piece of sheet music, and a vertical bar that progresses across the horizontal bar. The moves you pick from the fighting options plot themselves on the horizontal bar similar to notes on a piece of sheet music. Before you make your move, you'll see a shadow fight unfold, a glimpse of the possible future of the battle given your selections. This will allow you to see how your move combinations may unfold and whether you could have successful combos; unfortunately, there is still a somewhat frustrating element of RNG to every exchange that can lay waste to your carefully built chain. It is an exceedingly complex system that I was unable to fully master. Additionally, once the novelty of the system wears off, some battles clearly start to drag; there are a huge number of encounters in the game, and the battles become far too long and involved for the frequency with which they occur. The game offers an equipment system and skill upgrade system much like many other RPGs, though unlike the imaginary chain system, these don't offer any truly novel features or options.
You shouldn't have a JRPG without a system for developing relationships between characters, and The Caligula Effect: Overdose doesn't disappoint in this regard, though it doesn't reinvent the system in any new or exciting ways either. You have the option to befriend any of the students you meet in the school, and once you create a friendship you can accept a quest from that student, which can lead to a variety of outcomes. There are a huge number of these quests, creating a huge amount of extra content for players looking to take the long route to finishing the game. The average time to finish this game will likely be around 40 hours for most players without completing any extras, and much more if you're aiming for completion.
The highlight of this game is absolutely the soundtrack. Each of the Ostinato Musicians have their own unique music, and the music is carefully crafted to match their personalities. Good music always elevates a game, and it certainly boosts the quality of this one. The graphics in this game are just fine; the colours are attractive, but the textures can seem a bit flat on occasion, and the hallways you're required to manoeuvre to reach target areas are visually repetitive. My expectations weren't high considering many of the larger RPG ports to Switch have taken hits in the visual department, but the portability the Switch offers is a perfect match for games like this that require a larger time investment.
The Caligula Effect: Overdose is a great effort that almost comes together to become a truly great game. It's held back mostly by its repetitive landscapes, long-drawn-out battles, and the fact that it spreads itself just a tad too thin by implementing a huge friendship quest system without focusing enough on main character development early on. The game does boast some incredible strengths, including its outstanding customized soundtracks for each Ostinato Musician. All in all, The Caligula Effect: Overdose is an impressive JRPG, and a great fit for completionists and lovers of vocaloid culture.