What if you could enter another world where your desires became reality and you could escape life’s biggest problems? The Caligula Effect: Overdose, a remake of the original 2016 title, is a JRPG that explores this scenario.
Here’s my Video Review for your viewing pleasure!
You play as a silent non-customizable protagonist, either male or female – the female option exclusive to the remake. The main character finds themselves trapped in Mobius, a virtual world where people can live carefree lives, throwing away any baggage from the past. It sounds like a great lifestyle, until you factor in Digiheads, lost souls who have become violently berserk. Your avatar meets up with a group of super-powered students who seek to return to normal life, dubbing themselves the Go-Home Club. If any part of this summary sounds like a Persona game, it may be no surprise that The Caligula Effect shares the same writer as the first few Persona titles.
This mature-rated game delves into themes that are often swept under the rug, like mental illness. I would caution that this experience may not be for those who feel uncomfortable around sensitive subjects. The Go-Home Club’s members, who comprise your party, all resemble typical anime tropes on the outside, but harbor deep, dark pasts. Full voice acting helped me to understand their emotions, though it’s only in Japanese. Their secrets shocked me, and their heartfelt recognition of their shortcomings resonated with me. This extends to the villains, including Mobius’ creator μ (pronounced Mew), a digital idol who seeks a distorted utopia. Your classmates’ revelations are relegated to character episodes between dungeons, similar to the Social Link system in Persona. Aside from these well-written segments, though, the “fake world” narrative is relatively uneventful.
The gameplay is also a mixed bag, but I’ll start by highlighting the strongest aspect: the battle system. Combat combines turn-based mechanics and real-time action. When you select an attack skill from the menu, you activate the Imaginary Chain, a projection of how your move will play out. This peek into the future matters because you can chain party members’ abilities to strike at the same time, forming wicked combos. For example, if your skill launches an enemy into the air, your teammates can all follow up with air attacks. Or you can chain two more of your own counterattacks. You have limitless time to form a strategy whether going all-in or running across the field to dodge. Once you confirm everything, everyone’s actions play out simultaneously in real time. It forms an exciting battle flow, topped off by the new Overdose skills, flashy finishing moves that recharge over time. With a handy battle timeline, you can orchestrate the upcoming fight as if you were a musical conductor.
The system isn’t perfect; you can’t switch between characters freely, which makes it difficult to formulate strategies. Plus, the entire projection can fail by random chance, or if your opponents counter your skills. For some, these problems may be considered positives, preventing your Imaginary Chains from being instant-win predictions. In a vacuum, the battle system is satisfying, particularly during boss encounters where carefully monitoring the projections is necessary. However, the vast majority of fights are against the same handful of high school student enemies, merely differentiated by weapon.
Ultimately, the biggest issues in The Caligula Effect: Overdose are everything surrounding the battle system. The game is strictly a dungeon crawler. There is no overworld, and exploration is limited to a handful of areas. There is no rhyme or reason to the level design; they are literal mazes filled with endless hallways and aimlessly wandering NPCs. Each three to four hour dungeon is a slog. Sometimes there is a rudimentary fetch quest or basic riddle to complete. Otherwise, the sole objective is to walk towards the goal, occasionally finding equipment at dead ends. Even the battle system loses its luster amidst the tedious dungeon crawling. I eventually started using autobattle, trivializing the clever mechanics, just to grind experience and skill points.
The remastered visuals look nice but don’t mask the monotony. The dungeon backgrounds are detailed, but as you progress through, you begin to realize that the entire area consists of the same stock wallpaper plastered over every hallway. Expanding the map display is basically mandatory as it’s easy to get lost in the generic layouts. And if you’re playing undocked on the Nintendo Switch, the visuals end up blurry. On the auditory side, the game ingeniously layers the soundtrack so that while exploring, a background track plays; once you enter battle, vocals kick in to kindle excitement. As a fan of J-pop, I enjoyed the bubbly, upbeat Vocaloid music, but hearing the same song loop through a multi-hour dungeon drove me insane.
Beyond the main cast, you can befriend a whopping 500 characters and add any of them to your party. As neat as this sounds, these extra characters are all bland and are represented by mere silhouettes. Befriending them is also a simple matter of talking to them three times in a row and doing a fetch quest. You can continue this shallow banter through an in-game phone messaging app…but why? The Causality Link is a giant flow chart intended to show social connections. However, it’s near impossible to read or navigate, with no sorting tools and a convoluted interface. Completionists may enjoy reaping benefits from befriending everyone, but with such a strong core cast, I saw no reason to recruit these nobodies.
On a positive note, I like that this remake lets you play alongside the core villains, who form their own group, the Ostinato Musicians. The context for joining them makes little sense and involves the main character becoming a double agent against the Go-Home Club. Oddly enough, you have no choice between the hero or villain routes. You’re actually forced to play through both, and the villain path is more or less a retread of the same dungeons you’ve already visited. You only play through a portion, but it’s still overkill, considering the main hero path also has you repeating some dungeons. The villain backstories give them humanity, but there’s little substance to this route beyond an arbitrary choice point late in the game that alters the ending.
The remake also includes a few additional characters for both sides. With them come two new dungeons that incorporate interesting settings and novel scenarios. Most of all, they increase the playtime to about 30-40 hours, though it’s admittedly just more grinding. There is a New Game+, but actual replay incentive is low.
The Caligula Effect: Overdose has a strong premise resembling a Persona-lite experience featuring a likable cast in a utopian Matrix. This Switch remake improves upon the original with enhanced graphics, novel characters and dungeons, and a new villain route. However, the gameplay ideas aren’t executed well. It’s a shame that such an innovative battle system isn’t complemented by an equally enticing overworld and progression. The Caligula Effect isn’t terrible, but with an overdose of bland repetition, I can only recommend it to hardcore dungeon-crawler fans or veterans who appreciated the original.
Note: A review copy was used for this article.