“But why diminish your soul being run-of-the-mill at something? Mediocrity: now there is ugliness for you. Mediocrity’s a hairball coughed up on the Persian carpet of Creation.”
-Tom Robbins, Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas
“The following is a contributor post by the Middle-aged Horror Mage.”
We’re in the middle of JRPG-mania on the Nintendo Switch, between Tales of Vesperia and various Final Fantasy titles finding themselves a home alongside new entries in the long-running Atelier series. With so many games vying for your hard-earned dollar (and, more importantly, your time), what would make you choose one considered “average” over something else?
“Average” may be putting it lightly when it comes to The Caligula Effect: Overdose, a definitive edition remaster of the 2016 PlayStation Vita JRPG. As someone who never played the original version, I can’t speak to the impact of the newly added features, but I can tell you they *seem* pretty significant. Overdose includes the ability to choose between a male or female protagonist when the only option available before was the former. And in addition to 4 new playable characters, you can experience an entire campaign centered around your rivals, the Ostinato Musicians. According to the official NIS America blog, The Caligula Effect: Overdose has been rebuilt using a new engine and has an updated UI as well, though its performance on the Nintendo Switch isn’t exactly great.
As the story goes, you find yourself trapped inside a fake world called Mobius that was created by a sentient vocaloid named Mu (symbolized in-game by the Greek letter μ). Mu’s songs resonated so much with people out in the real world that she wanted to create Mobius as a virtual alternative that allowed people to be who they always wanted to be without fear of the real world’s critical eye. Are you a middle-aged man who wants to live out his life as a super cute female idol? What about a peeping tom? How about an insanely popular teen that’s popular with the ladies? Then Mobius is for you!
Those who end up in Mobius live on as high-schoolers who repeat the same three years over and over, despite their age in the real world. Not everyone knows they’re in a fake universe and those who do make up two factions — the Go-Home Club (aptly named for their desire to return to the real world) and the Ostinato Musicians (who will stop at nothing to keep Mu’s created world alive and well).
When your hero comes to their senses during their graduation speech, they’re taken in by the Go-Home Club and introduced to Mu’s rival and fellow sentient vocaloid, Aria, who grants you the power to fight back. Dubbed the Catharsis Effect, Aria can unleash the power held within your heart and transform it into a weapon (in your case, a pair of pistols). Each member of the Go-Home Club eventually unleashes their power as well, making up the rest of your party members as the story progresses.
The Ostinato Musicians are the game’s boss characters and each has their own unique dungeon to complete, which is strikingly similar to the later Persona titles (get ready to read this comparison *a lot*). Even the character art and music feels very Persona-esque. The story itself is actually written by Tadashi Satomi, who helped pen Revelations: Persona, Persona 2: Eternal Punishment, and Persona 2: Innocent Sin, so the connections shouldn’t be too surprising.
New to the Overdose edition, your character will split their time between helping the Go-Home Club and hindering their progress as a member of the “evil” Ostinato Musicians, ultimately giving you the choice of who to side with. The members of both clubs have their own social link episodes that delve more into their real-life characters and eventually unlock new abilities, which are arguably the best part of the narrative.
The Caligula Effect: Overdose is another modern JRPG that aims to spice things up during combat, wanting to breathe new life into an age-old genre. While issuing commands in typical menu-based fashion, you can view a predictive battle that shows you what the enemy’s strategy is before committing. This allows you to choose your commands in such a way that counters anything the enemies throw at you. While this sounds good on paper, it’s ultimately pointless (and I’ll get into why down below).
Personally, I come to JRPGs for the characters and the narrative, and if those are both strong it becomes easier to overlook any graphical and/or combat shortcomings. Unfortunately for The Caligula Effect: Overdose, its soundtrack is the only praiseworthy aspect.
Let’s dig a little deeper with our 8-bit Review, shall we?
As I mentioned above, the story centers around a group of people both willingly and unwillingly stuck in a virtual world created by a sentient vocaloid. You get to experience both sides of the story now thanks to the Overdose edition’s new Ostinato Musicians campaign that’s now a mandatory part of the narrative. You essentially have the Go-Home Club searching for a way to leave Mobius and the Ostinato Musicians who are happier in Mu’s creation than they are out in the real world, so there’s a lot of grey area. Who is in the right here? If only it were that interesting.
I like that I was given the choice of who to support near the end of the game, but the story is so poorly paced and filled with fluff that it never engaged me during my 30-hour playthrough. Most of the characters are unlikeable before being humanized during their social link episodes, but even then I didn’t find many of them worth caring about.
The social link episodes provide the lion’s share of the narrative anyway, as the Go-Home Club’s goals are plainly stated in the opening hour and never changes throughout. It’s clear that one group wants out while the other doesn’t, and rarely does that change outside of these social links (which can be outright failed by choosing incorrect dialogue choices — so save before each one!).
By the time the credits rolled and the ending I unlocked cruised along, I was honestly glad it was over and eager to jump into something else in my backlog. As someone who comes to these types of games for the narrative, hopefully, you can imagine my disappointment.
Equally forgettable is the combat system, which allows you to issue commands while viewing a predictive version of the battle before it plays out. This essentially lets you counter everything, from breaking defensive shields and moving away from danger zones to nullifying ranged and melee attacks with counter abilities. You can use the d-pad to move commands around and execute them at specific times, but it’s unnecessary.
Actually, the combat system as a whole is unnecessary. Playing on the default difficulty and doing very little XP grinding outside of raising affinity levels, I defeated every single encounter in the game by simply holding down the A button (which chooses the default attack) and putting the other 3 party members of auto-battle. Every. Single. Battle. I never encountered a game over screen, I barely lost a party member, and without playing The Caligula Effect: Overdose on a harder setting, I saw no point in using any of its interesting combat features. You can unlock new abilities while leveling up, but why bother when you can just hold down the A button and topple bosses and fodder enemies with ease?
Pointless combat nuances aside, I also ran into technical problems outside of battle. If you follow me on Twitter you probably recall me constantly posting screenshots of my character stuck inside of the floor during various cutscenes. This occurred more than 10 times and would have likely taken me out of the experience if the story held my attention at all. After scouring Google and Twitter, I discovered it was a common issue that still isn’t fixed as of today.
A daunting feature newly added to the Overdose edition is the ability to befriend and recruit 500 (!!!) students to fight alongside you. Speaking with a student three times makes them your friend, which then allows you to invite them to your party of four. They’ll provide useful passive abilities once they reach a certain rank, but they’re always weaker than the core Go-Home Club members.
Seriously, though… 500 students.
This new Overdose edition is a remastered version of the original game, which was exclusive to the PlayStation Vita. Graphically, it’s not very pretty, but again, it was a Vita game. Character models still appear muddy (and are exacerbated when played in handheld mode), there are only two or three different enemy designs (who are only differentiated by the weapon they carry), and the dungeon designs feel wholly uninspired.
You’ll visit outdoor shopping centers, aquariums, libraries and the like, which are all maze-like corridors that overstay their welcome within the first 10 minutes. Some of them seem to go on forever as well, which brought forth a mild groan whenever I found myself having to revisit them during key plot points. There are dead ends with treasure chests and the occasional puzzle to solve, but none of them were very enjoyable to explore (since the only distraction was combat, which, again, just holding down A).
While the game isn’t easy on the eyes, to begin with, The Caligula Effect’s diet-Persona aesthetic does have a certain charm to it. Uniformed high school students that spawn weapons like hammers, swords, and guns certainly sounds interesting to me. I didn’t expect a lot visually and I can’t say I was let down, but it immediately felt dated and looked far, far worse in handheld mode.
The most noteworthy visual aspect came by way of the game’s character portraits, which beats the diet-Persona drum once again. Everyone looks pale and sickly, clad in their grey uniforms while striking an odd pose. The Ostinato Musicians, however, were generally full of color — fitting their more positive outlook on Mu’s creation of Mobius and their future within it.
Without beating around the bush, The Caligula Effect: Overdose has an incredible soundtrack. Each dungeon features its own key track that represents the Ostinato Musician awaiting you at the end. These instrumental tracks are good on their own, but the moment you enter battle it swells into a vocalized version that’s chock full of hard-hitting Japanese electro-pop. And when I thought it couldn’t get any better, you get a remixed arrangement during boss fights that cranks it up to 11.
All of the music within The Caligula Effect is worth checking out, but they’re also the only aspect of the game that kept me wanting to see what the next dungeon had in store (and what the remixed boss version sounded like).
Some of my favorite tracks are Reina Ueda and UtsuP’s “Suicide Prototype.”
Ueda’s beautiful vocals also slay in the more metal-ish DECO*27 track for the peeping tom Stork, titled “Love Scope.”
And the above’s boss remix arrangement.
Liked I mentioned above, The Caligula Effect: Overdose is absurdly easy on the default setting and 100% of the game’s battles can be blown through by holding down the A button. I discovered this within the first hour and wanted to see how far I could take it, which turned out to be the entire game — final boss included. Cool.
You can also fail social link episodes by choosing the wrong replies, which is easy to do for the Ostinato Musicians since their morals aren’t always good — who wants to learn to peep with a pervert or torture students with an explosive-obsessed maniac? If you save before each episode you can easily load your file and try again, but I didn’t exactly feel good about some of my choices. Earning the best ending does require you to max out every social link, though, so them’s the breaks.
The Caligula Effect: Overdose does offer a New Game+, which is really the bare minimum when it comes to replay value. I saw everything I needed to see during the first playthrough and really don’t care to go back through it with my levels and social link ranks still intact, but if that’s your sort of thing then NG+ is an option.
Of course, you can watch the “true ending” on YouTube instead of rushing through a mediocre JRPG again.
While so much of The Caligula Effect: Overdose feels like a severely watered-down Persona, the combat system is super interesting on paper and unlike anything I’d seen in other JRPGs. I just wish I actually had to use it. The character art immediately drew Persona 2: Innocent Sin & Eternal Punishment comparisons while the boss-themed dungeons were more in line with something like Persona 4 and 5.
I don’t want to keep beating a dead horse, but it’s hard to shake the inspiration for The Caligula Effect. It’s defining feature is its predictive combat that’s, AGAIN, pointless to use.
My Personal Grade: 4/10
After 30-ish hours I’d more than had my fill of The Caligula Effect: Overdose. The combat system was ultimately pointless, the dungeons were a drag, and I just felt there were far better JRPGs to choose from on the Nintendo Switch. Even having the game available on the go didn’t help matters since there was no need for grinding and the visuals took a severe nosedive in handheld mode.
The narrative had an equally absurd and interesting premise at the jump, but it never once moved the needle. You’re given a new “bad guys” scenario in the Overdose edition, but it’s just a “both sides” argument that doesn’t go anywhere until it’s all over. You learn more about each character through personal social link stories that were better than the core narrative, but I never really had a great time with any of it, outside of the excellent soundtrack.
If you’re out of JRPGs to play on the Switch or you’re itching for something Persona-like on a console that doesn’t have one available, then maybe consider giving this one a shot when it goes on sale. As it stands, it’s a rough experience with very little to show for during its 30-hour runtime.
Aggregate Score: 4.1
Trash is the Middle-aged Horror Mage and a self-proclaimed JRPG and horror game junkie. He’s oddly excited by the fact that he can be brutally murdered in Puppet Combo’s ’80s-inspired slasher game Christmas Massacre as an NPC and urges you to support indie horror. Follow him on Twitter @Trashlevania for exploding head memes, cute goat pics, and Japanese wrestling nonsense!
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Categories: Game Review