The Caligula Effect is a game Atlus has been promoting with references to social interactions. It notes that Tadashi Satomi, the scenario writer for Shin Megami Tensei: Persona, Persona 2: Innocent Sin, and Persona 2: Eternal Punishment was responsible for the story. It makes mention of the 500 plus NPCs you can befriend and recruit for your party. It even mentions how different characters have Chara Episodes that allow you to befriend and uncover the secrets of their hearts. Unfortunately, none of these have the depth and heart that so many other RPGs, like Persona, have offered over the past few years. Instead, efforts end up feeling trite and hollow.
The main reason it falters is because of those 500 people you can meet. They have no personality or depth. The Caligula Effect would have worked better if it had a more manageable 20 or 30 people, if it wanted to offer oodles of people to talk to. This is overwhelming. You don’t know where they could be at any given time. Hunting down specific people can be tedious. And even if you do find someone, you might not be able to even talk to them. Why? Because you aren’t friends with their gateway friend.
The Caligula Effect tries to get you to care about these characters’ connections. It has a Causality Link relationship map that reminds me of Xenoblade Chronicles’ chart that shows how all people are connected. Except here, this map isn’t very helpful. Let’s review why it doesn’t work. There are 500 or so characters present in the game. The Causality Link does show you who you need to befriend to open up other connections. That’s it. It doesn’t say where you can find them. It doesn’t offer details beyond groups, classes, and ties. If you select a specific person, it just shows you the Trauma Reward skills connected to them. It isn’t very helpful.
Should you find someone and be able to talk to them, go you! You’re very close to quickly making friends. Fortunately, all NPCs have their names above their heads. This is very helpful, since all of these people look alike. Even some of the important party members, who get portraits and lines, fall into the trap of looking like everyone else. (Marie, Suzuna, Mifue, and even Kensuke fall victim to this, despite being Important.) When you find someone, you talk to them. They offer some mindless opener that’s the most banal small talk. The screen goes black. A bar comes up showing an increase in the relationship level. A message says your affinity has gone up. That’s it for the conversation.
But as hollow as these non-versations are, I’d rather engage in 100 of them and avoid the WIRE messaging system. The Caligula Effect has a messenger available in the menu that imitates Line. Every character, be they a main character or NPC, has an account and you can “talk” to them. Except “talking” involves using one of three “options” to start a conversation. “What’s up?” “What’s going on?” “Any issues?” This makes your character repeatedly ask equally trite questions of characters endlessly. “Are you well?” “I felt like texting.” “How are you feeling?” “Are you bored?” Rather than go on, I’d rather share with you some screenshots of early conversations between my avatar and both main and NPC characters. It will be much more effective. Unfortunately, you need to have a mix of those black-out conversations and these instant messages, as well as visiting people with certain Stigmas equipped or meeting other objectives, to form bonds.
The only time WIRE comes in handy is if you return to The Caligula Effect after a break. If you head into the group chat, you can send one of the three scripted options and receive a note reminding you of what you’re supposed to be doing. This is only handy if you’re on a floor where there isn’t a big green or red square on the map showing you where a Chara Episode or main story point of interest awaits.
Even with characters who are lucky enough to be part of the story and be special, it feels like there’s this superficiality. You can take part in Chara Episodes, but these pale in comparison to the Persona social links or Mass Effect’s loyalty missions. I felt like it was because the game gives us no opportunity to let relationships develop. The Caligula Effect immediately has you dungeon crawling and fighting for freedom. The characters have no real downtime during which you can connect with them. They start off so closed off that you really need to force yourself to invest in these side-quests to open their hearts.
To their credit, they can get interesting down the line. (I like Shogo and Kotono quite a bit.) But making a connection requires a significant investment. I didn’t start really caring about Kotono, Kotaro, or Naruko until I was about three steps into their specific storylines and really started discovering exactly who they were. Even then, most of these episodes offer conversation prompts that are more similar to the ones in I am Setsuna than Persona, in that they don’t have any impact on the relationship and are an empty choice designed to move things along. Which is a shame, because some of the backstories for these major characters have such potential. (Did I mention I like Shogo and Kotono a lot?) If Shogo or Kotono were part of a Persona game, I absolutely believe they’d become fan favorites and their stories would be praised.
I started feeling introspective as I played The Caligula Effect. These 500-odd NPCs are nothing but tools. Not only to Ostinato Musicians serving µ, but to players. Each of these characters is living their lives in this virtual world, trying to get by as best they can. The Ostinato Musicians use their songs to agitate and erode them, turning them into aggressive Digiheads. But aren’t we doing the same thing? Our avatar repeatedly talks to them, but we don’t get to see the conversations offer any depth or sentimentality. Especially not over WIRE. Once we reach a plateau, we equip something or take them somewhere to show that hey, we’re cool! Then, we turn them into soldiers to fight for us. Just as the Ostinato Musicians do for them. I felt bad for these people and actually stopped talking to them. It wasn’t worth wasting my time or theirs. I bothered with Shogo and Kotono because I had to. They were always in my party and were necessary. But the others? I didn’t get enough out of the experience to pursue them. The skills weren’t a motivating enough reward.
The Caligula Effect tries to be too ambitious with its relationships. By offering over 500 folks, there’s no opportunity to make the individuals stand out. There’s no sense of connection. It is overwhelming and underwhelming at the same time. Sometimes, it can feel like the disparity between the major characters and NPCs is purposeful. Perhaps it is meant to represent the superficiality of relationships between characters in a world that isn’t real and call attention to the importance of people who do matter. It did make me feel like everyone in Mobius is subject to the whims of a virtuadoll like µ or Aria and needs to “recruit” the faceless masses as potential soldiers. Regardless, I can’t help but feel it would have been a more fulfilling experience if only the Go-Home Club members were further fleshed out and those 500 other NPCs didn’t exist.
The Caligula Effect is available on the PlayStation Vita in North America. It will come to Europe on May 9, 2017.