The Caligula Effect is one of the most criminally underrated games of recent memory. A deeply intelligent JRPG that turns the familiar “save the world” premise completely on its head, that takes a more nuanced and thought-provoking approach to moral philosophy than just about any other game ever made, that delivered one of the most unique and satisfying twists on turn-based combat ever—a game that achieved all that sits at a middling 60 on Metacritic, give it take a few points depending on platform. It’s a damn shame, but I guess that’s what happens in a medium where “content” and “polish” are so heavily favoured over substance and meaning.
It’s also the reason I never thought we’d ever see a Caligula Effect 2. But here we are, with a sequel that resists the urge to chase the spectre of mainstream appeal and instead just doubles down on what made the first game so remarkable. Sadly, that means it’s not going to get the attention or recognition it deserves, but the people who are ready to listen to what The Caligula Effect 2 has to say—rather than complaining about it not being something it was never trying to be—are in for a hell of a treat.
The Caligula Effect 2 starts from the same basic premise as the previous game: in a dream world (“Redo”) created by a virtual idol , people live in bliss, endlessly reliving a carefree high school life with no memory of the real life and the woes they left behind. But when a few people awaken to the world’s true nature and regain their memories, they form the “Go-Home Club” and start fighting for a way to return to the real world—but in doing so, they threaten to destroy this very world, and the safety and comfort it affords the people who are living in blissful ignorance.
In starting from the same concept, the sequel revisits the moral dilemmas that were the crux of The Caligula Effect: given the choice, is it better to face a bitter, unpleasant reality, or to forget everything and just live out your days in a false (but convincing) paradise? And, more importantly, if you choose the former, what right do you have to take that other option away from everyone else? It’s easy to say facing your troubles is always better than running from them, but whose decision is that to make? That’s the path that both Caligula Effects walk, to intriguing, fascinating ends.
But while The Caligula Effect 2 threads a similar line, it also finds ways to introduce new perspectives—particularly when it comes to the choices that people make. The Go-Home Club in The Caligula Effect is, by and large, already established when the game starts: most of your fellow party members are people who are already aware of the dream world’s true nature, and have already resolved to go home at any cost. But in The Caligula Effect 2, you play the founding member of a new Go-Home Club, and every member is someone who is just waking up to the truth about Redo and has only just got their memories of reality back.
And because of that, the question of whether or not they actually want to go back is one that weighs heavily for most of the group, and isn’t easily answered. There are a couple whose resolve is immediate, but for most in this Go-Home Club, coming to terms with what going home actually means—what facing up to past regrets and the trauma that their realities carry means in practice, rather than just as an abstract concept—is a tough hurdle to overcome. That idea sits at the core of Caligula Effect 2, and grounds the series’ themes in a way that The Caligula Effect’s more theoretical approach never could.
By extension, this game also feels a lot more personal. The Caligula Effect used its cast and the traumatic realities they had fled for some thoughtful reflection on society and psychology, but it was a step removed from its subjects—more observational than experiential, in a way that felt deliberate. The Caligula Effect 2 undertakes similar reflection, but from a much closer perspective, as the Go-Home Club works together to come to terms with whatever it is they’re coming to terms with, be it gender identity, the burden of fame, a feeling of helplessness in later life, to name just a few. With the protagonist as the club president who everyone looks up to and confides in, you’re close to the centre of all this self-exploration. Both approaches have their merits and sit nicely in contrast to each other: the observational perspective lends itself to thoughtful analysis; the personal one emphasises what’s at stake and the weight of those decisions.
To complicate things further, there’s χ (“Chi”), another virtual idol who invades Redo, binds herself to the protagonist at the beginning of the game, and is the catalyst for the Go-Home Club members’ awakenings in the first place. She serves a similar role to Aria from the first game, though she couldn’t be more different: crass, loud-mouthed, blunt, and completely open about the fact that she doesn’t understand humans and doesn’t care to. Her relationship with the Go-Home Club is entirely self-serving… which puts all those questions about choice, regret, and facing reality into another perspective. χ’s (often hilarious) efforts to make sense of human emotions also serve to underscore all those ideas that The Caligula Effect 2 explores.
That said, sometimes The Caligula Effect 2 feels like it follows in the footsteps of the first game a little too closely. Despite the shift in perspective, it’s still largely interested in similar themes and philosophies: regret and escapism, religion, trauma, and the influence of pop culture. Fascinating though these things are, some of the impact is lost the second time around—The Caligula Effect 2 is every bit as thoughtful and compelling as the previous game, in some ways more so, but The Caligula Effect was groundbreaking in a way that “more of the same” could never hope to match.
Where The Caligula Effect 2 does step into its own a bit more is with its improvements to the battle system. The basic idea remains the same: it’s a turn-based system with a focus on physical interactions, in which you can manually adjust the timing of when your actions resolve in order to better coordinate attacks from members of your party. The goal is to line your attacks up just right to create big, deadly combos, with an attack preview to help get the timings just right—almost like scripting a fighting game combo video.
But this time around, there’s much more focus on a more reactionary, interactive style of play. In The Caligula Effect, you could choose up to three actions every turn; that created a lot of possibilities for some really impressive attack sequences, but in practice, most enemies died too quickly for there to be much point. The system ended up incentivising hard-hitting but not necessarily efficient opening moves that would more often than not claim you victory in the space of a single turn.
The Caligula Effect 2 does away with those chain actions. You get only one action per turn now, and as a result, it’s much harder to build touch of death combos without doing a bit of setup first. Instead, you have to play off enemies’ movements and actions a lot more, lining up counter hits to get your offense going and using your defensive tools more smartly, too. It’s far more satisfying in the long run, and creates a much smoother ebb and flow to combat that The Caligula Effect lacked.
The rest of the game hasn’t changed drastically, but there’s more depth and variety in side quests now, as well as better rewards and more options for tailoring your party setup thanks to a revamped passive skill system. It’s not all about making your party stronger, though—many rewards and hidden treasures come in the form of new questions to ask the rest of the Go-Home Club through the in-game messenger app, opening the door to some new personal insights and fun conversations.
The dungeons are, once again, a highlight, putting a slightly surreal spin on the mundane, everyday life of a world like Redo. Instead of typical JRPG forests and volcanoes, you’ve got botanical gardens, a planetarium playing host to a celebrity meet-and-greet, the labyrinthine wings of a local hospital, a high school in the midst of an erratic summer festival—each with their own unique exploration and puzzle-solving quirks. The pacing is a bit better balanced this time, too, in part because of the tweaks to the battle system, but also thanks to maps that give a little bit more breathing room between encounters.
The Caligula Effect 2 isn’t a sequel I ever saw coming: a follow-up to one of the most overlooked, underrated games of the last few years. It follows closely in its predecessor’s footsteps, and while it could never hope to be quite as groundbreaking, it still finds ways to bring a fresh perspective to the moral philosophy and psychological exploration at the heart of the series. It still won’t be for everyone, but nor is it trying to be—and anyone who likes JRPGs that break from the mold and leave them with something to think about is in for something special.
The Caligula Effect 2
Developer: FuRyu Corporation
Publisher: NIS America
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4
Release date: 22 October 2021
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.