“I’m going to show you how to kill a god.”
Gods and heavenly bodies are almost as common in JRPGs as slimes, but it’s rather more rare to see a game actually engage with those ideas on any meaningful way. More often than not, a god-like being as the final boss is just the natural endpoint of ever-increasing stakes, and it’s unusual for a game to stop and interrogate that.
But then, The Caligula Effect: Overdose is an unusual game. It has a lot of the trappings of a typical JRPG, but it’s more interested in subverting those expectations than reinforcing them—and dipping into some thorny moral philosophy in the process. Our “heroes” aren’t unlikely champions brought together by circumstance but destined to save the world on the power of friendships forged in fire, and our villains aren’t manifestations of nihilism or world-conquering empires. Rather, they’re two sides of the timeless debate: is it better to live a life of complete bliss, even if it comes at the cost of freedom, or is liberation paramount?
The Caligula Effect takes place entirely in a digitally-created dream world called Mobius. The creation of a sentient virtual idol called μ (pronounced “Myu”), Mobius exists purely to make people happy. It’s an escape from the real world where people can live in complete bliss as an idealised version of themselves, their every trouble and worry forgotten. The trade-off is that they give up their freedom: most in Mobius have no memory of the real world, unaware of the true nature of this dream world. They live in devotion to μ, her music keeping them brainwashed but giving them absolute happiness.
And then there are the few who have awoken to the truth about Mobius, and desire to return to the real world. Calling themselves the “Go-Home Club”, they’ll stop at nothing to break out of Mobius, even if it means destroying this synthetic heaven and the happiness it brings to so many others here. Even if it means killing a god.
μ, for all intents and purposes, is a god. She created mobius and she controls every facet of its existence, but she does so out of a genuine desire to free people from their pain and their trauma. She’s certainly not evil; the worst she could be called is naive, but everything she’s done comes from noble intent. To her, her devotees aren’t brainwashed so much is liberated from the hurt that the real world can cause, and her fans are quite fine with that.
The Go-Home Club is a threat to that. They threaten μ’s influence as they help others to see the truth, and with in so doing, they tear at the fabric of this world’s existence. If killing μ and destroying Mobius—and all the happiness it brings to a lot of people—they’ll do that; freedom is more important.
Therein lies the dilemma at the heart of The Caligula Effect. The Go-Home Club are the protagonists of the game, though they could hardly be called heroes. μ and her squad of protectors—the Ostinato Musicians—are the enemy, though they wouldn’t necessarily be called villains. This isn’t about good and evil or right and wrong; it’s about one’s philosophical perspective on free will and utopian ideals. Is the happiness that μ gives her followers really true happiness? Is there even such a thing? Are the Go-Home Club justified in their pursuit of freedom, even at the expense of everyone else?
Such questions were the foundation of The Caligula Effect‘s original Vita-exclusive release, but Overdose—a substantially enhanced release for Switch, PlayStation 4, and PC—doubles down on them with a greatly expanded story. In the original, playing as the president of the Go-Home Club, you had no choice but to follow through on their goals; as much as it wanted you to think about their actions (and make you complicit in them as a player), you only really saw their side of the story.
In Overdose, you have the option of joining the Musicians. Fairly early in the game, μ and her right-hand woman, Thorn, offer you the chance to join them so that you might see things from their perspective. Decline this offer, and the game plays out just as it did in the original release. Accept, though, and you’re inducted as a new Musician called Lucid, with your identity as the Go-Home Club’s president kept hidden from everyone but μ and Thorn. Importantly, it’s not an either/or choice; you’re still the Go-Home president, but you can shift between that role and Lucid, and the progression of the story forces you to play through episodes of both.
As the president, you come to understand the rest of the Go-Home Club, slowly learning more about the group and why they want to return. They all have their traumas in the real world—everyone in Mobius does—but they all see facing that reality as the only viable option. As Lucid, you get to know about the rest of the Musicians. Unlike regular Mobius residents, the Musicians all remember the real world, and the more you spend time with them, the more you learn about what it is they’re escaping from.
Ultimately, the Musicians route asks you to make a decision on which side of this philosophical debate is “right”; whichever your choice, the conclusions are fascinating. Crucially, The Caligula Effect: Overdose doesn’t fall into the too-common trap of trying to validate either outcome in the interests of some misguided attempt at “player agency”. It poses the question, but it also wants you to really think about it—even if that means not giving you a happy ending with everything neatly tied up.
But before you even get to the question of whether such a world should exist, there’s the question of whether it can. How can a world that exists purely for the gratification of every whim of its inhabitants deliver on that, when those very whims might come into conflict with one another? Can people’s deepest traumas really be so completely forgotten? Despite μ’s best intentions fragments of the pain that drove people to Mobius in the first place still sometimes break through, and even when they don’t, people are great at finding new problems to replace the ones they left behind.
This is most apparent in the enemies you fight, called Digiheads. In Mobius, when a person’s deeply-held troubles eventually break through to the surface, unrestrained, they morph that person into a sort of demonic being; it’s a mental breakdown, taken a physical form. The Go-Home Club wields a similar power, but with the aid of μ’s former ally (and another virtual idol) Aria, they’re able to control it. Suitably called the Catharsis Effect, they’re able to release their psychological traumas in a controlled way, turning those selfsame traumas into weapons they can use to fight the Digiheads and Musicians. In a similar way, The Caligula Effect‘s version of weapons and armour are physical manifestations of character traits that party members can “equip” to augment their own personalities (i.e. their battle stats).
You can also see this, albeit in a less extreme fashion, in the 500-odd “Trauma Quests” available from the Go-Home Club’s classmates. After an admittedly superficial befriending process—you talk to them a couple of times, and voila, they’re your friend—these classmates will open up and share their problems with you. They cover the full spectrum of mental health concerns, from low self-esteem to identity crises to suicidal ideation to schizophrenia. Helping your classmates out is typically a simple affair, usually inviting them to your party and then equipping a specific trait, taking them to a specific place, or introducing them to a certain other person. That resolution process, too, is superficial, but I think it works in concert with the game’s bigger ideas: is “treating” someone’s trauma by reconstructing their personality really a treatment? Is it addressing the root of the issue, or just painting over it?
Even those heady ideas are just the tip of the iceberg. Whatever lens you want to look at it through, there’s a fascinating reading of The Caligula Effect to be found. Through a theological lens, it’s an exploration of the very concept of Heaven. Through a sociological and technological lens, it’s a look at implications of virtual idols becoming increasingly, well, idol-like. Through a feminist lens, it has a lot to say bodily autonomy, gender roles, and normative concepts of beauty.
The vessel for all this is a classic JRPG structure, with each new chapter taking you to a new dungeon to explore as you hunt down the next Musician standing between the Go-Home Club and μ. With Mobius being a slightly surreal twist on a real-world city, the dungeons are slightly surreal twists in real-life locations: a school whose hallways are twisted into a labyrinth; a library whose expansive archives defy the laws of physics; an amusement park with an escape attraction that forms a charming pastiche of Indiana Jones-style adventures.
These aren’t the fantastical, outlandish environments typical of RPGs, and for many, that was a point of criticism for The Caligula Effect. I’d wholeheartedly disagree, though; they perfectly convey the game’s vision of Mobius as a place that’s almost-but-not-quite like real life, and they have plenty of their own character.
The Caligula Effect also delivers one of the best battle systems I’ve ever seen in an RPG, and easily the most effective attempt at combining the best parts of action and turn-based games. When a character’s turn comes up, the action freezes to give you ample time to choose your next command, but rather than playing out turn-by-turn, everything happens in real time. If multiple characters’ turns comes up at once—as at the start of a battle—they’ll attack in tandem.
The thing that really makes this tick, though, is the “Imaginary Chain”. In essence, it’s a visualisation of how your chosen attacks (you can chain up to three per turn) will play out, while also letting you fine-tune the timing. With that, you can orchestrate complex combos that resemble a fighting game more than anything else: one character launches an enemy into the air, another follows that up with a multi-hit attack that juggles this now-helpless foe, and third hits them with a powerful blow that only works on airborne targets. As you recruit more characters and unlock more of their skills, your options only grow; before you know it, you’ll be pulling of meticulously-crafted combos with hit counts in the hundreds.
The challenge, and much of the fun, comes from working around the enemies’ various defences to set up the most optimal combos. Airborne juggles are bread and butter, but there’s almost always some requirement to be met before an attack will launch—it has be done as a counter to a certain type of attack, or against an enemy in a particular state—so finding and creating those opportunities is critical. Different characters have different quirks within this system: the protagonist is a good combo starter with a wide range of launchers for different scenarios; Shogo struggles to get anything started, but has some killer combo enders; Kotaro is versatile, but runs out of SP quickly; and so on.
On top of that, the Imaginary Chain isn’t always 100 percent reliable—by design. It’s a simulation that works on the assumption that each attack will hit, but you have to factor in the possibility of a bad roll of the dice making an attack miss. If you bet everything on a launcher that misses, you’re going to have a party of sitting ducks for a few turns. This is especially true when you’re fighting an enemy far above your own level, when hit rate drops dramatically. Such enemies are often the guardians of good loot, and fighting much stronger enemies is absolutely viable, but you need to really play the odds to do so.
My one concern with the system is that most encounters don’t really let it reach its full potential. The Imaginary Chain system shines against enemies with big health bars or against big groups, where you can really get creative with combo construction, but most encounters are trivial to end in a single turn with your foes never even getting a chance to do anything. The battle system is such that even these simple encounters are time consuming and require more attention than just spamming “Attack”, and with the frequency of such fights, it’s easy for fatigue to set in. The Caligula Effect‘s battle system, brilliant as it is, lends itself to fewer, more substantial encounters, not the endless string of goons that makes up the lion’s share of what you fight against.
Dialling up the difficulty can help make regular encounters less trivial, but it doesn’t address the issue of fatigue or battle frequency. If anything, it only makes it worse, because it means you’re spending more time and more mental energy on each fighting, and making progress through each dungeon that much more arduous.
For a game with as much to offer as The Caligula Effect, though, that seems a small sacrifice to make. It’s a rare treat to see a game explore the sorts of philosophical ideas present here, and even rarer to see it handled this effectively and with this much confidence. The Overdose upgrade takes that to another level entirely; the technical improvements are nice, but it’s the expanded story and the way it ties into The Caligula Effect‘s central themes that really make this re-release stand out.
NIS America provided a review copy of The Caligula Effect: Overdose to Shindig.