Once bitten, twice shy. And this time I can’t overlook the flagrant imitation.
Last summer, we were treated to what I would call a love letter to the Shin Megami Tensei series in the from of NIS America title, The Lost Child. It was an obvious clone of the Atlus property, but it had enough charm and satisfying dungeon crawling that you could easily look past the unoriginality and just enjoy it for what it was. I cannot, however, say the same for the latest clone from NIS to make its way to the Switch. The gap in quality between The Caligula Effect and the Persona series is as wide as the Grand Canyon, and really the only reason to even consider picking up this game is a new and entertaining combat mechanic that has been added to this Switch port.
The parallels to the Persona series are almost too numerous to list. The story takes place in the virtual world of “Mobius,” an alternate dimension powered by the will of high school students who want to escape from reality. The antagonist who created the world is named after a character I can’t even find on my keyboard, Mu the 12th letter of the Greek alphabet. The motivation of this character—who looks like the lead singer of a K-Pop band—is to keep the students happy and complicit, in order to protect them from the harsh realities of becoming an adult. The protagonists are a group of teenagers who are aware of the true meaning behind Mobius and have formed the aptly named “Go Home Club” in an attempt to find a means of escape. Their guide is a mascot, not unlike Teddy or Morgana, who explains how the world came to be and helps them channel their inner emotions in order to create weapons to fight the teenagers who have embraced the new surroundings. The heroes all have a relationship meter that increases based on time spent together; each school social group has a representative with whom you interact; even the hidden powers that emerge from the heart are brought forth by a catch phrase. It’s just too much.
I could have overlooked many of the similarities if the quality wasn’t such a stark contrast to the Atlus flagship. All of the color and character that makes the Persona series so successful is completely absent from The Caligula Effect. The dungeons to explore throughout Mobius are drab and suffer from being monotonous. The characters all have a similar look and either have an absent or just offensive personality. I would have gone so far as to say that it’s a complete bust if not for its one piece of originality: the imaginary chain system.
The imaginary chain combat mechanic is an addition to the Overdose edition released on Switch and provides the most compelling reason to play. Each party member has unique techniques, ranging from powerful attacks to more strategic modifiers. Their attacks can be chained together to devastating effect, and a real time preview shows the end result, assuming all the attacks land. I had loads of fun launching enemies into the air with one character and chaining in a crushing aerial attack from another. The preview system shows how the chain will connect and the reactions of the enemies, which allows you to adjust the timing to ensure maximum damage. That said, your perfectly plan could be all for not if an important attack is avoided, so you cannot fully trust the proposed results.
Even without prior knowledge of the Persona series, it’s hard to walk away from this game without criticizing the quality. A boring story, uninteresting characters, and a soundtrack that begs you to play with the sound turned off are just a sample of the myriad reasons to avoid The Caligula Effect. For a select niche, the incredibly fun combat system may be worth overlooking all of the faults, if at least for a few hours. While I had a terrific time beating my opponents into dust, everything else is just too egregious to recommend to anyone.