Fighting would be so much easier if I could see the future. Knowing exactly when to dodge, perfectly time my punches, and even put a stop to enemies’ stupid healing abilities. Normally you’d consider using such power to be cheating. The Caligula Effect: Overdose doesn’t care what you think, and does it anyway. Originally released in 2016 for PS Vita, this Overdose version of The Caligula Effect PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC. Not only are there swankier visuals in a new engine, but the developers have thrown in extra characters and a female protagonist option. Most exciting is the ability to now masquerade as one of the bad guys. Villains tend to have more fun, and I’m all up for a bit of mischief.
Overdose opens with Protagonist-san (gender and name of your choosing) giving a school speech when all the students start glitching out. Their faces morph into dancing pixilated squares. Well, that’s not normal. I’m stuck inside a virtual world again, aren’t I? Sure enough, the virtual world of Mobius was made by two vocaloids (here described as virtuadolls) called μ and Aria. As people composed songs for them, the girls became touched by how much sadness there was in the world. They decided to create a virtual space where people could be happy and escape their pain. At some point, μ decided it was okay to kidnap people’s souls and brainwash them into forgetting the real world. Here you live as a high school student no matter your age and can look as attractive as you like. That makes it fine, right?
Aria, Protagonist-san, and others in the Go-Home Club aren’t too happy about the forced zombified happy state and want out. Escaping isn’t going to be easy though. Leaving Mobius could tear it apart, and μ’s followers, the Ostinato Musicians, aren’t willing to give up their precious dreams. Now all of the above is actually hashed out within about 10 minutes. For the rest of the game, Overdose’s plot devolves into a basic search for μ. If you’re looking for more than a casual romp through some dungeons, then let me escort you to the side-stories.
Everyone in the game has their own nine-stage social link path that slowly reveals their backstory. These guys are dealing with a lot, including loss, social anxiety, and trying to run from themselves. Certain topics genuinely hit so close to home that I found them painful to read. Yet I also found relief from seeing these problems solved in a realistic way. My only issue here is how many characters there are to get through. Overdose would make me read multiple chapters of around 5 to 18 characters per sitting – a number that’s more than doubled when you add the villains into the mix. Talk about emotional overload.
Having said this, including the Ostinato Musician’s stories adds an extra layer to Overdose’s message. These reveal complex issues that can’t simply be fixed by returning to reality. For example, no one can come back from the dead, but in Mobius, you can be with that person every day. Is the creation of such a place still wrong? I love this thought-provoking grey area and how it surrounds villains who are essentially just people who’ve been dealt a bad hand in life.
Despite how important these messages are, however, things crumble apart in a bad way. The Go-Home Club knows that everyone is in Mobius to escape reality. So what do they do? Constantly belittle others. They laugh at their own friend for trying to find himself, and there’s some really uncomfortable weight shaming. Worst is how after sympathizing with each villain, that Musician will later find their emotional baggage publically smeared about online. Blimey Overdose, there’s a difference between giving characters flaws and just making them unlikable. I thought you wanted me to empathize here, but you’re making it really hard.
Surrounding all the story elements is a simple dungeon-crawler. Walking into an enemy takes the party into a 3D battlespace. Basics of combat then involve a turn-based system, while the Imaginary Chain feature adds a rather jazzy twist. After choosing an attack, the future is revealed, showing how an enemy will act for the next few seconds. So I knew exactly what counters to perform, buffs to utilize, and when it was time to dodge. The system is broken, and I love it. Things only get crazier as up to 4 party members join in the fray, each getting 3 moves per turn. Oh, and you can tweak the timing of attacks. This makes it possible to have one person knocking an enemy into the air, then another to follow up with a boosted aerial attack, and so on. Hurray for super satisfying combos.
Enemies are given a chance to fight back. For one thing, the Imaginary Chain is not 100% accurate, so setups can fail. Opponents also have a ‘Risk’ meter; the higher it gets, the more powerful attacks they have. I love how you can turn risk into a reward by combining party member skills. For example, Mifue’s attacks, which raise enemies’ Risk level, pair well with Izuru, who’ll throw out extra damaging attacks if faced against a higher Risk enemy. A lot of characters have combinations like this, and it’s fun to discover who works well together. Some attempt has gone into making the dungeons themselves interesting, with little puzzles and riddles. Although I’m not sure forcing me to find switches for locked doors, winding pathways, and dead-ends really count. For example, in the library, Protagonist-san’s friends are scattered across the map. The puzzle here is ‘go find them’. There are nine friends at this point. That’s not fun, just tedious. I’ve gotta say, by the end, I couldn’t care less about the boss’ problems. I just wanted to punch him for putting me through that.
You know what’s worse? The villain’s route forced me to backtrack through every dungeon. Sure, it’s cool to fight as a bad guy. Yet my combat moves don’t change, while party members have the same weapons as the Go-Home Club. So other than the ability to read all these extra backstories, the villains’ route is mostly rehashed padding. Not even the combat can save this. With each dungeon packed full of low-leveled grunts, the pacing really slows. Use of the Imaginary Chain makes fights last at least 5 minutes, leading me to auto-battle everyone who wasn’t a boss. The fact that doing this still allowed me to win most fights without taking any damage makes the whole system regrettably pointless. Then there’s the way each dungeon only has one song. I mean, the villains are called the Ostinatos Musicians – a musical term for a repetitive motif or phrase. Apparently playing the same song over and over also helps to keep the Mobius occupants in their happy brainwashed state. You know what though? No matter the logic, track variation, or musical quality, only having short loops for two-hour-long dungeons gets annoying fast.
Let’s take a break from the linear gameplay. Overdose features one of the longest side-quests I’ve seen since The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s Korok Seeds. Okay, it’s not playing hide and seek with 900 creatures, but there are over 500 students who want my help. First, make friends by finding and talking to them so they can join the party. Now I’m able to solve their problem by giving a certain item, taking them to a friend, or fighting. Unfortunately, the ambitious concept is also like Breath of the Wild’s side-quest in how pointless it feels. As party members, the students add little of interest, while passive rewards for completion are unnecessary when you’re dealing with combat this easy. I gave up after doing a handful. Hats off to anyone who finishes all of these, though, I just couldn’t see the point.
The Caligula Effect: Overdose is like a sandwich made out of really nice bread, but poor filling. There’s a great combat system and serious personal message, here. Yet, it’s buried beneath tedious dungeon design, poor pacing, and a bland story. Putting everything through a new engine, then adding more characters is like handing back the same sandwich with a few extra slices of bread on either side. It ultimately suffers from having too much content with too little heart or flavor.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided by NIS America.
The Caligula Effect: Overdose is so saturated with bland content that the meaningful moments get buried. Attempts to perk things up with a new engine and extra content just end up on top of the pile instead of actually fixing anything.