"When the story hits its strong points, it can at least be thought-provoking, but the gameplay is where Overdose struggles the most."
Morbid curiosity sometimes results in people trying things others didn't enjoy, just to see what they're like for themselves. Such was the case for me with The Caligula Effect: Overdose, a remake of a PlayStation Vita game that received its fair share of criticism. Given the original's lukewarm reception, I knew that Overdose wasn't going to be a pinnacle gaming experience, but I was still extremely curious to see how writer Tadashi Satomi, known for his work on the first Persona and both Persona 2 games, handled the game's story for myself.
As for the plot itself, does it hit the mark? The answer is a confusing yes and no. There are some narrative elements that leave an impact, but there are also aspects that don't have the intended effect due to Overdose's lackluster story presentation.
Sometime in the not-so-distant future, a Virtual Idol called µ (pronounced "mew") decides to "help" people affected by severe trauma and pain. She uploads their consciousnesses into a virtual reality world called Mobius, where they can experience a never-ending cycle of high school life. A handful of Mobius' "students" discover that they aren't in the real world anymore and vow to return to reality, dubbing themselves the Go-Home Club. The player becomes the group's president after a tumultuous turn of events.
As a remake, Overdose boasts a lot of extra story content, ranging from all-new characters to different scenarios and multiple endings. In order to experience as much of the new content as possible for this review, I played as the newly added female main character and also went through the Forbidden Musician's Route up until the very end of the game. I have to admit, from a plot standpoint there's quite a lot of extra story content, even when compared to other game remakes I've seen, easily making Overdose the quintessential version of CE.
The new Overdose plot content attempts to seamlessly intermix with the original game's story. It mostly succeeds, but there are noticeable exceptions, such as the presentation of the Sea Paraiso storyline. I did like seeing how all of the new Overdose characters were connected to one another, though a possible resolution to one of the new character's story arcs could have been handled better, even if it is an unintentionally hilarious outcome.
As stated previously, every resident of Mobius has a tragic past or trauma, ranging from low self-confidence due to bullying to eating disorders to formerly being an online troll to identity issues. As the player progresses through Overdose, they're given the chance to uncover the deeper psychological aspects of the characters, and it is within the execution of these reveals that the story catches on some problematic snags.
One of the best examples of this is the portrayal of a trio of characters known as the Flower Princesses. They're overweight, and this factors into how other characters in the cast react to them. Fat-shaming is nothing new in games, but some of the characters take it to extremes in Overdose, though not without reason in the case of at least one character. The depicted fat-shaming isn't helped by the fact that one of the Flower Princesses actually "oinks" in the game, nor is it alleviated when there is a chase scene involving the three that would've been more subtly conveyed as a joke if they had pulled a Jurassic Park and shown water rippling from massive footfalls. Yet at the same time, Mifue in particular feels a lot of remorse for her treatment of the Flower Princesses later on in the story, and in another character's Scenario, the Flower Princesses speak up about their body types and are shown to be even more confident with themselves than many in the cast initially are. Since that scene is Overdose-specific, it seems that the overall message the game wants to convey with the Flower Princesses is that they're sympathetic, and just like all the other characters in Mobius, they have their own lives and reasons for being who they are. Unfortunately, this pretty unique twist on the fat-shaming trope is bogged down and muddied by the initial jokey introduction. That's just one example, but many of the good and interesting elements of Overdose's plot get tempered by the narrative fumbling the delivery.
Overdose's story goes further into the characters' mindsets through optional content called Character Scenarios. At certain points in the story, you can talk to a member of the Go-Home Club, or a Musician if you decide to try out the Forbidden Musician Route, to learn more about them through these character-specific episodes. I enjoyed this narrative element quite a bit as it helped me really get to know the characters, but there was a heavy imbalance in regard to when scenarios opened up, how long each one was, and even how many would pop up at a time. I would sometimes have a short four-minute conversation with one character, and then have about fifteen minutes of story scenes with another. Depending on how many opened up at once, I'd be taking close to a two-hour break from the main portion of the game to speak to everyone and see all their events. Not only is completing the Character Scenarios vital to getting bonus Epilogue scenes, but there is also a finite time limit on when you can access them. Basically, you're stuck doing the Character Scenarios the second they're available or you risk losing out on seeing them entirely. It is quite frustrating that the game doesn't actually tell you this!
Despite not being the most original at first glance, many of Overdose's characters see development as you progress, thanks to both the main plot and their optional Character Scenarios. Even characters I initially found hard to like, such as Kotaro and Mifue, ended up growing on me as a result of spending time with them and seeing how they moved past their reasons for being in Mobius. Because of the focus on psychological motivations, I even found myself relating to a few aspects of several of the cast, which helped me better see where they were coming from. I found myself jokingly thinking that characters such as Izuru and Sweet-P should be in more games just because I liked their respective stories and reactions to things going on in the plot.
Speaking of characters, you can't really talk about Overdose without mentioning that the player can recruit over 500 characters to join them in battle. For a game that boasts an extremely large character recruitment pool, this potentially good system is rather poorly implemented. The characters the player talks to and becomes friends with all have a big psychological reveal to explain why they're in Mobius, but after that, the dialogue goes back to pleasantries and innocuous banter. The fact that so many of these characters repeat the same trauma or secret reveal doesn't help either. Given how large Overdose's main cast is, I ignored the recruitment system entirely unless it was needed for a quest.
While playing, I actually found myself thinking that Overdose would've been better served as a visual novel. When the story hits its strong points, it can at least be thought-provoking, but the gameplay is where Overdose struggles the most. The world of Mobius, despite being heavily populated by NPCs, has an often stagnant and lifeless feel to it. The many recruitable characters and enemies that populate the area lack design variety. The dungeons themselves are bland and uninspired at the best of times, and insanely frustrating at others. Of special note here is the Amusement Park dungeon, which in my opinion is a pain to navigate. Fighting my way through Overdose often felt like a chore, one that I very much dreaded. I tend to be a completionist when it comes to game dungeons, but there were ones in Overdose that dragged on so much I just pushed that tendency to the side to get through them as quickly as possible. Overdose adds an Easy Mode, but all that really does is make the battles and dungeons feel even more monotonous.
The tedious battle system definitely doesn't help either. The strategic concept of being able to see how your moves might theoretically play out before you decide on them is interesting, but it also lengthens battles, to the point that I quickly skipped through it towards the end of my playthrough. Characters can act multiple times in a row, which could be strategically helpful except that you can't alter a character's moves once they're set in motion. I'd often have to wait for a character's fighting animation to stop before I could do anything else, even after the enemy they initially targeted was destroyed. Again, all of these strategy ideas could work in theory but just aren't implemented well in the game itself.
Adding even more to the tedious feeling of Overdose's dungeons and battles is the music. To be fair, there were quite a few tracks I actually enjoyed, and I give the game credit for having a story reason behind the repetitive nature of the songs you hear as you fight your way through Mobius. Still, even the best of songs outstay their welcome when you hear them ad nauseum.
Overdose's graphics aren't going to break any systems, but there were a few instances where the player character would sink into the ground of story scenes. Actually, there's a slightly dated quality to the game's presentation, especially in the dialogue scenes when the 3D Graphics are juxtaposed with the more detailed character art. The character art is pretty, but with the exception of the Musicians, the main cast seems to be designed with the same dull color palette the rest of Mobius is drenched in. Overdose has sporadic anime cutscenes as well, but their quality isn't the best, and I personally would have preferred it if they'd skipped the anime scenes altogether and stuck with in-game graphic cinemas instead.
The localization is excellent, with no noticeable dips in quality. The biggest complaint I have would be the tiny text used for the game, especially in the WIRE menus. WIRE is the text messaging system you can use to minimally keep in contact with other characters, but between its shallow dialogue options and barely legible font, it is yet another concept that is sound in theory but not in implementation. Truth be told, I had a hard time reading the menus in general thanks to their small font. As for dialogue, Overdose keeps the original Japanese voice acting, which is quite emotional and well done.
In conclusion, I simply wish that I enjoyed my time with CE: Overdose more than I ultimately did. The story and characters, though occasionally flawed in presentation, really grew on me, and I enjoyed the plot because of the story and character developments that occurred. But I just didn't have fun playing the actual game! Overdose is certainly the strongest and most improved version of Caligula Effect out there, but I still have a hard time recommending it.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.