Everyone has regrets. There are words we wish we could unsay, chances we wish we’d taken, and even entire periods of our lives that we wish we could do over. As painful as it is, regret is a core part of being human. Looking back on our past mistakes, misdeeds, and misfortunes allows us to grow and learn. This is the core theme of The Caligula Effect 2. When it comes to media with a message to share, I find most pieces fail to get their intended meaning across without stumbling along the way. With The Caligula Effect 2, the message is loud, clear, and worn proudly. It is, without a doubt, the most positive, sympathetic, and empathetic game I’ve ever played.
The Caligula Effect 2 is all about regret and the chance to do things over. In a way, it feels like a do-over of the previous game, which already had a second chance in the form of a pseudo-remake/enhanced port: The Caligula Effect: Overdose. Everything about The Caligula Effect 2 feels like the result of an arduous reflection upon the successes and failures of the previous work. While the writing and music were the stars of the show in the first game, everything else was rather lacking. With this sequel, every single piece is dramatically improved.
The concept of The Caligula Effect 2 is similar to the first game in many ways. The protagonists, addled with regrets or traumas, are drawn into a virtual world to live their lives as high school students in an idyllic city. This time, however, this perfect little world is known as Redo, and it is overlooked by a virtual goddess known as Regret. While the names are a bit on the nose, they remain a constant reminder of the game’s message. In the world of Redo, citizens are granted their idealized forms and are meant to experience peaceful and perfect high school lives. Yet over time, people begin to awaken and realize Redo isn’t real thanks to the game’s mascot χ (Chi), who invades the world to rescue its citizens and shut down Regret.
One by one, the protagonists are faced with a sobering truth: the nightmares they experience in Redo are their memories of reality. This realization is more painful and chilling for some than it is for others. While it would be easy to stay in the virtual world and pretend nothing is wrong, they learn their bodies are comatose and wasting away in the real world. Thus, they band together and form the Go Home Club: a group dedicated to finding a way back to reality. Opposing them, however, are the Obbligato Musicians, who know the world is a fake yet choose to cling desperately to it for their own reasons — some more traumatic than others. Much like the original game, there is no black and white morality — simply a clash of ideals.
The writing in The Caligula Effect 2 is perhaps its strongest point. Writer and director Takuya Yamanaka, who majored in psychology, dreamed of becoming a counselor. Yet after being told he was perhaps too soft due to his empathetic nature, he sought to create something that would appeal to those not catered to by mainstream media. While Tadashi Satomi of Persona fame was responsible for the previous game’s story, Yamanaka took the helm with the Overdose remake and the sequel. His touch is immediately clear in both projects. Yamanaka’s empathy is prominently on display as the player navigates the regrets and traumas of the party.
While the previous game was generally empathetic to both the protagonists and antagonists, it wasn’t without a few missteps. A few mean-spirited jokes and portrayals of some of the marginalized characters slipped through, leading to a few scenes that felt counter to what the game was trying to say. In The Caligula Effect 2, themes and messages are unified. Though characters may not all be a good or likable people, they’re presented with a pathos I’ve not seen in games before. The writers want you to try to understand the pain and struggles of those navigating their failures, their mortality, their place in society, and even their identity. The game even presents the concepts of non-binary and agender in both a respectful and educational manner while doing its best to inform players that not everyone fits into a label or box. I’m sure this character arc would be axed from any other big-budget or AAA game for fear of being seen as “political” by gamers.
The Caligula Effect was full of novel gameplay ideas that simply did not execute well. The Caligula Effect 2 is, on all fronts, a grand improvement. The Causality Link — a social link-esque system featuring hundreds of individual NPCs with their own profiles and quests — is back. While it’s still oppressively large, the new system is now relatively simple and easy to use compared to its predecessor. This time, quests are split into Group Quests and Solo Quests. The former are similar to the standard chained sidequests you’d find in any other RPG, while the latter are more akin to filler quests. Each type of quest gives rewards along the way, such as currency, new passive skills, items, and new text conversations to have with your party.
The skill system is also massively improved. In the original game, the Causality Link was an absolute pain to navigate, and completing quests was required to get new passive skills. In the sequel, passive skills are both easy to obtain and quite useful. The skill system is akin to Final Fantasy IX in the sense that players equip gear and gain mastery points in battle to permanently learn skills. These may be simple attack boosts, titles to resolve quests, or they may even upgrade your skills to add conditions and new effects. Mixing active skills along with passives can shore up weaknesses and capitalize on strengths while adding more options to your combat toolkit.
Traversal around the world is vastly improved in The Caligula Effect 2. The hub world is small and easy to navigate, and the mobile base allows quick travel between any of the game’s dungeons. One notable improvement in this sequel is the dungeon design itself. It can still feel a little labyrinthine, but this time it appears to be created by an actual human. There is a theme to every dungeon, and each has its own gimmicks or small puzzles to handle. Those who played the original game will be happy to know the dungeons are a step up, though there is still one understandably cramped dungeon with a sea of enemies in the crowded halls of a school.
The Caligula Effect’s battle system had promising ideas, but it was rather flawed in execution and really only shined in boss fights. By contrast, The Caligula Effect 2‘s combat is completely revamped and rebuilt. It works right from the start and is simply magical. The battle system is a strange yet exciting hybrid of elements found in Grandia, Final Fantasy (most notably the ATB system), and a gridless tactical RPG. Combat flows in real time, but time is paused while you select actions. Every action has a wind-up or cast time, a window when the action will take place (with little blips indicating exactly when the attack will connect), and a recovery period after the action has taken place.
In battle, players are given a glimpse into the future via the Imaginary Chain — a predictive tool that gives a preview of what the enemy will do alongside silhouettes of your own confirmed actions. Each action selected by the party can be adjusted and delayed along the timeline so that players can do things like cancel enemy attacks, dodge or guard against incoming assaults, escape area of effect attacks, reposition or draw attention to themselves, and fine-tune their action timing to create and participate in aerial combos.
The battle system is simply fantastic thanks to all the changes that have been made. In the previous game, players could input three actions at a time. The Imaginary Chain didn’t account for critical hits or misses, though, which could lead to entire attack turns being wasted if the first attack missed. In The Caligula Effect 2, you can only input one action per turn. This alone drastically increases control over battle and speeds up combat significantly. While the new Imaginary Chain doesn’t account for every miss, the probability displayed is far more trustworthy this time around. Additionally, being able to pinpoint the exact moment my attacks would land allowed me to set up combos with multiple steps while also positioning my hitbox just barely out of an enemy’s range. Watching these actions play out just how I wanted them to was so rewarding.
I enjoyed practically every single battle I fought over the course of the game. Taking on basic mobs never got old; they gave me opportunities to test out new attacks, experiment with combo timings, and enjoy the fruits of my labor as I meticulously set up combo chains that sent enemies flying through the air. However, the battle system is absolutely at its best during boss fights. Each one has a particular gimmick that encourages players to explore the battle system and experiment. On top of this, each dungeon has a handful of enemies that are 20–30 levels higher than the party. While the option to come back later at a higher level is certainly valid, tackling these difficult encounters rewards those with mastery of the combat system.
The visuals in The Caligula Effect 2 are where the small budget starts to show itself. While the fidelity of the 3D assets isn’t the highest, the game’s aesthetic works wonders. The 2D presentation, in particular, is one of the game’s strongest suits. The character illustrations are gorgeous and intricately detailed while the menus are both sleek and stylish. One of my favorite touches is the presence of equalizer bars above each NPC’s head. They bounce along accurately to the music being played. There are a lot of little touches like this that give the game a unique visual identity.
One of The Caligula Effect 2‘s strongest points is its soundtrack. For a game all about fictional vocaloid composers ruling over a virtual world, the developers went the extra mile and approached actual vocaloid composers to create the soundtrack. Notable figures such as [email protected], Police Piccadilly, and kemu make up just a few of the wondrous composers who lend their talents to the game’s music. Simply put, the soundtrack is absolutely stellar. Each song is a vibrant earworm with multiple versions that play throughout the game. In dungeons, the antagonist’s song plays in an instrumental form, but when players engage in battles, the vocals kick in and the volume goes up. At the end of the dungeon, a gorgeously remixed variant creates the aural backdrop for a clash of blades and ideals. Every song also has a variant where the game’s mascot χ (Chi) performs her own covers with added buffs in combat.
While my impressions are largely positive, there are a few shortcomings to note. Compared to its predecessor, The Caligula Effect 2‘s animations are drastically improved. However, they can still come across as a bit stiff and janky outside of combat. Additionally, despite having a wonderful and better combat system, a few quality of life changes would go a long way to smooth out the experience. When adjusting or realigning the timing of attacks, the entire animation plays from the beginning. Though these previews are only a couple seconds long, they can add up while trying to micromanage the exact timing when attacks will land. A speed up or scrubbing option mapped to the right stick would’ve been a nice touch. Finally, swapping out characters in battle or even being able to select between characters when turns pop up would also be greatly appreciated. That said, these are minor irritants and don’t detract from the experience.
Ultimately, The Caligula Effect 2 is not a game for everyone. This is something the developers are keenly aware of. It’s not a flashy, high-budget, big-name, auteur-laden, AAA RPG that’s gone through the gauntlet of playtesters and focus groups. It’s a scrappy, low-budget underdog that’s full of heart and empathy, and it has a message to share. Though the game is a sequel, those interested can certainly start with this version, as its predecessor is vaguely recapped. For the few like myself who enjoyed the original game despite its numerous flaws, this follow-up is a dramatic glow up that deserves to be played. It is easily one of my favorite games this year.