vague spoilers for The Caligula Effect 2 ahead
I recently picked up The Caligula Effect 2 in a vague yearly goal to play more obscure/offbeat JRPG-type games. From the little I knew about it, I expected it to find it interesting but mostly be dealing with a janky hodgepodge of ideas. However, despite it definitely being janky, I ended up walking away from it with a great deal of affection and a lot of ideas to chew on. You can hear more of my thoughts on this episode.
One thing stuck out to me from the experience: while Caligula 2 is definitely a Persona-like in its structure, I found it to be much better at utilizing its runtime than its more famous cousin. It packed in around the equivalent amount of character depth for its party members (I’d argue maybe more) in around half the play time of Persona 5. Less than half if you avoid the side-quests, which you absolutely should, they suck. I started to wonder exactly what it was about Caligula 2 that allowed it to be so much more efficient in its character writing.
For the purposes of keeping this focused, I’ll be looking at the Social Links and Character Episodes of each series. The main story may come up, but only as a way to talk about the unique aspects of these character bonds.
Note: for the purposes of clarity, we’ll be using the Social Link term to refer to Persona, even though I know Persona 5 changes the term to Confidants.
The simplest explanation is that Persona is more complex mechanically. It’s also the most boring explanation and likely the most obvious one too – I’m sure a lot of people’s minds would jump there first.
In Persona, players go through almost every day of around 3/4ths of a year (more in expanded re-releases). Social Links are also blocked by personal stat building, which requires players to engage in different activities to boost their Charm, Guts, etc. The game gamifies the relationship building more than Caligula 2, which simply unlocks character episodes based on the time the character spends in the party and main story progress. Caligula 2 has no time management mechanics either – Character Episodes can be completed one after the other without stopping.
Caligula 2 also focuses entirely on the eight members of the main party compared to Persona which might have anywhere between 20-30 Social Links to complete, of which the main party is just a small part. With less characters to deal with, Caligula 2 has the advantage.
However, the mechanical complexity and sheer scope of Persona’s Social Links are a huge part of what makes the modern games tick. It’s the fantasy of being a busy but competent person. From Persona 3 onwards, the calendar has become central to the series identity, and I doubt it’ll be excised. But that’s not all there is to this comparison.
The basic structure of a Social Link and a Character Episode are the same. The player chooses a character to hang out with and views a scripted scene on that character’s story route. There are a few dialogue prompts, in which sometimes the answer matters and sometimes it doesn’t.
In Persona, the dialogue will count towards “points.” Get enough points and you unlock the next event. If you don’t, you’ll have to spend time with the character without seeing a scene in order to get more points.
In Caligula 2, the dialogue with either lock or unlock the next event, and you’ll have to pay a trivial fee if you choose the wrong dialogue option in order to redo the interaction.
However, the context of the events are different. In Persona, the main thrust of a party member’s arc comes during the main story. There will be a dungeon in which that character is the focus, and the plot of that dungeon will serve as the main source of character building. For the party members, Social Links serve as the resolution and epilogue of the character’s arc or as fluff side content. The status quo is maintained, but details may be expanded upon.
In Caligula 2, the Character Episodes are the main thrust of a character’s arc, with the changes introduced during the Character Episodes revealing themselves at a similar rate during the main story. Character Episodes are unlocked at purposeful times during the main story, in order to match up with the character’s current arc. This could cause a few structure issues if a player ignored all these episodes until the end, but the game trusts the player to be interested enough in these events to do them as they unlock.
Both the Social Links and the Character Episodes reveal new sides of characters, but the context of Character Episodes allow for a stronger tie in with the main story. Caligula 2 also uses dungeons to support character arcs, but the main focus is reserved for the Musicians (the villains). Party members and Musicians are reflected against each other, revealing new facets of party member personalities while the Musicians get to reveal their characters.
It was satisfying, in a way Persona could not be, when Shota roundaboutly talked about his trauma in the main story, directly after he’d found a peace with it in his Character Episode. Niko’s mask increasingly begins to drop in the main story after the reason for that mask is revealed in her Character Episode. Kobato refers to X by name after their relationship begins to smooth in his Character Episodes. And so on and so forth.
Since Persona gates its Social Link progress behind stats and missions rather than main story events, the game isn’t capable of the same level of integration.
This doesn’t actually refer to the quality or strength of content in the Character Episodes, although I generally found the arcs in Caligula 2 to be stronger on the whole than Persona 5 or what I remember from Persona 4. That’s partially a matter of personal opinion, so it doesn’t make a strong argument.
One of the main difference between Social Links and Character Episodes is just how often other characters show up in each other’s Episodes. In Caligula 2, one-on-one conversations are reserved for some of the more pivotal scenes. Most other events will feature one or more of the other party members in addition to the protagonist. The characters influence each other through their group dynamic, not just the singular friendship between protagonist and character.
It’s much more rare for this to happen in Persona. I can remember one instance in Persona 5 where Ryuji shows up in one of Ann’s events, and the Marie events in Persona 4 Golden are structured around meeting other characters, but that’s all I’ve got off the top of my head. There are some special events where multiple characters can interact outside the main story, but these aren’t the Social Links.
By allowing characters to appear outside their own Character Episodes, their personalities can be fleshed out and relationships between party members can be further defined. They also get to have more “fluff” scenes outside their personal Episode line, which means their own Episodes can get to the meat of their character faster.
Caligula 2 also utilizes the character of X to allow Character Episodes to flow more like natural conversations. X is a virtuadoll who shares the protagonist’s body and is attempting to learn more about humanity. She does this during the Character Episodes by endeavoring to understand the troubles of the Go Home Club members. She asks questions and makes comments – it gives the character more to respond to than the infrequent interjections of the silent protagonist/player.
Persona, sharing the silent protagonist trait, instead often has events structured like the characters are monologuing to the protagonist. Persona 5 specifically has Morgana, your otherwise ever-present cat, go away during Social Links. It would have been an interesting twist to have Morgana serving a X-like role, helping the dialogue flow smoother and contain more back-and-forth.
If Persona’s Social Links are about forming “links” between character and protagonist then Caligula’s Character Episodes are about the protagonist/player getting to know the “characters.” A small difference, but an important one.
An important note: Caligula 2 has no romance options and therefore has more freedom in how relationships progress – although this approach on its own does not preclude a romance route in my opinion.
With all this in mind, what sort of lessons could Persona take from Caligula 2? As has already been made clear, there are some aspects of Caligula 2’s system which simply can’t transfer over to Persona without muddying the series identity. However, I still think there’s food for thought here.
Experimenting with gating Social Links behind main story events rather than just stats could allow for greater integration with the main story. Outside of Social Links, ditching the one-dungeon-per-character structure that started with Persona 4 could allow character arcs to be longer lasting.
Additionally, allowing for characters to appear more often in Social Links outside of their own could help flesh out a group dynamic for the cast, which would add more dimensions to each character. They wouldn’t just have a bond with the protagonist – they’d have a bond with the whole party.
It’ll be a while before Persona reaches the end of its anniversary events this year and (most likely) reveals Persona 6. I’m very interested as to what the next step of the series will be. Especially with series director Katsura Hashino thankfully gone.
The Caligula Effect 2 has a female protagonist option. This allowed me to feel closer and more comfortable with the characters since I could identify more with the silent self-insert protagonist. Persona has not offered this since Persona 3 Portable.
The Caligula Effect 2 is not homophobic or transphobic (and is instead explicitly trans-positive). It’d be nice if Persona could at least clear that bar in its next outing.