It’s good to see some more Japanese Vita games being localized… there are plenty of games that have come out for it in Japan that have never crossed the pond, so to speak. Atlus has brought another of their JRPGs over to North America, Conception 2: Children of the Seven Stars. Yes I know, the name doesn’t really send the best message.
The game takes place in a world where the darkness in human hearts has begun spawning labyrinths from which monsters are pouring and threatening people everywhere. These monsters seem to be invulnerable until the Church of the Star God steps in, utilizing energy provided by the Star God to fight off the monsters. The Star God chooses young men and women between the ages of 16 and 19 who are able to wield this energy and marks them with a special brand to identify them. The labyrinths suppress this energy, so until now they’ve been unable to do anything except desperately try to stop the monsters that come out. That is, until you arrive… the main character of this game is referred to by the title ‘God’s Gift’ and he has the unique ability to allow those who around him to use their abilities within the labyrinths. And the game begins here…
Women and Children First
Conception 2 is a game split down the middle into two components. Where you’ll spend most of your time is exploring labyrinths. As mentioned above, you can bring people with you into the labyrinth. Or, kind of, you really only bring one person with you, one of the game’s seven heroines, and then three groups of small childlike homunculi called ‘Star Children’. ‘Star Children’ are created through a sacred ritual, given the tactful name ‘Classmating’, where two disciples – one man and one woman – hold hands to pour their energy into a magical Matryoshka doll to create an artificial child. The animation of the ritual is very much like a magical girl transformation, where the female appears bathed in coloured light so you can’t see anything but a silhouette. It’s not exactly tasteless or dirty, but it’s certainly kinda pointless… fortunately you can skip it so it’s not really a big deal.
Star Children comprise the largest strategic part of the game such as it is. Each child comes from one of several classes, ranging from RPG classics like Ranger and Cleric to more esoteric options like Merchant and Blacksmith, each class having access to a variety of unique abilities. The strategy comes from how you combine the various children to form their teams. Different abilities, when combined within the same team of 3 children, allow access to far more powerful combination abilities.
The strength of a Star Child is determined partially by luck but mostly by the strength of the bond between you and the heroine – or heroines – you choose to form the child with. You see, once you reach a certain part of the game, you get access to the ability to create Star Children using two heroines in a process given the all-too-creative name Tri-Mating. You get stronger Star Children through this process, but cannot progress the heroines’ storylines. It would be an interesting tradeoff, except for the game’s biggest problem.
The Value of Restrictions
Conception 2 has a lot of good ideas and interesting concepts… the problem is that it never puts you in a position where those ideas actually matter. There is no time limit on anything, you are nearly unlimited in how many Star Children you can have, and you can never actually anger or upset any of the heroines.
One of the keys to success in this type of hybrid dungeon crawler/relationship sim is making your decisions matter. The most common way to do this is to limit the number of actions/choices you can actually pursue. I’ve seen two really effectives ways to do this: by having a time limit like Person 4: The Golden or by having a limited number of chances to take actions like Agarest War Zero. Both of these cases make you really think about your actions so you can actually get the outcome you want.
Conception 2 gives you a limited number of actions you can take per day… but provides you with a literally unlimited number of days to play with. And it opens up with an explanation that tells you that you can’t run out of time. It seems like such a baffling decision since not only does it remove any challenge from the game because it means you can literally endlessly farm but it also means that there’s no real point at which you have to sacrifice anything. And it just leaves the game feeling hollow.
It’s a Gift
The game’s writing makes it pretty clear early on that we’re not dealing with a story that’s supposed to be taken seriously. One of the first side characters you meet is a creepy perverted old bastard who just happens to be the head of the Church of the Star God. This is another of those games that thinks you can create interest by merely adding dirty jokes and references, and while this game’s jokes occasionally manage to hit the mark – which is more than many games can say – overall it just leaves the game feeling a bit awkward.
But even worse is that most of the game’s conversations are found within the seven side storylines for each of the heroines, and the game finds ways for characters to misinterpret everything you say such that the worst you can possibly do is annoy them slightly. For example, the game gives you the dialog choice ‘I want you to pay with your body’ in one conversation, which I picked figuring that if there was any way to piss off a girl it would be to say that… but nope, her reply is something along the lines of ‘Of course, that was what I planned to do anyways, I’ll fight alongside you as hard as I can’.
It’s just one example of how the game goes so far out of their way to ensure you will always be building a relationship in stead of sabotaging it. If you do find one of the rare options that actually annoys a girl, all you need to do is go rest in your room, talk to the girl again, go through one of the endlessly repeatable generic conversations and suddenly they like you again. When going through the ‘endlessly repeatable conversation’ I mentioned, the game even highlights options you’ve picked before so you can know which to pick.
Dungeons and Damsels
A Swimmer, A Teacher and a Photograph Taker
Each heroine has their own story that you can go through if you devote the time into improving their relationship and some of them are actually somewhat interesting. A swimmer overcoming her tragic past, a school idol trying to deal with fame, a shy girl with a strange secret, a beautiful warrior who just wants to take pictures for her friends back home… none of them are going to tread any hugely new ground, but they are mostly fairly entertaining. The story with Torri in particular was touching, maybe partially because I am a bit obsessed with birds myself.
It’s a pity none of these stories have any bearing on the game – it would’ve been really cool if they’d added like small combat events or dungeons that could only be accessed by completing a character’s story. The only thing they change is the ending you have access to. Oh, and if you have access to them all you are also able to choose the ‘harem ending’ which is incredibly awkward. Don’t watch it, just pick one of the girls and be happy you refrained.
Sadly the core story is very predictable and quite boring, with no real surprises except some of the minor details. When you have fairly bland story overall, you’re kind of reliant upon gameplay to make the game enjoyable…
Once you’re out of the school and into the labyrinths, you get to see the meat of the game: the labyrinths. The Labyrinths play out in pretty typical dungeon crawler fashion, you go from room to hallway to room again. The difference is that unlike most dungeons, this one’s dungeons are far too simplistic. Halls never branch, the dungeon never loops or circles, and there’s no real variance within each dungeon. Technically the labyrinths are random, but the randomness is so limited that they really feel linear. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with linearity, but in a game like this it just doesn’t work. You need something to really make the dungeons feel like you’re getting something new and Conception 2 fails in that regard.
Another flaw is the game’s difficulty. You see, as I mentioned above – there is some strategy to how you pick your Star Children teams, but the difficulty in the game is generally so low that unless you’re using vastly underleveled characters, you never have to really worry about much until the final bosses, who are significantly more difficult than everything else leading up. There is definitely some potential in the skill and combat systems, it’s just a real pity that that potential is never explored until the last 5 minutes of the game, and even then only slightly.
As I mentioned above, the game goes to great lengths to appear edgy through the use of awkward humour and sex references. Overall, it’s not successful but it does manage to avoid being blatantly offensive in most cases. The one exception to this is the way it handled the concept of homosexuality. There are a few largely pointless scenes showcasing a version of classmating between two men. Homosexuality has a bad history in gaming, and this game shows why. Companies that include characters or scenes with it so often handle it completely wrong. Conception makes a big deal out of it, and makes it into something unpleasant. It almost felt like they felt obligated to include it because of how well Persona 4 handled it, but they didn’t really want to.
Probably the most awkward part of the game, though, is the way the monsters appear when you’re not actually in combat with them. You see, when wandering in the labyrinths, you’ll see strange purple penis-shapes sticking out of the ground. Weaker ones look king of pathetic, but stronger ones get spikes, or even tentacles. It is really awkward – and sadly, this does persist throughout the entire game.
My expectations were set fairly low by the title – how can you take a game called ‘Conception’ seriously afterall – but even my expectations were not low enough. With lackluster execution, awkward dialog, and poor story direction Conception is a game that I’d have a hard time recommending even just to pass the time when there are so many better games out there. The game isn’t an atrocity, it’s not offensive, it’s not the worst game ever made… it’s just simply not good – and no part of it manages to impress. The sad part is that if they’d taken the time to develop some boundaries, some limits… some decisions that you had to make, the game could have been quite good.