Conception II: Children of the Seven Stars

"As it turns out, Conception II isn't particularly offensive. It's just so obsessed with trying to be sexy that it forgets about being a fun game first and foremost."

I've played a lot of weird RPGs in my day. I've used a deck of magic cards to save a world of floating islands, helped a flamboyant vampire pro wrestler beat his competition with a telephone pole, and dived into the minds of magic songstresses with some serious psychological issues. Conception II: Children of the Seven Stars is another such game with an unusual premise — the player controls a group of high schoolers who create magical "Star Children" to fight the forces of evil — but I'm no stranger to the bizarre, so I jumped into its strange world without hesitation. What I found was a game so obsessed with its own quirkiness that it fails to ever be engaging on a mechanical or narrative level. "I'm loveable because I'm kooky," it screams, but when that kookiness is stripped away, all that remains is a humdrum RPG with boring combat, repetitive dungeons, and a by-the-numbers story that panders endlessly to a straight male audience.

The player takes the role of God's Gift, a young man who is chosen by the Star God to eradicate monster-spawning labyrinths — Dusk Circles — throughout the world. To fight the monsters on equal ground, God's Gift must bond with his female classmates at the Aterra Academy and partake in a ceremony called "Classmating" to create Star Children. The more intimate his relationships with the girls, the stronger their Star Children become. At the Academy's behest, they probe into increasingly dangerous Dusk Circles; as they proceed, further mysteries surrounding the Academy and even the nature of the Star God itself are revealed.

At its core, Conception II is closer to a visual novel than a full-fledged RPG. The story is mostly presented via animated portraits and dialogue boxes, with the occasional in-engine event or animated cutscene punctuating crucial moments. Despite its unique premise, however, the overarching plot of Conception II is formulaic and rarely impressive. Worse still, cutscenes are incredibly disjointed and lack any kind of dramatic impact. I watched an entire arc about a character wanting to get stronger resolve itself in less than three minutes' time. The narrative shifts from location to location without warning, and some locations feature only a line or two of dialogue before the action moves on. "Are you busy today? Let's go eat together." Cut to black. "Wow, these croquettes are delicious. Thanks for joining me today!" Cut to black. It's difficult to form any sort of connection with the game's proceedings because most scenes are ephemeral at best. This is to say nothing of the seven heroines, nearly all of whom immediately present themselves as one-dimensional caricatures who aren't worth getting to know — a critical failure in a game that is ostensibly one-half dating simulation. Once they start to open up, however, they display some actual personality and nuance. It's a shame that the entire game is awash in hypersexualized dialogue that rarely pertains to any conversation at hand. Within the first few minutes of the game, a male character teases a girl who just survived a monster attack by saying, "Are you going to sit on the ground all day? Everyone can see up your skirt." This skeevy remark sets the tone for the rest of the game: from then on, it's a barrage of unnecessary sexual innuendo that frequently conflicts with the action on the screen (except for the apparently requisite magical transformation scenes, which shamelessly focus on the girls' breasts and butts). Even the aforementioned "Classmating," a ritualistic exchange of magical energies, is honestly more silly than sensual; it's the way they talk about it that makes it sound so gross. It's not that I find the game offensive, but its extreme fixation on making everything sexual comes at the expense of what should be its most important feature: gameplay.

As I mentioned before, a key mechanic in Conception II is wooing the various heroines. Between excursions into the Dusk Circles, the player can chat with the girls and give them gifts, strengthening their relationship. Happier girls mean stronger children (a kind of unpleasant commodification of women that I'll refrain from getting into too deeply here), which the player can assemble into a party and take into dungeons. Unfortunately, every dungeon is simply a randomized palette swap of the last, and the turn-based combat is excruciatingly boring. There are two main systems at play during battle: Chain Breaks and Ether Density. The former slows enemies down and allows the player to execute combos, while the latter speeds the player's party up. These amount to doing almost exactly the same thing: manipulating turn order, which many other RPGs have done far more intuitively. A directional-weakness system attempts to infuse some strategy into the affair, but all it does it make the player choose between hitting slightly harder or slowing enemies down — neither of which make a huge difference. I got to a point where I was winning most battles on auto and fast-forward, a testament to how little my strategic decisions actually mattered.

Conception II does has some decent art direction when it isn't being pervy. Key illustrations are vibrant and eye-pleasing, especially the green and blue hues of the starry world map. Animated cutscenes are relatively frequent and look sharp, as do the character portraits. The in-engine assets fare much worse. Although the girls look pretty good during the dating sim segments, character models are stiff and kind of bland within dungeons. Incidentally, the dungeons themselves are tremendously boring and repetitive. There's even less variety here than in, say, Persona 3's Tartarus, which at least had different themes for each section. And speaking of Persona, Conception II tries to mimic the sound design of Atlus' other big franchise to poor effect. Strange, decidedly un-catchy vocal tracks abound, although I will admit I got a good laugh out of the female vocalist singing "congratulations on your new arrival" following a successful Classmating session. Furthermore, most of the heroines have grating, ill-fitting voices, which made me even less inclined to pursue their affections. Ellie and Fuuko stand out as the best performances of the group, but two good voices can't negate five bad ones, I'm afraid.

As it turns out, Conception II isn't particularly offensive. It's just so obsessed with trying to be sexy that it forgets about being a fun game first and foremost. Perhaps if it had worthwhile combat or some other meaningful gameplay system in place, the rest of the experience wouldn't be so unpalatable. I'm in no position to judge or shame anyone for being interested in sexually gratifying material, but there are easier and less creepy ways to pursue it than suffering through forty hours of Conception II.

© 2014 Atlus, Spike Chunsoft. All rights reserved.