For some time now, I’ve expected the emergence of the “Persona-like”, a new subgenre of RPGs that combine dungeon-crawling combat with social/dating sim elements. The concept was codified in 2006 by Persona 3, and it just works so well that I’m surprised it took this long for other games to be inspired by it. Spike Chunsoft’s Conception series is, to my knowledge, the first attempt at creating another franchise inspired by the Persona formula. Now that Conception II has been released outside of Japan, us Westerners get to see how this experiment went.
Conception II, despite being a sequel, requires no story knowledge from the (yet-unlocalized) previous game. The story is set in a world threatened by the presence of Dusk Circles, mysterious spawning grounds for demonic monsters. The Dusk Circles create giant monster nests, which are promptly ejected into the air so that they land near the closest village. Upon landing, the nests release a wave of monsters, who begin attacking the humans living nearby.
Not all hope is lost, however – some humans have been blessed by the Star God with unusually high amounts of Ether (for males) or Star Energy (for females), giving them some capability to fight the monsters. Such gifted individuals receive a Brand on their hand at the age of sixteen, upon which they must leave their homes behind to attend the Academy at Fort City, and join the ranks of the Disciples. The Academy was formed to train Disciples in the art of combat, holding the front lines and demolishing the Nests as they appear. Unfortunately, the Brand disappears at the age of eighteen, and the Disciples’ elevated energy counts go with it. Further, even the Disciples’ Ether and Star Energy isn’t powerful enough to be used inside the Dusk Circles themselves, meaning that they can’t get to the source of the problem. With more and more Dusk Circles forming all over the planet, the stage is set for a war of attrition that humanity can’t win.
You play as Wake Archus, a new recruit at the Academy. Your initiation seems normal enough until the placement exam reveals that your Ether count is off the charts – high enough to create an Ether field to do battle inside the Dusk Circles. All of a sudden you’re a celebrity, dubbed “God’s Gift” by the church running the academy – and for good reason, since you’re the only one who can actually sterilize the Dusk Circles by defeating the monsters inside.
In addition to fighting the monsters directly, as the God’s Gift, you have one other major responsibility, which is both the central gimmick and the namesake of the game. (If you’ve heard anything about the game before, well, this is where things start to get weird.) The church’s main role in the monster suppression effort is facilitating a holy ritual called “Classmating”, in which a male and female Disciple combine their Ether and Star Energy to create a holy warrior creature called a Star Child. (Seriously.) The Star Children created through this ritual are then taken into battle alongside their “parents”, supporting the human forces as they deal with the Nests. Normally, the Star Conception rate between even the best Disciples is only a few percent; however, your high Ether count gives you a 100% Star Conception rate with any female powerful enough to ace the Academy’s placement exam. The strength and capability of the Star Child is dependent on the strength of the friendship between the involved parties; therefore, you are tasked with befriending, spending time with, and perhaps even dating the seven female Disciples who have accomplished this rare feat.
From there, the plot pulls double duty, equal parts dating sim and urban fantasy. Oddly enough, the former is the more interesting and well-written side of the story. Despite the creative world-building, the actual events of the story fall flat more often than not; there wasn’t a plot twist that I didn’t see coming from a mile away. The whole concept of Conception is rather silly: you have babies (kind of) and take them into deadly combat with you. Therefore, when the game tries to take itself seriously it feels out of place. The plot of Conception II is at its best when it’s cheery and lighthearted, which is why the plot shines brilliantly through your interactions with the heroines. Talking with the girls between battles is engaging and heartfelt, and their personalities are distinct and believable enough that you’ll probably find a favorite before long. It’s not perfect, however; some of the personal problems the heroines come to you with can be eye-rollingly petty, and for the first few hours, the dialogue seems like an experiment to see how many double-entendres they can fit in a single game. On the whole, however, these character interactions were my favorite part of the game, and the promise of unlocking more of these scenes was a great motivation to advance through the comparatively dull main story.
Even if the dialogue is hit-or-miss, the game consistently looks and sounds good. The character interactions are accompanied by some seriously well-done character models which look fantastic in motion. The game consistently runs at a solid framerate, even during dungeon exploration and battle. However, it accomplishes this by using noticeably lower-quality models than they do in the visual novel segments. The dungeon environments look nice, if a bit bland, and the monster models have unique and memorable designs. The music does a solid job as background filler noise, though there’s a significant lack of strong melodies; despite a few standout tracks, don’t expect to get much of the music stuck in your head. It’s also worth mentioning the Classmating scenes; every time you create a Star Child with one of the heroines, you’re shown a sweeping shot of your heroine of choice, neon-tinged and implied nude, linking hands with the protagonist while an amazingly cheesy refrain plays in the background. At first, these scenes seem tasteful enough, more evocative than anything else. But as the game progresses, they get longer and more suggestive, which just starts to be kind of awkward and unnecessary given the kind of lighthearted goofiness that the game treats the whole Classmating concept with. The only other criticism I have about the game’s presentation is how it obviously takes a lot of cues from the later Persona games, with its minimal, flat HUD style and catchy pop-rock battle theme.
This cosmetic similarity isn’t really a bad thing in itself, but it can be a bit cheesy at times given how the gameplay was also obviously Persona-inspired. The gameplay of Conception II has you crawling through randomly-generated dungeons full of monsters, which you can engage in turn-based combat by running into them on the map (no random encounters here). When you’re not doing that, you’re managing your relationships with the seven heroines, spending time with them and picking smart choices out of dialogue trees in order to improve your intimacy with them. Where this game deviates from Persona is, of course, the Classmating system. As you become closer to the heroines you accumulate Bond Points that can be spent at the Church to create Star Children. The stats of the Star Children depend on the stats of their mother, as well as her intimacy level with you, so it’s important to try and keep the girls in a good mood. After Classmating, you get to choose one of a surprising number of classes for your new child. There are the staple options like Swordsmen, Archers, and Lancers, as well as more bizarre options like Merchants, Gun Saints, and Bondsmen. Different heroines are attuned to different classes, so there’s a fair bit of micromanaging that can be done if you want to form an optimal party. When I first heard about the system, I was reminded of the similar parent/child mechanics of Fire Emblem Awakening, but in practice it’s quite different, because your Star Children end up being a lot less permanent than Fire Emblem’s child units. Thus, there’s a lot more room for experimentation here, especially given that you’ll probably end up making close to 100 kids rather than Fire Emblem’s 15 or so.
It’s an interesting take on the “collectible monster” mechanic, and it manages to solve a problem that I consistently find with those kinds of games. Often, when I play a game with collectible monsters, I find myself playing through the whole game using monsters I found early on because they’ve had more time to gain experience and level up. However, in this game your Star Children have a hard level cap that depends on the level of their mother. Once they reach the cap, you can grant them independence, upon which they’ll leave your care to go work in the city. As you do this, more shops will open for you to use, and the facilities that are already open will improve their services or expand their stock. This leads to a satisfying gameplay loop – create Star Children, level them up to the cap, then set them free to improve the city. At that point, the heroines will have leveled up as well, so you can create more Star Children with better stats and a higher level cap. Rinse and repeat. Not only does this make you rotate your party members regularly, but it creates an interesting sense of progression – even if you had to replace your level 26 child with one at level 1, you still feel like you’re moving forward because the new child has better base stats and might be able to get to level 30 instead of stopping at 26.
The dungeon crawling itself is pretty simple. You bring a party of nine Star Children, the protagonist, and one of the heroines, and traverse a maze of randomly-generated rooms connected by plain, featureless hallways. You can see monsters wandering about while exploring, and touching one initiates combat. You’ll find treasure chests scattered about, and sometimes there are gimmicks like traps or sealed doors. For the most part, though, it’s just plain dungeon crawling.
The battle system is more exciting. It’s reminiscent of Final Fantasy X; you can see what order the involved parties will move in, and using certain skills will force you to wait a little longer until your next move. Your 11 party members are split into teams of two or three, each of which you’ll command as a unit. Thus, it feels more like you’re controlling four highly-customizable party members rather than eleven, which is a pretty clever way to add customization without making the options too overwhelming. What’s unique about the battle system is the use of positioning. When you attack a monster, you can choose which side to attack from: front, back, left or right. All monsters have one or more weak points, and striking them there does additional damage. Moving around too much between turns, however, will add a lot of delay to your attacks, meaning that even though hitting the weak point every time will deal more damage, it will also allow your foes to get more hits in.
Further tension is added through the Chain Drive system. Performing risky maneuvers, such as deliberately avoiding enemy weak points or standing right in front of an enemy that’s winding up for a strong attack, will add to your Chain Drive gauge. When it reaches a certain point, the next monster you strike will be ensnared by chains, forcing it to waste time struggling free while you pile on the damage. Every hit you land on a chained monster is worth bonus experience, so you’ll always want to be looking for opportunities to pull this off. It’s an interesting little system that encourages you to think about every encounter.
Unfortunately, the dungeon crawling can get a little tedious, especially toward the middle of the game. You’ll probably end up doing a bit of level grinding over the course of the roughly 80-hour campaign, and that’s when you realize how bland the environments are. The random nature of the dungeons feels lazy and boring rather than adding any spice to the exploration, and I was pretty tired of the longer dungeons after about 10 floors. The game takes a lot of steps to mitigate this; for example, you can kill low-level enemies without entering combat by bumping them on the field. There are also fast-forward and autoplay features during battle, which can be helpful. Even then, the problem never quite goes away. It’s not horrendously bad, because again, the combat is fun and interesting. But by the end of the game, my mindset in the dungeons was to get through as quickly as possible so I could see more of the dating sim scenes, which can make the game feel improperly balanced.
Verdict: 7.1 out of 10
Conception II is a game that tries to be a lot of things at once, and succeeds at some of those things more than others. It’s never a bad game, and it has plenty of interesting ideas, but some balance issues and a tedious, grindy midgame hold it back from being a truly great JRPG. The dating sim side of the game was very well-done, and I enjoyed it quite a bit despite not being a fan of the genre in general. None of the game’s problems are ones that can’t be worked out as this fledgling series carves out its niche, I think. If there’s a Conception III in the future, I will be happy to pick it up, but for now, I’d recommend this game only if you’re a fan of dating sims and/or don’t mind grind-intensive gameplay. Do give the demo a try, if nothing else.
Note: This review applies only to the Vita version of the game. I haven’t played the 3DS version firsthand, but my understanding is that it’s the same game with some cosmetic differences (e.g., the 3DS game runs at about half the framerate the Vita game does.)
For more information about what the score means, check out MONG’s official review scale.
Aaron Dobbe is an editor at MONG specializing in Nintendo but playing a bit of everything else too. Follow him on Facebook and pester him to get a Twitter.