[25 June 2014]
Considering there has been a huge lack in the “male power fantasy” department in JRPGs lately, it’s actually nice to see one every now and again. Kinda getting tired of playing the weak male protagonist who tags along with stronger female types because he apparently needs a carry through the whole game…
-dascylus, GameFAQs commenter
I don’t know what I expected.
-Michael Bluth, Arrested Development
It is not easy to play the game of making something so wildly over the top and inappropriate that it becomes either a satire or a comment of sorts on our taboos. It’s even harder to play that card after the fact, but that’s exactly what Atlus tried in their marketing for Conception II, a game in which a late-teenage male protagonist known as God’s Gift “starmates” with a rotating cast of females for the sole purpose of making powerful “starchildren”. While it’s explicitly stated throughout the game that “starmating” is not actually a sexual process, the metaphor is obvious, and made more so by the many “humorous” dialogue and plot choices throughout the game.
What choice did Atlus have, really, other than to put a slapstick spin on the whole thing, releasing press releases like a Valentine’s Day PSA (“PLEASE ENSURE THE SAFETY OF YOUR STAR CHILDREN BY CREATING YOUR PARTY RESPONSIBLY”) and sending out a poll asking which of the seven “heroines” was “most intriguing”? Even calling the seven women “heroines” is almost disingenuous, since it’s clear from the start of the game who the hero is and who the “help” is. You’re essentially picking them off the rack, as companions when you go to fight and as child-bearers when you need to make babies.
How does one get through a game like this? By accepting that the women of Conception 2 are nothing more than a game mechanic, and ignoring that the breast-obsessed excuse for NPC dialogue even exists beyond the outlining of objectives. This is a JRPG, after all, and there is a game to be played underneath everything else.
As JRPGs go, Conception 2 is not terrible, but it’s awfully run-of-the-mill. Here’s the story. You, as God’s Gift, have been imbued with a high amount of ether, which allows you to do two things central to the gameplay that nobody else can do, to conceive “star children” with any “S-rank” student in your school and fight in the growing number of “dusk circles” (read: labyrinths) that are sprouting up all over the land. The reason that you need to fight in these dusk circles is that monsters come out of them, and if they’re not closed, the monsters will take over the world. So fight you do with your “heroine” of choice and up to three sets of three star children in tow.
The systems at play in the labyrinths hint at a far more interesting game. You can add the usual slate of weapons and armor to strengthen your hero and your star children, but the heroine’s equipment is set and cannot be modified, save for an accessory. The star children behave as a group, and you control that group as if it is one character; although each child has its own set of attributes, skills, and spells, all of those things are pooled into one controllable unit in battle (the same goes for God’s Gift and whichever lucky lady he chooses to bring with him into the dusk circles). You can attack any enemy from one of four directions. Attacking from some directions will lead to more powerful attacks at an enemy’s weak point, but you can increase your “chain gauge” quicker if you attack head-on. Fill up the chain gauge, and you get access to a powerful attack, not unlike a Final Fantasy-style limit break. Finally, every so often, you can choose to combine one of your teams of star children into a single, mech-like beast (this is called “mecunite”) capable of huge damage and spectacular skills.
Given the number of different systems at play, you would hope that combat would be an interesting hodgepodge of strategies based on the enemies you’re faced with at any given time. The problem here is that the constant grinding (to increase the stats of the women and children) and the overly gentle difficulty curve mean you spend most of your time hammering attacks on weak points in environments that are just a little too familiar. When you finally do get to fight a boss, things get more interesting, but the bosses are mostly there as excuses to pull out the more powerful attacks and the mecunite skills. Even the bosses go down pretty quickly once you start the full-on onslaught.
The labyrinths themselves have shades of good ideas within them as well. Each dusk circle is based on a deadly sin. First, you dive into “Lust” (of course), which is soon followed by “Gluttony,” and so on. The labyrinths are visually appealing, each with its own themes playing into the scenery, but you end up spending so much time in them that the wallpaper quickly stops mattering. An automap makes traversal easy, and treasure chests are frequent enough to scratch the looting itch that is typically saved for the Diablos and Torchlights of the world.
Still, once you realize that every labyrinth is simply a collection of monster-filled rooms connected by monster-free hallways, it takes some of the joy out of exploring them. Playing them over and over again feels like a simple chore rather than a means to an end. The number of trips you need to take into the dusk circles just to make sure everyone’s powerful enough to deal with the monsters that will show up later on can’t help but turn the experience into busywork.
What do you do when you start having to do busywork? You start concentrating on other things, like the dialogue, and the starmating system. That’s when you start feeling both gross and bored, and the game starts to feel hostile toward its player.
Conception II: Children of the Seven Stars is almost kitschy in its obliviousness. The quote at the top of this review betrays an audience for this sort of game that longs for the “good old days” of games that feature men in positions of power and women as accessories. Before you’re tempted by its “charm”, however, remember that there’s a reason this sort of experience feels antiquated: we’ve moved on. As a society—as humans, we are better than we used to be, or we are at least striving to be. Even if underneath the gross veneer was the best JRPG since the genre’s 16-bit heyday, it wouldn’t be worth supporting a game as gleefully misogynistic as this one.
The good news, then, is that you needn’t worry. The game underneath is merely average. You’re not missing out.