Middle Child Syndrome
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you…Japan. The land of the rising sun is certainly known for, among other things, containing some of the strangest cultural creations ever to see the light of day. The worlds of anime, manga and otaku culture are strange, indeed, and many tropes and themes often bleed from those into the world of Japanese video games. Sometimes this is good, others…not so much. Sometimes you get Persona 4, and sometimes you get Conception II: Children of the Seven Stars. Hey look, they’re both Atlus games. How about that.
Conception II is every bit a product of its pure Japanese-ness. An anime style, J-pop music, and a cast of pure anime stereotypes await you in the pregnant belly of this 3DS and Vita title. Now wait, you may be wondering. Pregnant belly? That’s an odd thing to say, Jay. Well, friend, you know nothing yet. Conception II is one of the most weirdly suggestive games I have ever played. How far does this go? There’s only one way to find out. Let’s get pelvis-deep and slippery with Conception II: Children of the Seven Stars.
Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present to you our main character, as well as our first Stereotypical Anime Character (SAC for short) of the day. This is the hot male lead, complete with dashing good looks, a charming disposition, and a dark, tear-soaked past. This hero resides in the world of Aterra, a place constantly troubled by the threat of monsters thanks to a group of labyrinths birthing the creatures at an alarming rate. Starting with the greatest of them all, the Pandora Labyrinth, various other dungeons have been spawned across the world, threatening humanity every day. You, combat-talented protagonist that you are, are headed to a school that teaches students how to kill these monsters, keeping the threat against humanity at bay. Humans are unable to enter the labyrinths, but they can still work cleanup and keep the monsters from getting too far. However, everything changes when you come in. That’s right, it’s time for some good ol’ destiny shenanigans.
The constant war against monsters is facilitated by Attera’s globally-recognized deity, the Star God. This god bestows abilities to children under the age of 18 allowing them to create Star Children, enigmatic beings with a variety of abilities and elements at their disposal. This is done in a process called “classmating.” Yes, I regret to inform you, it is exactly as bad as it sounds. In classmating, a male student’s Ether (his ding-dong) combines with a female’s Star Energy (her va-hoohoo) to create a Star Child. Basically what we’re dealing with here is a mechanic so strewn with innuendo that it practically writes itself. And when you come in, it turns out you’ve been marked with the destiny to be the greatest baby-daddy of all. No, really, that’s what happens.
It turns out you are God’s Gift, a boy so well-endowed with Ether as to allow him to actually enter the labyrinths, along with whoever he takes alongside him. This means you quickly become the beacon of hope for destroying the labyrinths once and for all, as well as the one and only choice for team captain when it comes to going into the dark monster-making mazes. It also means amassing a sizable militia of Star Children, meaning you’re going to have to start spirit-spunking up quite a few girls. Do you see where this is going yet? Because if you’re thinking RPG/relationship sim hybrid, you’re in luck. If you’re thinking the plot of a very strange harem anime or hentai…well, you’re still in luck. I mean, whatever you’re into I guess.
So let’s address the elephant in the room and talk about classmating. You’re first introduced to four high-ranking girls in the school, followed by three more over the first dozen hours or so. You can talk to three girls in a day, with conversations varying from brief exchanges to extensive dialogues with choices to make and things about the characters to learn. The better a relationship you build with these girls, the better the Star Children you can make. Each girl has an element and their own stat specialty, meaning you’ll want to stay on good terms with all of them in order to maintain the best variety of potential celestial child laborers possible. Each girl has her own distinct personality, meaning you’ll have to treat each one a little differently. You can only take one of the girls into battle with you at a time, and its best to have just one or two regulars filling that position throughout the game. Any Star Children in your party mothered by whichever battle lass you take with you get benefits from having their complete parental unit fighting alongside them. Each girl also gets their own unique battle outfit, which go on a scale from “actually pretty cool” to “overly cutesy” to “yeah, that is actual bondage gear you are you wearing. Are you SURE you don’t want to change?”
The issue with this harem of heroines is that almost all of them are, like the main character, completely naked, shameless SACs. (Stereotypical Anime Characters) You have the know-it-all, so smart that she’s not a student at all, but a teacher. You have the cripplingly timid and shy girl with enormous breasts, and the loli, a term which I regret to inform you defines characters with the body of a ten year-old girl. Usually the excuse is that the characters are “older than they look,” as is the case here, but it’s still a rampant anime trope that kills a good time faster than discovering someone pissed in the punchbowl. You have the quiet, stoic girl who talks in a monotone, and you have the kind of vanilla love interest type with pink hair and generic, girly hobbies. Of the whole group, a couple girls go past the stereotypes and are actually well-written characters, but most of them are stuck square in a realm of unimaginative, lazy writing. The two specific diamonds in the rough wound up being the partners I chose to swap between in battle and focus my relationship efforts on most consistently throughout the game, but it doesn’t take long to realize just how shallow the writing is in most of the characters. They all share one common theme, however; how completely, somewhat creepily devoted they are to you. Even if they don’t like it, they know it is their duty to submit to you. That’s not me being creepy, that’s actual in-game dialogue.
So you’ve performed the Star Child ritual with each girl enough to give everyone involved a weeks worth of cramps, you’ve seen that risque shot of their naked, pink glowing bodies bending back suggestively, and you’ve made yourself a genuine child militia of swordsmen, clerics, gunslingers and more. These little prodigies can be organized into groups of three, and the possible combinations are endless. You can have three squads of three, and each squad acts as a single unit in battle, as does your character and your partner of choice. Squads can have different abilities depending on the kinds of Star Children you put together, and what their elements are. For example, a cleric is great for healing your party, but if you put three clerics together in a squad, they can heal twice as much in a turn. As far as elemental effects go, putting any two magic-using children of the same type and element together gives you elemental attacks with double the power. Alternatively, two of the same class but different elements will give you better range. This is aided by the variety of different classes, such as the Gunslinger, whose offensive element can be switched simply by changing what gun they carry. The downside is that the game doesn’t do a great job of explaining to you how some classes differentiate from others. There’s also no real guide to what combinations work best, leaving everything to your own experimentation. Depending on what kind of player you are, this will either excite you greatly or utterly infuriate you, but if you fall into the latter category than I have good news. There is a handy “recommended squads” button, which does a surprisingly decent job of designating the contents of your three-kid units to best suit your tactical needs. You’ll continue to unlock more children as you level up and gain better relationships with each of the girls, so while they all offer a similar selection at first, you’ll find the variety only grows as you continue to get to know your posse of star-bonded partners.
Okay, so you’ve made your choices and your weird harem-family-army is ready for action. The labyrinths are your standard randomly-generated Atlus fare, and give off a vibe that will remind you a lot of Persona 4. Wide chambers and long, narrow hallways are the name of the game here, and so all you’re really left to look at is the scenery, which boasts some pretty nice art direction, albeit very cookie-cutter throughout each labyrinth. Each of the main labyrinths are based on one of the seven deadly sins, and each has some nice design choices that lend to the theme. The optional side dungeons the game throws at you have far less to offer, as many are just lazy colorswaps of existing labyrinths, even going so far as to hold the same, somewhat bare-bones selection of enemies to fight.
But enough of this. This ain’t Lamaze class, this is war. The combat of Conception II takes your standard RPG structure and actually does some cool things with it. Fights are position-based, with the ability to place a squad facing an enemy from one of four directions so as to get a good aim at its weak points. Later on you’ll find enemies with weak points in places you wouldn’t expect, as well as gaining control over attacks that hit enemies from the opposite side of where your unit stands. This tactical element is a nice touch, if not particularly gripping. You also have little devices like your Ether level, which increases as you do well in battle and gives your party a higher speed advantage over your enemies. There’s also the chain gauge, powered by hitting critical spots and taking risks in battle, which will slow down your opponent. These speed-based mechanics are a nice touch, if a tad inconsequential in the long run, as a sort of well-meaning “at least they tried.” Each squad can make one move per turn, including the usual attack, magic, item, and so on. It’s a good, healthy dose of the usual RPG format, spiced up with a few tricks to try and make things interesting.
The problem with all of this, however, can be explained thus. Let’s say you have a child who loves playgrounds. Not only does this kid get a huge thrill from playing at playgrounds, they’re also quite physically gifted, showing truly impressive skill and dexterity in climbing around the ol’ monkey bars. Now lets say you take that kid to a bad playground. I mean a really bad playground. We’re talking a rusty slide, two swings that are somehow constantly wet regardless of the presence of rain, and a sandbox that’s full of animal poop. No great play structures, no promise of exploration. By bringing your kid here, of all places, you’ve dropped him in an environment that is essentially useless to his talents. And that, sadly, is just what Conception II does. The mechanics and potential are all there, but the dungeons are dull, cookie-cutter hallways and chambers where you fight the exact same two or three types of easy-kill stock enemy over and over through floor after floor. On top of that, the game is so generous with EXP that I found myself completely overleveled without an inkling of how I got to that state. There’s no lasting drive to explore a dungeon if you know all you’ll find are lookalike architecture, repetitive enemies and battles, and, at best, a few reasonably worthwhile items to be used in future dungeons, where you will inevitably do the exact same thing. Some of the enemy designs are pretty cool, but even staring at Van Gogh’s Starry Night would get boring after 20+ hours. The dungeons just aren’t good enough for the mechanics and team structure the game boasts so loftily.
The other significant marital problem in the Conception II house is the writing. The story is as minimal as it gets: there are monsters. Monsters are bad. Go kill the monsters. Heroines aside, the other significant-enough-to-get-names characters populating the school include your best friend Chlotz, whose name is pronounced “clots,” clearly a cruel joke from unloving parents. There is also a busty sex object principal, a nerdy scientist dude, and some sort of rival character whose only emotion is, of course, “asshole.” None of these characters are interesting in the slightest, and the dialogue they share, along with that of the more central characters, can get pretty atrocious. At one point, everything is supposed to be all dramatic and tense as a big reveal occurs, and in the middle of it, characters start talking about breast sizes. There’s also the high priest, who makes no secret of being the game’s resident closet pervert. This, and really the game’s entire sense of humor, isn’t really funny. It’s pure, unadulterated uncomfortableness. This thing is uncomfortableness concentrate. Just add water.
The one other area some credit can be given is presentation. The soundtrack is clearly inspired by Atlus’ own Persona series, and delivers a similar J-pop/rock sound, awkward English lyrics and all. It’s nowhere near on par with what it’s clearly emulating, but it’s not awful. The fully animated cutscenes, as unfortunately rare as they are, are very pretty to watch. It’s really just a shame we couldn’t get more, as most of the game’s story is told between pantomiming 2D models exchanging dialogue. Interactions with the heroines gets full 3D attention, a shift in style that is actually not as jarring as it sounds, mainly due to the labyrinths being rendered in the same style. Worth noting, too, is the fact that these are the only parts of the game that utilize the 3D in any way. Not a deal breaker, but clearly a spot where someone, somewhere along the line, decided that laziness was okay. Voice acting is mostly fine, with the fully-voiced heroines being about as good as we can expect considering what the VAs. Slightly less fitting are characters who aren’t fully voiced, and only have a stock of a few sounds that are often badly matched with what’s actually being said.
So really, what kind of baby has been made with Conception II? Is this a child genetically predisposed for greatness? Maybe, but probably not. The raunchy writing style could lead to some laughs, but it almost invariably just falls flat, and makes you wonder what the writers were thinking in the first place. The RPG mechanics are more than vanilla, and the actual organization choices of Star Child teams are actually a lot of fun to toy around with, if somewhat tedious. Hey look, it’s a metaphor for parenting.
The problem with Conception II: Children of the Seven Stars is that it seems too concerned with its own anime bullshit to put enough focus where it would really belong in order to be a good RPG. What we get instead is a bunch of dull, empty-feeling dungeons and enemies that really don’t pose challenge as much as a way of stalling you. And on top of that, of course, sits a pile of giant, smelly SACs. (Stereotypical Anime Characters) Yes, there are a couple heroines who actually boast some decent writing behind them, but they are true exceptions to the rules of a game that really just wants to be an anime.
…Hey, yeah! That’s what this should have been. Keep the Star Children and RPG mechanics for a better game, take your ashen skeleton of a plot and weird harem of stereotypes, your super raunchy and uncomfortable central classmating mechanic, and uncomfortable sexual writing, and make a dumb romance anime. I’m sure the otaku will eat it up. Unfortunately, that is not the world we live in. Conception II doesn’t know whether it wants to be a cool RPG or a cool dating sim, and so it’s kind of just an okay…both. This child, raised by better parents, could have gone on to become a world-famous composer or artist, or a scientist who could lead us towards the cure for cancer. Unfortunately, under the guidance it’s been given, the best it can hope for is a managerial position at Arby’s. Conception II: Children of the Seven Stars gets 3.5 colorfully-haired SACs (abbreviate as instructed) put in ridiculous sexual situations out of 5.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: 3DS (reviewed), Playstation Vita; Publisher: Spike Chunsoft, Atlus; Developer: Spike Chunsoft; Players: 1; Released: April 15th, 2014; ESRB: M; MSRP: $39.99