Talk About a Baby Boom!
The release Conception PLUS: Maidens of the Twelve Stars, like the (questionably) immaculate conception it utilizes, is something that showed up before I even realized what was happening, and most definitely surprised me upon its arrival. Having released exclusively in Japan all the way back in 2012 on the PSP, and with only one sequel to its name (which we actually did end up getting), this is strange re-release/brand-new experience of a game is a pleasant surprise for we Western JRPG lovers, and despite not being the most in-depth game ever, still very much welcome in my book.
Despite knowing exactly what this game is about before I got into it, I’ll still admit that Conception PLUS threw me for a loop in the beginning. The game begins with protagonist Itsuki Yuge being called to the roof of his school by his childhood friend, and cousin, Mahiru to talk about, of all things, a pregnancy scare (I literally don’t think I’ve ever played another game that starts out this way). Now, I’m assuming that we all know how babies are made, so we all know how Mahiru got pregnant… but Mahiru hasn’t exactly swiped her V-card yet. Before the two can contemplate how this immaculate conception (hah, get it?) came to be, however, they witness the sky being torn asunder by a magical glyph which, after making its presence known, promptly plucks the two off of the ground, out of their world and into its parallel, a place called Granvania, where they learn of their destiny as Star Maiden and God’s Gift (yes, really), and, perhaps against their will, are plunged headfirst into a struggle to save a universe which isn’t even their own. Oh, and Mahiru’s pregnancy signs? They were all just her body preparing to become a Star Maiden; problem solved!
Conception PLUS‘ story isn’t the most strikingly imaginative one that I’ve come across. However, I never expected it to be. As an entire half of the game’s story literally revolves around courting an entire baker’s dozen of a harem and engaging in what can best be described as a purely spiritual version of sex—which results in the creation of new life—you come into this game expecting it to play out in a certain kind of way… which it definitely lives up to. But that doesn’t mean its bad. The general familiarity which guides Conception PLUS‘ story has a comfortable feel to it, that’s genuinely enjoyable, and its gaggle of gals, while slightly lacking in-depth due to the heavy competition to the spotlight, are still nice to interact and grow closer with. And, while the game is absolutely not without its many slices of cheesecake, it doesn’t go overboard with… *ahem*… serving a dessert that it detracts from things like plot development and character growth.
Being half “harem game” (if that’s even a real sub-genre), I’m sure that you’ve guessed by now that Conception PLUS has some VN/dating sim elements going for it—and you would be correct! But it doesn’t work exactly the way you’d expect it to. Not totally, anyway. Rather than focusing all of your attention on a single lady, as you would normally do in a dating sim (and real life, hopefully), Conception PLUS goes into full-blown harem mode by tasking the player to schmooze it up with all 12 Star Maidens (plus a 13th one, later on!) in hopes of building a good relationship with every single one of them. Why? To make babies, duh! You see, Conceptions Star Maidens are more than a bunch of possible dating options and character-specific endings. Much like the player, each Star Maiden has her own set of stats. And, while the Star Maidens can’t battle themselves (which, having played Conception 2 first, is kind of disappointing), they do affect how your Star Children—who, aside from Itsuki, make up the entirety of your party—are statted when they are born via the Classmating process.
For a first run (which is technically what this game is), Conception PLUS didn’t do too badly for itself, here. To be fair, none of it is exactly what you would call “meaty” (bad choice of words, maybe) in terms of content, but I also can’t say that I’ve ever seen a game that tries to combine dating sim and RPG mechanics together as this one does—a fact which definitely works out in this game’s favor. While I don’t think this system would last without some additional content to pad this section of the game out—something that I know that its sequel actually does—its novelty, combined with the charming personalities of each of the game’s Star Maidens (and English voice acting!) is enough to keep things running smoothly for the most part.
Done and (Star)Dusted
On the other side of Conception PLUS‘ proverbial coin lies its dungeon-crawling element. Most adequately described as Persona 4-esque, each of Conception PLUS‘ twelve dungeons (which are actually more like four dungeons that all split off at the end, but whatever) within its Stardust Labyrinth provide the player with a randomly generated maze of twists, turns, treasures, and traps. Objectively speaking, I don’t find anything wrong with randomly generated dungeons like the ones found in this game. In some ways, they’re great; procedural generation is great for providing the player with a continuously fresh experience in terms of layout, and the fact that different treasures are laying about each time makes return trips incredibly tantalizing.
Unfortunately, an over-reliance on procedural generation can also be a bad thing. And, while I wouldn’t call Conception PLUS‘ dungeons “bad,” they do get a little stale after a while. Yes, they’re new each time, but most dungeons are literally just square rooms attached to hallways attached to more square rooms—a layout that doesn’t feel particularly inspired to me. And, while the game does have gimmicks—such as healing points, traps, and stat-boosting rooms—they aren’t enough to keep things from feeling old after a while. Honestly, I think Conception PLUS is trying to be clever, here. It’s dating sim mechanics are good, but not fleshed out enough to stand on their own, and its dungeons are fine in small chunks, but get boring after a while. I’m not sure that either mechanic could stand up as a full game on its own. However, by carefully putting the two together (because I do think that Spike Chunsoft put some thought into this), they can create a two-part system that relies upon itself to keep players entertained. Because of the way both mechanics are presented to the player, there’s always just enough to keep you entertained for a while, but, unless you’re really gung-ho on getting through a dungeon in one run (which I absolutely would not suggest), you’re never doing one thing long enough to get entirely tired of it.
Despite its ups and downs, Conception PLUS does have a lot going for it, and I think that its battle mechanics are the best example of that. Part of this comes from the unique way in which it approaches turn-based combat. Conception PLUS doesn’t just ask that players plan which moves to use, but from where to use them. Skillful placement can not only help players deal more damage by finding and attacking an enemy’s weak point, but can even help them dodge certain kinds of incoming attacks. Not only is this mechanic something that you don’t see in most (or any, that I can think of) turn-based RPGs, but its implemented in such a way that it complements the more traditional aspects of combats rather than entirely taking them over. You don’t have to strike at an enemy’s weak point every single chance you get in order to emerge victorious, and you don’t have to dodge every single attack—but you do have to get good enough at both to be able to do them most of the time.
I’ve already mentioned that Star Children’s stats—and available classes—differ depending upon which girl you’ve Classmated with, but I haven’t yet mentioned how they work in battle. Technically speaking, your party has four character slots, the first of which is always taken up by Itsuki, and the other three being taken up by Star Children. However, while Itsuki takes up an entire character slot on his own, your other three slots are used to create teams—essentially turning three characters into twelve. While each character within your teams is unique in terms of level, equipment, and stats, it’s important not to just haphazardly throw whomever you please into each team. Team cohesion is a very real thing in this game, and the further you get into the game the more necessary it becomes to craft your teams around certain specialties, or team bonuses (which are granted by pairing Star Children of certain elements, classes, and the like together), lest you fall prey to the Impurities that roam the Stardust Labyrinth. And, because your Star Maidens are continuously getting stronger as you bond with them, it’s also important to semi-consistently swap out your old Star Children for new and improved ones, and, while you’re at it, grant your no-longer-useful Star Children independence—an act which permanently removes a Star Child from your roster, but levels up Granvania, granting the player a bevvy of sweet (and arguably necessary) bonuses in the process.
As far as re-vamped console releases of Vita games go, Conception PLUS: Maidens of the Twelve Stars is a pretty sweet deal. While certain aspects of its gameplay might be a little lacking, there’s no denying that its dating sim/dungeon crawler premise is definitely a unique one, and should offer enough to keep its fanbase satisfied. The original release of Conception may have missed the West the first time around, but I’m glad that Spike Chunsoft kept us in mind for this version.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), PC; Publisher: Spike Chunsoft Co., Ltd.; Developer: Spike Chunsoft Co., Ltd.; Players: 1; Released: November 5, 2019; ESRB: M for Mature; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Conception: Maidens of the Twelve Stars given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.