Now this is a “male power fantasy”
In recent years, we’ve heard typical videogame design described as catering to a “male power fantasy.” Whether it’s accurate or appropriate to casually throw that term around is a debate for another day, but even so, plenty of games are surprisingly stingy when it comes to doling out both the “power” and the “fantasy.” How many more times will I have to take up arms as some naïve farmboy who’s horrifically exploited and has anything but power for most of his 70-hour quest to topple the man in charge?
Conception II: Children of the Seven Stars has no such issues.
This is a game that dubs you “God’s Gift” within the first 10 minutes and sets you loose in a future-tech high school where you’re surrounded by sycophantic male colleagues and doe-eyed anime lasses, pretty much all of whom worship the ground you walk on. And with good reason, too, particularly with the latter demographic: You’ll be making magical babies with them in order to save the monster-infested world of Aterra.
Yes, many observers of the Japanese gaming scene—even those long accustomed to the more ridiculous industry elements found in the maid-laden back alleys of Akihabara—snickered at the prospect of Conception: Please Have My Babies!, a 2012 Japan-only PSP title that revolved around creating children with a collection of female companions and then taking those tykes along to explore dungeons. (The sequel’s unconnected to the first game, however, so players shouldn’t worry about jumping in here.)
While the idea may sound bizarre—and it admittedly is, both in concept and execution—this isn’t the work of some fly-by-night Japanese developer. In recent years, Spike has crafted quality fare like Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, and they’ve been the force behind the acclaimed Fire Pro Wrestling series since 2000. What’s more, a 2012 merger with Chunsoft created a lineage that now stretches back to the original Dragon Quest. In fact, Conception II‘s pseudo-prurient nature often seems at odds with the surprisingly high quality of its presentation and design.
Of course, part of the appeal is also intangible for me, because try as I might to avoid it, I can’t describe Conception II without invoking the greatest social-sim RPG in gaming history: Persona. There’s a lot of presentation on display here that hits many of the same buttons, and while Conception II differs in several key areas, there’s that same addictive mix of social elements, dungeon-crawling, and party-crafting that keeps experimentation high and exploration fresh.
So, let’s get to the important question: Where do babies come from? In Conception, they’re born in a ritual known as “Classmating,” where a man and woman hold hands and use their combined powers to imbue a Star Womb Matryoshka—you might recognize it as a Russian nesting doll—and create Star Children, “warrior spirits” that pop out and immediately greet Mommy and Daddy with a grin (and a handy bonus, such as money).
Each potential female companion has a different set of abilities, so while Classmating may seem like a silly excuse for double entendres and pre-ritual dialogue that makes holding hands seem like the most scandalous thing imaginable, it’s interesting to do some tinkering and experimentation with the process and the 30 different available classes (you personally select a Star Child’s job upon their birth) to craft your own elite team of baby witches, warriors, and even gamblers. Classmating with one of your female companions who has stronger attack stats is ideal for a sword-bearing Star Child, while a girl high in dexterity is better suited for creating a thief. More and more options for creating children open up as the game unfolds, so as you progress, you’re able to craft more personalized offspring.
Once you’ve got your collection of toddler warriors, it’s time to go into battle, which will also strike a chord if you’ve played Persona—particularly if you’ve got a thing for exploring randomly generated, multilevel dungeons and engaging in combat while enthusiastic female Japanese pop singers spout such brilliant lyrics as: “They say that you’re a god! Doo-doo-doo! C’mon, show me what you got!”
I’m actually surprised it’s taken this long for a developer to ape this formula rather directly (if there’s another game that feels as similar as this, I haven’t played it), but I’m not complaining—it’s a crowd-pleasing design that’s proven hugely successful with a certain type of gamer, and Conception II features enough original elements over the course of the adventure that it ultimately feels like its own experience.
Conception II‘s battles, for example, focus on striking enemies from their vulnerable angles and subsequently chaining together attacks, a design direction that’s welcome when so many RPG tend toward “attack, heal, repeat.” With three teams of three children each and one female companion, you’ll enter dungeons with a whopping 11 party members, so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to explore combat from every angle. There’s no time limit to dungeon exploration, either, so you don’t have to worry about rushing through areas under the threat of impending doom. Aside from some late-game difficulty spikes, you probably won’t need to do much grinding anyway, since most bosses are total pushovers. Still, a lot of the enjoyment comes from the inherent experimentation, not necessarily confronting the worst of the worst enemies.
The other major element of the Conception formula—interacting with your female classmates in order to raise your connection with them, thus imparting the ability to create stronger and stronger Star Children—doesn’t stand up to scrutiny quite as well as the rest of the experience. Let’s just say that playing this game made me greatly appreciate my interactions with the multifaceted Chie Satonaka, Yukiko Amagi, and Yukari Takeba in Persona 3 and Persona 4 even more than I already did. Those are fleshed-out characters that reveal more and more as you peel back their outward layers. These are anime tropes.
What’s more, man, do these girls have issues! I’m talking stuff on par with the personal demons you’d famously find among the furry residents of the Hundred Acre Wood. Body dysmorphic disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, and social anxiety disorder are just some of what you’ll find here (along with the requisite tsundere—a cartoonishly hostile girl who eventually warms up to the protagonist, a personality disorder that seems to run rampant in the anime and manga universe). It’s certainly not that I have any issues with people who deal with problems like these on a daily basis—indeed, they deserve more attention than they currently get in games—but Conception II simply doesn’t handle these elements well at all, and most of the girls don’t come off as very likable as a result.
I guess it’s admirable the developers strove to portray your female companions as more than simply a pair of breasts (which are, of course, in ample supply among most of them), but it feels like you’re playing therapist instead of getting to know them and having their past and personalities come out naturally. Only a couple of the girls’ narratives are handled with anything resembling care and tact, and even though I spent 60-plus hours with these characters, I never really grew to actually like any of them. Instead, my feelings more or less ranged from “I grudgingly accept you” to “I outright detest you.”
The day-to-day social interactions with your female companions aren’t as strong as they could be, either. You’ll get the chance to approach three of the girls during class after each dungeon visit, and these scenes usually give you the choice of three dialogue options, and depending upon a given girl’s personality type, they’ll become warmer or more distant based on your answer. (For example, the worst thing you can do with a tsundere is offer a compliment that seems disingenuous). Unfortunately, it often feels like these scenarios are based around Japanese cultural norms, and the nuances are often lost in translation. A seemingly innocuous dialogue choice often sours a girl’s mood for no particular reason, while an action that would come across as insulting someone’s intelligence in America is apparently A-OK with the girls of Conception.
While the social elements are nowhere near the best in the genre, there’s still a surprisingly addictive quality to Conception II that should satisfy most role-playing aficionados. With Persona 5 still at least a year away—and more than five years since the last proper entry in the series—it’s great to have another game that puts a fresh twist on many of the same themes so many RPG fans have grown to embrace. Conception II: Children of the Seven Stars definitely scratches that itch that so many of us have had for going on half a decade now.
|Developer: Spike Chunsoft • Publisher: Atlus • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 04.15.2014|
Don’t let the concept scare you off if you’re a role-playing fan. Yes, Conception II: Children of the Seven Stars does revolve around making “battle babies” with a collection of female companions, but there’s a Persona-esque addictive quality to the package, and RPG players shouldn’t be ashamed to tote this one around on the bus or plane.
|The Good||Provides Persona-style dungeon exploring and social interactions with better-than-expected presentation and gameplay; creating the ultimate team of lean, mean toddler machines is surprisingly engaging.|
|The Bad||The least appealing collection of eligible bachelorettes since MTV’s Next.|
|The Ugly||The girls who call you up, unsolicited, while you’re exploring a dungeon seem to have taken their social cues from GTA‘s Cousin Roman.|
|Conception II: Children of the Seven Stars is available on PS Vita and Nintendo 3DS. Primary version reviewed was on PS Vita. A review build was provided by Atlus for the benefit of this review.|