Review: Conception II: Children of the Seven Stars (3DS)

Birth of the cool

Brought into the world by Spike Chunsoft — of both Danganronpa and StreetPass Battle/Warrior's Way fame — Conception II: Children of the Seven Stars is a delightfully different affair. The generational suffix refers to its pedigree — a single, Japan-only PSP predecessor — but all you need to know about this standalone sequel is that it combines elements of dating sims and dungeon-crawling RPGs into a stylish, light-hearted, and charmingly scandalous love letter to both genres. It's not without faults, but it's quite a lot of fun, and the resulting mix will set hearts aflutter in both lovers and fighters alike.

Plenty of RPGs place players in the role of a special teenager with the power to change the world, and that's certainly the case here as well. Though you can name the protagonist whatever you wish, you'll also be known by the rather lofty epithet of God's Gift — a newly-minted Disciple at the prestigious Aterra Academy in Fort City, chosen by the Star God to save humanity from a plague of monsters spewing forth from the nebulous Dusk Circles springing up across the map. It sounds like relatively typical JRPG fare, but what sets Conception apart is the particular manner in which you'll be saving the world: teaming up with the seven strongest girls in school to create Star Children — adorably diminutive warriors of various occupations that accompany you into battle — through the suggestive and stupendously-named ritual of "Classmating".

Conception II inherits gameplay genes from both its parent genres, and is neatly divided into two complementary halves: dating sim-style conversational sequences and "Bonding Events" on the menu-based town map, and dungeon crawling in the Dusk Circle labyrinths. They're distinct but not disjointed — improving your relationships with the heroines via sparkling conversation and successful dates will directly affect your performance in battle, and the strength of the Star Children you collectively create, while progressing through the labyrinths and sealing away bosses will allow you to advance the storyline and in turn forge deeper connections with your classmates.

If you're familiar with the dating aspects of recent Harvest Moon, Rune Factory or Persona games, you'll have a good handle on how the corresponding concept plays out in Conception II — and if not, it's an excellent introductory example of how digital dating can be so oddly compelling. During Bonding Events — first-person conversations with one of the game's seven heroines — you'll select different dialogue choices (or perform other actions, such as gift-giving) to steer the conversation in a particular direction. Pick the conspicuously chivalrous, "best", and/or most appropriate option in a given situation, and you'll improve both your date's mood and your relationship. Saying or doing the wrong thing, on the other hand, can leave you on the bad side of one the most powerful girls in a school for monster slayers.

The Bonding Events are presented in a visual novel-like format that's fun and engaging for a number of reasons that sound completely silly until you've tried it and find yourself hooked: the feeling of being at the centre of the conversation, rather than the action, the slice-of-life character development that comes out of each scene, the potential for mischief with the wrong — or right — dialogue options (and the plethora of save files that allow for guilt-free experimentation), the undeniable appeal of being able to talk your way into irresistibility with don't-try-this-at-home ease, and the underrated thrill that comes from acting as the world's greatest listener. It also helps that, as with Persona 3 and 4's Social Links, these Bonding Events are equal parts dating and personal development; by spending time with each of the heroines, you'll see and help them overcome obstacles, realize dreams, and grow as people, in addition to (hopefully) growing fonder of your character.

One key difference between Conception II and most dating sims is that here, you're encouraged to forge a connection with each and every one of the game's seven female leads — the fate of the world depends on it, after all. The heroines represent a broad range of personalities and anime archetypes, and while you'll undoubtedly wind up with a favourite, they're all likeable characters in their own right. There's Fuuka, a friendly, down-to-earth girl with perma-headphones and a passion for swimming, Ellie, an energetic first-year, Chloe, a popular teacher at the academy who happens to be your best friend's older sister, Narika, a shy, hard-working class representative, Serina, a pint-sized third-year with a big heart and a pronounced Napoleon complex, Torri, an enigmatic girl with a mysterious past and monochrome style, and Feene, a kind, polite, and battle-hardened third-year photographer.

It's worth getting to know each and every one of them not only for the individual story arcs their events entail, but also because different heroines will allow you to create different Star Children through Classmating. By heading to the Church and clasping hands with one of the available heroines, you can channel your collective energy into a matryoshka (the charmingly thematic embodiment of an external Star Womb) and bring forth a new Star Child. The ritual takes the form of a stylized cutscene sequence with brightly coloured, silhouetted figures which give the illusion of neon-tinted nudity, but thanks to some liberal anatomical airbrushing it's as much 'Zero Suit' as 'birthday suit' in practice.

When the energy transfer is complete and your Star Child bursts forth from its matryoshka, you'll get to assign the new arrival to one of the game's many classes. Your options for a particular progeny are determined by its individual stat distributions, and range from RPG mainstays like fighters (Swordis), mages (Magicians), and healers (Clerics) to more specialized classes such as Archers, Lancers, Paladins, Grapplers, and Gunslingers, with plenty of wonderfully offbeat outliers like Blacksmiths, Gamblers, and Minstrels rounding out the bunch. The selection resembles the class-customization of Atlus' Etrian Odyssey series in both art style and variety, and allows for a huge amount of freedom when planning out your party. That becomes particularly important once you build up a sizeable stable of Star Children, because these close-knit siblings fight in groups of three, and particular class combinations can grant them uniquely powerful Team Skills.

Once you've got your affections distributed and your team assembled, it's time to turn the power of love into, well, power; you do this by heading into the Dusk Circles for some dungeon-crawling family bonding time. The Dusk Circle labyrinths — each named after one of the seven deadly sins — are randomly generated, multi-floor affairs which you'll explore in 3rd person. There are no random encounters to worry about — all enemies are visible on the field, and you'll need to make contact to initiate the battle — and as a handy, EarthBound-esque timesaver, low-level monsters can be instantly defeated just by running into them.

The dungeons themselves aren't actually very exciting — they're straightforward to a fault, consisting mostly of identical rooms and corridors that make their randomly generated layouts seem more like a cop-out than a compelling design decision — and the lack of a dedicated "attack" button to swing your sword or something similar makes engaging enemies an oddly unsatisfying act; it feels like you're tapping monsters on the shoulder rather than challenging them to deadly combat. Once you begin a battle, however, the Dusk Circles' repetitive hallways quickly fade into memory. Conception II's battle system is a blast, and several elements set it apart from other turn-based RPG romps.

First and foremost, position matters. Not in the sense of Fire Emblem's expansive fields, or even the first Persona's unit placement, but in the fact that your characters can occupy one of four different spaces on a Simon-style circle surrounding each enemy, and every foe has a weak spot that's vulnerable when attacked from a certain angle. A red arrow (as opposed to the usual blue one) lets you know exactly where these are, and striking from the right side will yield considerably more damage with even a normal attack.

Second, while battles are turn-based, the turn-order isn't set in stone, and the queue can change based on which actions you take. Moving behind a monster to attack might help target a weak point, for example, but it can also send that team to the back of the line, while in some cases staying put can earn you a second turn before the baddie even gets to move. Turn-order is also affected by an Ether Density gauge, which fills as you dispatch monsters or trigger certain skills; with each level, your party gets a significant speed boost, and when up against formidable foes, those few extra whacks can be crucial.

Finally, each time you land an attack, you'll help to fill your party's Chain Drive gauge. Once it reaches a critical point, up to three monsters will instantly become 'chained', greatly reducing their speed, preventing them from attacking, and earning you extra cash and experience points for every hit you manage to get in before they break free. Chaining can make a huge difference in battle, particularly when you're up against multiple monsters, and it comes with a nice risk/reward mechanic as well: the fastest way to fill up the gauge is by attacking from the clearly marked 'Danger' zones in which a foe is about to strike, while opportunistically targeting weak points nudges it along only very little.

All this is in addition to an elemental weakness chain, cinematic Seventh Burst skills that let the hero and heroine unleash beautifully choreographed destruction, and a Mecunite mechanic that lets a team of Star Children Voltron themselves together into powered up mini-mechs. In other words, there are plenty of ways to experiment in battle, and all the different options make the relatively constant enemy onslaught enjoyable, rather than arduous.

Your main goal in dungeon-crawling through Dusk Circles is to seal away the boss at the bottom of each labyrinth, but that's not all there is to do in Aterra's subterranean underbelly. You can also take on side-quests at the Lab in town, grind for experience in the Training Facility, or plunder several Sub-Labyrinths for rare items. And though you can keep up to seventy Star Children in your Dorm Room headquarters, at some point at least some of them will need to learn to leave the nest. You can grant any excess Star Children their 'Independence', at which point they'll pack up their bags and promise to write; in addition to sending you money from time to time, your newly independent offspring will open up new shops and expand the town map.

If Aterra feels too small for your amorous ambitions, you can always indulge in "Blindmating"; this is a local multiplayer version of Classmating in which you combine forces with heroines from another copy of the game, resulting in exceptionally powerful Star Children. It's a nice extra, though the concept seems almost tailor-made for StreetPass functionality, which is sadly absent. Though we were unable to test any for this review, both free and paid DLC packs are also planned, giving you the chance to dress your characters up in alternate costumes or beat the stuffing out of Danganronpa's Monokuma if you so choose.

Between developing the town, completing quests, levelling up your main character and seven different heroines, and birthing, naming, training, and tweaking teams of Star Children, there's plenty to keep you busy in Conception II. If you're the type of player that loves to customize, you'll be well catered for here, though the micromanagement is only ever as involved as you'd like it to be. Several surprisingly savvy auto-battle modes, a handy option to sort Star Children into recommended teams, and an easy "Equip Best" function mean it's also possible to focus on what you're interested in and more or less automate the rest — with the exception of the Bonding Events, that is. In Conception II as in life, there are no shortcuts to love.

Right from the start of its anime intro, Conception II is a seriously stylish game, sporting a slick, neon-infused aesthetic that's equal parts Persona 4 and Phantasy Star Online. The Bonding Events are presented from a minimalist, point-of-view perspective that keeps the focus on the heroines' impressive 3D character models, while the crisp, two-dimensional character portraits in cutscenes are animated in a slowly oscillating style reminiscent of Muramasa or Dragon's Crown. Even the interface feels fresh, with menus full of interesting geometry and background animations.

That said, it's far from flawless. The presentation is let down by a number of smaller issues, including mild but noticeable artifacting on the animated cutscenes, a consistent but less-than-stellar framerate in the dungeon-crawling sequences, and three-digit damage counts sometimes getting cut off at the edge of the screen. And while the heroines look stunning in the Bonding Events, the character models used in the labyrinths aren't quite as impressive, sporting rough edges and much less detail. The stereoscopic 3D effect is also limited to certain areas — labyrinth exploration and battles, Classmating, and Bonding Events all pop out in three glorious dimensions, while menus, maps, and character portrait cutscenes are left flat.

Another conspicuous presentation problem lies in the map placement. During the dungeon-crawling segments, you have two choices for displaying the map: as a sizeable box in the lower-lefthand corner of the top screen, or as an overlay in the centre of the top screen. Meanwhile, the touchscreen remains largely unoccupied, with only small status gauges at the top and a few shortcuts at the bottom. Not being able to place the map on the otherwise superfluous second screen is especially baffling given the screen-clutter on the other side of the hinge — between the Ether Gauge, floor name, and intermittent dialogue boxes relaying thoughts from your team, it's already a bit crowded up there, and the available map options feel either annoyingly large or annoyingly centred. In the end, we defaulted to simply switching the map off entirely between forks in the path.

Though the visual presentation is a bit of a mixed bag, Conception II's stellar soundtrack happily delivers on every level. It spans an impressive range of styles, from battle-ready J-rock and astro-arpeggiated electronica to sax-drenched, whispered-vocal jazz, and it's all held together by a female-fronted, synth-heavy space-age style that fits the game world perfectly. The menu music and battle themes — which vary based on the heroine accompanying you into the labyrinth — are particularly memorable, and the incredibly catchy post-Classmating chorus of "Congratulaaations / on your new arrival" is pure audio afterglow.

The English voice acting — there's no Japanese option — is also well done for the most part, though a fair few heroines sadly sound distractingly distant. Perhaps it's a function of the not-specifically lip-synced animations in Bonding Events; some of the mellower heroines have voices that don't seem to "keep up" with the speed of their on-screen mouth movements. Important cutscenes and longer Bonding Events are fully voiced, while shorter scenes utilize the Fire Emblem: Awakening technique of pairing quick audio clips with longer lines of written dialogue, to various degrees of textual and tonal cohesion.

Speaking of tone, as a final note — and as one might reasonably expect from a game with a central mechanic called "Classmating" — innuendo and light sexual humor run deep in Conception II. It's not five minutes from the title screen before the first reference to a heroine's underpants pops up, female characters discuss the relative sizes, shapes, and merits of one another's chests with a nonchalance normally reserved for weather chat, and a good portion of cutscene comedy revolves around Disciples finding themselves in compromising situations with students of the opposite sex. That's not to mention the blushing overtones of the Classmating ritual, which is as initially awkward for the game's protagonists as it is for players to explain to passersby who happen to catch a glimpse of the screen at the wrong moment. Still, while the visual metaphor is certainly clear, the sequence is evocative rather than provocative, and significantly more tasteful than anything in Senran Kagura Burst, for example. In the end, even with all the double entendre, the matryoshka-themed trappings keep things lighthearted; it's all delivered with tongue firmly in cheek, and as a result, Conception II is sillier than it is sexy, and humorous rather than hot and heavy.

Conclusion

With fun characters, unique and engaging combat, a cute central conceit, and an irrepressibly cool soundtrack, Conception II is a bundle of JRPG joy. A few issues with the presentation point toward porting pains — and perhaps to the Vita version's scandalous status as Spike-Chunsoft's true love — but they're minor faults in an otherwise impressive package, and shouldn't scare monogamous Nintendo gamers away from committing fully to this thoroughly enjoyable experience. A lovely spring fling for fans of both dating sims and dungeon-crawling alike.