It's been a while since the last Persona game hit shelves. Barring re-releases and ports, we haven't actually seen a new RPG in the franchise since the PlayStation 2. Persona 5 and Persona Q are both due in the next year or two, but die-hard fans of the franchise are getting antsy. Perhaps that is why Atlus chose to localize Conception II: Children of the Seven Stars, despite the first game never being released here. Conception II is superficially reminiscent of Persona 3 and Persona 4 in that it combines fast-paced RPG combat, randomly generated dungeons, out-of-battle social interactions at a high school, the user interface, and the j-poppy theme songs. Unfortunately, that is about where the similarities end. Conception II mimics Persona poorly in small but significant ways.
Conception II takes place in a world that is a fusion of fantasy and modern technology. Airships and televisions coexist, and swords and guns are treated interchangeably. In this world, places called Dusk Circles spew out a seemingly endless supply of monsters, and no one can destroy them because the interior suppresses magic. The only people capable of fighting the monsters expelled by the Dusk Circles are people with the brand of the Star God. This brand appears on teenagers and vanishes shortly after they turn 18, giving them only a few years to master fighting abilities and defeat monsters. Conception II follows a protagonist, Wake Archus, who is shipped off to training school when his brand appears. Apparently he has such an overabundance of Ether that he can use his power within the Dusk Circles. It's up to Wake to destroy the circles before monsters overrun mankind.
The plot remains rather unexplored. The game glosses over a world under siege by monsters where teenagers are drafted into battle. Wake and a few other characters make comments about the world, and the game somewhat resembles Valkyria Chronicles 2 in the disconnect between the reason you're there and how things are presented. The plot is mostly light and predictable, with an overemphasis on lightly sexual humor. Conversations about breasts are frequent, and the bulk of the game's humor involves cheap innuendo or wacky misunderstandings.
You can enter Dusk Circles and can create Star Children, but both of these abilities depend on the protagonist's core abilities and his relationship with the S-Rank Elite, who are his female classmates. As such, a good chunk of your time is spent choosing which of the eligible girls you will bond with to improve your capabilities. This sounds similar to Persona 3's Social Link system but is more simplistic. Each girl you encounter can be talked to once a day, and you can talk to up to three girls a day. This limit is meaningless because you can advance to the next day with minimal effort, and there isn't any time limit to prevent you from doing so. You can spend as much time as you want grinding up affection points before advancing the plot.
A core problem with Conception II is that it is pretty shameless about being a dating simulator. Unlike Persona, which is an easy comparison to make, there's not much depth here. Encounters with the female cast devolve into choosing the right answer from a small selection and repeating until they hit max happiness for that point in the game. The characters feel hollow even though there are some mini-arcs that add some personality. When you encounter a repeated scene (this happens often), the game highlights the answer you chose before, saving you from even having to read the dialogue to choose the right answer. It feels like a waste of time and kind of creepy.
Once you've befriended a girl, you can engage in a process called "Classmating." You and the female character engage in a magical ritual to create powerful warrior-infants called Star Children. The process is mostly G-rated and involves nothing more than naked silhouettes holding hands. The children pop out of Matryoshka dolls already aged. Despite that, the game goes out of its way to give it an extra-sleazy feel, especially since the naked silhouettes and hand-holding grows more suggestive as the game progresses. There's lots of blushing and suggestive dialogue, even if the imagery is relatively clean. As the game progresses, you unlock the ability to Classmate with more than one girl at a time to create even more powerful Star Children.
Star Children look, sound and act about eight years old, but they're a formidable fighting force. They can be a variety of classes, ranging from swordsman and magicians to merchants and dungeon masters. The abilities of the Star Children are determined by their mother, and the mother's stats improve as she gains levels and her relationship with the protagonist progresses. In certain situations, you can have more than one Star Child from a single classmating, and most Star Children also give a special bonus, ranging from money to reducing the number of Bond Points you need to spend to mate. You form Star Children into groups of three and can take them into the dungeons, but oddly, Star Children are as disposable as armor and weapons. Their abilities and maximum level are set, and the only option you have is to emancipate them.
In combat, you have a main character unit with your protagonist, a female character, and up to three teams comprised of three Star Children. Players and enemies take consecutive actions in a system similar to Grandia or Final Fantasy X. When you take an action, you choose an enemy unit to attack and a direction. Every enemy has one (or more) weak point directions that can be attacked for additional damage. The trick is that once you've attacked an enemy, your unit is engaged until their next turn, and another unit can't attack from the same direction. The exception is the protagonist and his girl-partner, who can fill the same spot as any Star Child. You can also spend MP (or occasionally BP) to perform special moves that can inflict elemental damage, have special attributes, or attack from other directions. Your Star Children can also combine into a powerful giant robot but requires Bond Points, making it a costly upgrade.
Things get more complex when you add the Chain Gauge and Ether Gauge into the mix. Chain Gauge is a special gauge that fills up when you attack an enemy. Successfully attacking and defeating enemies causes your Ether Gauge to rise, which increases your party's speed. The battle system could be engaging if the game weren't so incredibly easy. There's the core of an interesting, fast-paced, energetic combat system here, but it isn't fleshed out enough to work. The various elements are interesting enough on paper, but the game can't sustain them. Persona runs into trouble with its difficulty being frontloaded, but it balances that with variety and with battles being fast and engaging even when they're easy. Conception II gets the fast part right but loses the engaging part. The difficulty ramps up but not enough to require you to master the combat system, so there's little reason to bother with Chain or Ether Gauges for most of the game. There are also a low number of enemy types, so a new area doesn't go hand-in-hand with more exciting combat.
The lackluster combat is compounded by the even more lackluster dungeon design. Conception II borrows the Persona 3-style randomized dungeons almost wholesale. Each dungeon has a small group of semi-randomized rooms, most of which contain enemies, items or rare events like a healing fountain. Like Persona, these dungeons have very little personality and quickly grow tedious. Persona 3 and Persona 4 tied dungeon exploration to an expenditure of time, which encouraged the player to get as far as they could in a single trip. In Conception, the only real limit is boredom. Later on, it's a valid tactic to skip enemies and just run to the dungeon exit. Conception II lacks the variety of out-of-dungeon material to balance the lackluster dungeons.
Conception II is a nice-looking game, but it's not exceptional. The character models are colorful and nicely animated, but they're simplistic. The cut scenes are largely presented using 2-D static models, but the conversations with the female leads use 3-D models. The models are customizable and can wear different costumes and accessories. The downside is that the game designers think all women carry bowls of jello on their chests, and every movement they make in the 3-D scenes causes them to move in ways that even Dead or Alive would call excessive. Some of the Star Children designs are pretty weird, and the "touch" scenes add to the game's general seediness. The voice acting is poor, and a lot of the actors seem bored with their roles. There are a few standouts, but none are particularly noteworthy. The music is a fun blend of ridiculous J-pop songs. None of them are great, but some are amusing, but they can outstay their welcome.
Conception II: Children of the Seven Stars is bland, tedious, and unexceptional. It doesn't do anything especially wrong except for feeling a bit too creepy. The combat system would be fun if it weren't so easy, the potentially interesting systems feel pointless, and the game doesn't do much else. Die-hard JRPG fans will probably get their money's worth out of the game, but those looking for something to tide them over until Persona 5 would be wise to look elsewhere.
More articles about Conception II: Children of the Seven Stars