A game doesn't need to be perfect in order for you to keep playing it, so long as there's some kind of tradeoff that provides something good in exchange for the bad. Maybe the voice acting is iffy, but you can deal because the combat is fast-paced and exhilarating. Perhaps the level design is pedestrian, but the story is enchanting enough for you to overlook it. In the case of unusual 3DS and Vita turn-based RPG Conception 2: Children of the Seven Stars, that exchange never quite happens. Although it contains some genuinely interesting ideas and even some charming weirdness, overall Conception 2 is disappointing and disjointed.
The situation is a familiar one: A select few are given the power to fight an invading evil. In this case, the Star God blesses certain teenagers with his energy so that they might slay the monsters spewing out of dark portals across the land. It's pretty standard gather-your-party-and-sally-forth-into-the-dungeon stuff, reminiscent of series like Pokemon and Shin Megami Tensei, except some of your party is made up of Star Children, which you create by "Classmating" with the other students at the school where you've been sent to hone your combat abilities. As "God's gift," a nickname you're given because the Star God has given you an astonishing amount of power, it's your obligation to Classmate as much as possible to improve humanity's odds for ridding the world of darkness. You're the world's most important pick up artist.
Gallery: Conception 2: Children of the Seven Stars | 8 Photos
Classmating is far more chaste than it sounds, with participants merely holding hands and putting their spiritual essence into a vessel (a matryoshka, because why not?) until out pops a fully dressed young child, looking ready for the first day of grammar school and offering you a bonus like extra power or cash. The appearance, class and abilities of the star child will vary depending on the girl you choose as your partner, which adds a fun layer of experimentation and collection to Conception 2. Getting to know the other students improves your bonds with them, which in turn produces better star children.
Mostly this just means talking to them when you have the chance and slowly sussing their personalities, though oddly they also tend to like you more if you choose them to accompany you into battle. ("Hey, thanks for risking my life! You're awesome!") Their personalities move beyond the basic tropes that you'd expect, with each girl feeling more like a person and less like a romance machine that you have to pump full of the right answers. One girl's terrible at public speaking, another struggles to balance her responsibilities to the Church and her schoolwork, and another gets embroiled in a mystery with a ghost. The social aspect is where Conception 2 shines most brightly; increasing your bonds with your schoolmates never feels like a chore.
Making star children is fun, but they end up feeling disturbingly disposable. Your kids can accompany you into combat, but you need three of them to make up a single addition to your party. The three-per-unit system allows for a lot of mixing and matching that opens up new combat styles and abilities – a three Cleric team will have access to stronger healing spells, for example – but it means that you'll have to crank out a lot of kids just to have a full party with you at all times. Also, you're encouraged to "liberate" your kids once they've hit their level cap. Letting go of your "grown" children levels up your city, which acts as the hub for all of your activities. The city, which is basically just a very pretty menu, is how you'll move from places like the Church, where you create star children, to the dungeons, where you'll fight monsters. Leveling up your city opens up new areas, quests, items in the shop and allows you to create star children with higher level caps. This create-level-release churn of star babies is part of Conception 2's mechanics, but it also prevents you from becoming even slightly attached to your progeny. Despite the fact that they cheer you on in squeaky voices and call you "Dad," the kids of Conception 2 are no more endearing than a piece of armor or really good sword in any other RPG. As soon as you can get a better one, you trade the old one in.
You can bring up to three teams of kids with you into dungeons, as well as one of your baby mamas. Each team of kids acts as a single unit, as do you and your partner. Each turn, you can select which monster to attack, and more interestingly, from which direction to attack it. Attacking a creature's weak spot gives you a bonus, but if you put yourself directly in its line of fire, you'll increase your "chain" meter, which lets you unleash a barrage of moves, should you manage to fill it. This might sound extremely strategic and fascinating, but in practice it's almost completely unnecessary. Dungeons are unsophisticated, dull affairs that require little more than bashing monsters on the head until they go poof.
With ugly visuals and too few enemy types, dungeons swiftly become mind-numbingly repetitious loops, in which you'll use the same handful of moves to grind your way to victory. Given that part of Conception 2's design is regularly swapping out high-level children for low-level replacements, you'll spend a lot of time in the "training room" going through reproductions of dungeons you've already beaten, all so you can level up your new children before bringing them into a real fight. What should be engaging and flexible becomes a real slog.
Time spent at school is certainly more engaging than your time on the battlefield, but it's also far more uncomfortable, placing an excessive amount of emphasis on the physical attributes of your female counterparts. Classmating may be strictly platonic, but you'll still see a naked silhouette of your partner every time you do it, and the quick cinematic of her changing into battle gear zooms in on her most tempting bits. Everyone at the academy, students and teachers alike, spends an inordinate amount of time discussing breasts, especially given that they're studying to fight monsters. One scene between two female classmates discusses not just size, but shape, and the elderly headmaster's lecherous comments about his staff and teenage students are consistently gross. It's all fairly juvenile in tone – these are high school students talking about boobs, after all – but when combined with your mission to spread your god-given star seed as far and wide as possible, it all gets a bit creepy.
What ultimately brings down Conception 2, however, is that none of its elements manage to rise above a general feeling of mediocrity. The combat is too dull and repetitious to ever be addictive. The dating sim, jiggly boobs and all, is interesting, but too limited to carry the game on its own. The look and feel of Conception 2 encourages you to explore this world and its strange blend of magic and science, but what you discover along the way isn't satisfying enough to be worth the effort. Pursuing relationships with your classmates, forming more and more powerful teams of star children and the attractive art style will be enough to keep some players happily moving forward, but overall Conception 2 fails to deliver on its few intriguing ideas.
This review is based on a pre-release review copy of the PlayStation Vita version of Conception 2: Children of the Seven Stars, provided by Atlus. Images: Atlus.
Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.