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  1. Developer: Spike Chunsoft Publisher: Atlus Platform: 3DS, Vita Release Date: April 15, 2014 ESRB: M for Mature This review is based on the 3DS version of the game Just when I think I've seen it all when it comes to Japanese RPGs, then comes along Conception II: Children of the Seven Stars. For those unaware, the Japan-only original title, Conception: Please Give Birth To My Child, debuted late in the PSP's life cycle, and it featured a bizarre sales pitch of an RPG in which the main protagonists have to give birth to "Star Children" in an attempt to save the world. Conception II follows the trend of this crazy setup despite using an entirely new setting and cast of characters from its predecessor, and arrives on both 3DS and Vita. Is there cause to celebrate the arrival of this new RPG or should the immediate reaction be to abort from commitment at all costs? The world of Conception II is that of one that is under constant strife by monsters known as the duskspawn. The only people who can fight these monsters are referred to as Disciples, or rather, teens who are branded with a special mark and the ability to use Star Energy in combat. After going through various qualifying exams at the Disciple's academy, it isn't until the final test that the main protagonist proves that he has a power far that far exceeds the normal student's capacity. So phenomenal is his potential the main protagonist is actually referred to as "God“s Gift" (affectionately abbreviated as G.G.). G.G has the unparalleled ability to explore "Dusk Circles" (dungeons and basically hives for duskspawn) as well as being able to produce "Star Children", also known as "Classmating", with any S ranked female students with a 100% success rate. The game's setting has a pretty juvenile premise, and has no qualms with constant sexual innuendo throughout, but it is done in a such a tongue-in-cheek way that you can“t help but just go along with it regardless of your own personal feelings towards it. Unfortunately, the main storytelling is rife with RPG narrative cliches, and is rather weak from start to finish, so it relies more so on the interpersonal relationship between the various cast of characters and the gameplay concepts that play on the strange setting. There are a lot of components to Conception II, including dungeon crawling, dating sim aspects, varied party customization options, and lastly, the childishly giggle-worthy "classmating" ritual. I suppose this needs to get out of the way first, but "Star Children" aren't conceived like normal children. Unlike RPGs that focus on family generations, like older Phantasy Star titles or Record of Agarest War, Star Children are created through a surprisingly simple ritual called "classmating." Despite the not-so-subtle sexual innuendo throughout the game, classmating really boils down to no more than hand-holding and a sophisticated machine somehow pops out a new potential party member or a would-be future slave to a harsh work life in the city. Of course, if you want to breed premium children you have to pick the optimal mate. Star Children come in a wide-range of classes, with some that are (mostly) exclusive depending on the mother (or father, depending on if you use the online functionality). Beyond that, though, even the kid's stats (or being able to perform the ritual at all) depend on how good the relationship is between the main character and the heroine. This brings up the dating-sim portion of the game where the player has to pick between dialogue choices or give gifts to raise the affinity between the different heroines and G.G. This may sound shallow, and it honestly kind of is, especially since most characters fail to surprise beyond their apparent anime archetypes. But, after a lot of seemingly idle banter, there are some events that open up the heroine“s backstories, or part's of their personality, that are surprisingly endearing. Atlus may spice up these scenes with a fair bit of personality and humor in the localization at certain points but there are not enough of these events that substantially flesh out the characters. This is more apparent when many scenes are outright repeated during these portions. To complement the setting even more is the audio. The soundtrack is actually really catchy and utilizes a lot of techno to even J-pop for its quirkier moments. For example, during the classmating procedure there is a silly J-pop musical theme that literally sings “Congratulations on your new arrival!” to humor the baby-making concept. In contrast, the English dub is rather mediocre overall with no Japanese alternative available. Even if it has has some English voice actors I actually like, it feels like a lot of the voices are mismatches for the characters they have to play. What really holds Conception II back surprisingly is not so much its quirky setting or even its questionable overall attitude, but its very monotonous dungeon crawling considering how much time you spend with it. On paper, a lot of the systems it has for the combat sound interesting—like a positioning based battle-system, decent party customization, and even strange mechanics such as having the star children combine into a Voltron-like mecha formation. The problem is that at the end of the day, battle are way too slow and there isn“t much variety or strategy required to most battles. It“s easy to draw parallels to Persona 3“s Tartarus dungeon design in how the dungeons are laid out in Conception II. Unlike Persona 3/4, though, dungeons are way more compartmentalized and the combat is nowhere near as deep or engaging as that series. I think it says a lot about the title“s pacing when it still takes a few hours or more to complete a dungeon despite being able to one-hit KO every normal foe with a single attack throughout most of the game—even after speeding up combat animations. To add insult to injury, enemies go out of their way to deviously block doors/treasure chests, forcing you to fight them, or conveniently block very narrow hallway pathways, and it only pounds you over the head with the repetition of combat, or indistinct dungeon design, that you can do very little about even if you are stronger than your opposition. Another strike the game has is with its presentation. While it is clear the Vita was the lead platform, the 3DS version suffers from some significant presentational issues when it comes to the 3D visuals. Traversing dungeons and the combat in particular really causes the framerate to stutter on the 3DS to the point of being kind of jarring throughout the entire process. That said, the visuals do fare better outside of dungeons and show vibrancy when it comes to the 2D character portraits in story scenes or during the bubbly dating-sim events. Conception II feels largely like a mishmash of solid gameplay ideas but they are executed in a haphazard way. There is a certain bizarre charm when it comes to the quirky setting, but it is unfortunately not nearly enough as most of the actual gameplay constantly teeters on the edge of mediocrity with its implementation. The dungeon crawling remains very dull throughout, main storytelling unrewarding, and most gameplay mechanics aren't fleshed out as well as they should to be engaging for very long. Honestly, if Conception II had more polish to its central gameplay cogs, or was simply more consistent in the parts where it is charming, it could have served as a pleasant surprise for the genre. As it stands, however, beyond curious RPG fans hungering for short-lived novelty, Conception II will leave most finding the experience more fun to describe than it is to actually play. Pros: + Lots of solid ideas for gameplay systems that creatively play on the strange setting + Catchy overall soundtrack + Endearing/humorous moments hidden in some of the character interactions + Nicely drawn 2D art and vibrant 3D character models Cons: -Very slow/monotonous dungeon crawling and combat - Humor and setting are pretty unapologetically juvenile - Underwhelming 3D visuals, with the framerate being really choppy at certain points in the 3DS release - Little substance to most of the characters and the overall storytelling Overall Score: 6 (out of 10) Decent Conception II is a hodgepodge of solid, albeit bizarre, ideas but it unfortunately leaves a lot to be desired in terms of actual execution for both its gameplay and storytelling. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable code provided by the publisher