A Dungeon, in More than Name.
“Dungeon crawler” is a weighty name for a sub-genre of RPGs that carries certain connotations with it. As series such as Etrian Odyssey and Shin Megami Tensei have shown, there is a strong enough fanbase to justify hours of repetitive encounters and archaic turn based systems. However, not every entry into this sub genre enjoys the limelight of the major series. Dredging through possibly triple digit hours is only possible when the story and mechanics can carry the attention span to the ending.
Recent import Conception II: Children of the Stars was billed to me by multiple sources as “basically Persona meets Final Fantasy Tactics, but you make babies instead of demons.” On premise alone, that interested me, but in execution it began to deflate rapidly. The comparisons to the two more known franchises begin to wear thin, and the dungeons begin to overstay their welcome, overriding any story or characters.
At its heart, Conception is very similar to Persona in its focus on a moderately silent protagonist and a cast of girls to hang out with and battle alongside (with a bonus two bit Yosuke impersonator to boot!). Where this begins to fall is how flatly the characters are written. At times, they seem to be generating lines from anime tropes and nothing else; each girl is color coordinated and covers every stereotype, from the quiet, reserved type to the spunky, basically Chie best friend type. There’s even a girl who refuses to call you anything but “big bro” on principle alone. As a more refined example of character development, Persona 4 showcases some of the most diverse deuteroganists in the genre, from Naoto’s gender and age issues to Rise’s celebrity induced depression (hell, Kanji may be gay, and they pulled that off). These characters have individual problems and personalities, all written to represent as close to a full person as a video game character can get. Each interaction with a character should continue to flesh out more ideals, reactions and begin to develop more of a relationship between the character and the player. As Conception is more interested in playing off tropes and the occasional childish chuckle, the characters never get a chance to shine in their own right, and each interaction with them begins to repeat, favoring literal points for actually pushing each character’s story forward.
As for the Tactics comparison, it does come with a fair share of jobs which, given the conception theme, are spawned and unlocked in an honestly innovative way. While it does reward players for keeping the relationship status up with the girls by promising stronger children, the actual jobs themselves struggle to stand out. Despite being colorful and downright cute, a lot of the “star children” you spawn end up having the same skills, and level off relatively quick. Ranging from classic sword and spell jobs, to ninjas and hybrid classes in between, this game has plenty of options when creating teams. As well, after certain level, the children can fuse to create basically Gundams, the novelty of which is lost after about the second use. While playing off the job system seemed like a good jump off for an RPG, Conception doesn’t do enough to entice the player into unlocking all the jobs, and loses steam over time.
Where the game really tests patience is in the actual dungeons; procedurally generated and gorgeous they may be, with each new dungeon the floors and battles begin to drag on. Each room has plenty of monsters and chests, some of which explode in your face and get annoying immediately, with one escape point at the beginning and the gate to the next floor at some other point (usually at the end of a Kubrick-class length corridor). By the final dungeon, 20 or more floors stand between you and the final boss, which in light of Persona 3’s 100+ floored “Tartarus” may seem less daunting, but unlike the Dark Tower, fails to keep the pace reasonable. Where Tartarus shines is its ability to keep pushing the party onward, while switching things up just enough with sub bosses. Conception has a very similar set up, with sub bosses littered in the floors between first and last, but when each door opens up to possibly three more, things begin to branch into The Shining territory again. Players can get lost or stuck in a corner with a few too many strong enemies before finding the exit, which unsurprisingly doesn’t reward the experience with a sense of satisfaction so much as it makes turning off your handheld an easier solution.
Conception II attempted to draw on some damn good sources, but fails to capture what made those originals so memorable. Having a dating sim aspect weaker than Persona, a job system hollowed from Tactics, and dungeons made like Windows 98 screensavers sound like the bulletpoints of a company trying to continue the tradition of the dungeon crawler JRPG, but not willing to take the time to innovate or care.