Golden Sun: The cult classic I was waiting for

I’ve been recently mourning the fact that I had not yet found a Gameboy Advance cult classic worthy of the name, and lo and behold! Such a game came my way, to my utter delight.

The cult classic in question is none other than Golden Sun, the debut instalment of a relatively young RPG series. Developed by Camelot Software Planning and released in 2001(jp/na) and 2002, this incipit met immediate critical success and was praised vigorously. It was initially planned as a single game, supposedly on the Nintendo 64, but focus shifted during development and the game was moved to the GBA. Because of the system’s limitations, what was initially a single game had to be cut in two and ended up as a pair of games instead, Golden Sun being the first half of that pair. Golden Sun: The Lost Age came out a couple of years later, followed by Golden Sun: Dark Dawn on the DS, another couple of years later. You could nearly say that this trilogy came to life by accident: planned as a single game, it finally became a series of sort. Worse things have happened, especially in an industry where countless games are cancelled during development and never see the light of day.

More classic than you’d wish

Truth be told, while Golden Sun boasts all the necessary qualities to be hailed as a cult classic, it still remains a very, well… classic RPG at heart, in the slightly disparaging acception of the word. More specifically, Golden Sun dutifully follows templates laid down by 8-bit and 16-bit era RPGs, graphically as well as in terms of gameplay. As a matter of fact, the same could be said of most GBA games, so much so that it’s easy to view the system as a portable SNES of sorts. While emulating the style of a console six years dead is hardly a way to establish a system’s own brand of gaming, the limitations of the GBA left little choice in the matter; on the other hand, such a style must have delighted the then burgeoning retro scene that was rediscovering bit-era classics through emulation. But I digress; let’s go back to Golden Sun and its heavy dose of early ’90s RPG classicism.

Golden Sun’s presentation, for one thing, is pure 16-bit RPG fare mingled with a touch of 8-bit-ness. The gorgeous and lush pixelated graphics, all vivid colours and smooth stylized shapes, would not have been out of place in an SNES game, all the more so as the world map boasts some rotating effects reminiscent of the SNES’ famous Mode 7. Interestingly enough, said world map is also heavily reminiscent of 8-bit RPGs: not only can it be roamed freely, but it only accommodates a single way of travelling, namely your characters’ own two feet. No boat or airship to make your roaming easier and faster: if you want to rally a place, you’ll have to do so by trotting around on the world map. (As you’d expect, this can take an awfully long time, and I was quite surprised to see such a retrograde take on travelling in what was supposedly a high-profile GBA game. Oh, well.) Then there is the soundtrack, which, in pure 16-bit tradition, is a pure gem designed with great care, a splendid collection of ear-candy. All tracks are gorgeous and convey deep emotions, and they are used in a perfectly apropos way, subtly enhancing storytelling as well as the player’s feelings. Some of the tracks ended up fastened in my memory, playing in my head every now and then: this is certainly a nice change from some more modern games I’ve played lately, with their soundtracks so vanilla and/or irritating that I had to turn off the volume eventually.

Golden Sun’s gameplay, for another, borrows heavily from 16-bit era templates. The strongest influence is definitely the Legend of Zelda series: with its heavy focus on exploration, regular gain of new abilities allowing you to progress further, puzzle-solving and backtracking to explore areas that were unreachable at first, Golden Sun could aptly be described as a turn-based take on the Zelda gameplay mechanics. A somewhat looser take, though: puzzles and the acquisition of new abilities are not nearly as systematic and streamlined as in the Zelda games, leading to a more sprawled structure in which both puzzles and new abilities pop up at random. The pure RPG side is not forgotten, though: from classes to elemental invocations to good old random turn-based battles, without forgetting the obligatory geographical variations—the remote location buried in snow and ice, the dry and hot desert, the mysterious and vaguely dangerous forest, the bit of ocean sailing and so on—everything that defined and made 16-bit RPGs famous can be found in Golden Sun, whole and untouched. And yet, inside all this RPG classicism hides an unexpected dose of originality: invisible at first sight, it reveals itself as soon as one pores over the game in earnest.

More original than you’d think

Golden Sun’s most prominent twist to the classic 16-bit RPG formula is to have successfully paired random turn-based combat and a class system with Zelda-lite puzzles and ability-based progression, thus bridging the gap between traditional RPG and Action-Adventure games and creating a hybrid of sorts. That was quite a risky move, for these elements do not necessarily go well together: being interrupted every couple of second by a random fight that takes away your overall view of the action is not exactly conducive to efficient puzzle-solving—as anyone who played Tales of Hearts R surely knows. Yet Golden Sun manages to circumvent that obstacle by a simple and neat trick: puzzles rooms are entirely devoid of random encounters, allowing you to focus on the puzzle at hand.

But there is more: the fighting system and class system are both intimately tied to exploration and ability-based progression rather than to good ol' level-grinding. This boils down to the presence of the “Djinns”: these tiny and rather cute creatures spread all around the game world—some in plain view and others cleverly hidden—can grant you access to new classes, the general rule being that the Djinns of one element are tied to one specific class. The more Djinns you collect, the more classes you can access, which in turn gives a great incentive to explore the game world and leave no stone unturned. This creates a virtuous circle in which careful exploration—including assiduous backtracking, as some of the Djinns can be reached only later in the game after gaining some specific abilities—allows you to strengthen your party and thus to progress smoothly, discovering more Djinns on the way—and so on. Level-grinding takes a huge step back: sure, you still gain levels and see your stats rising, but those levels will only be useful if you have the necessary Djinns to don a given class and the specifics attacks and abilities that go with it. This can actually create some minor issues, as we will see very soon; but minor issues or not, this system is brilliant and well-crafted, tying together elements that have been somewhat at odds since the dawn of the Holy Realm of RPG.

Of course, such a new and daring formula had to present a couple of flaws: first tries are hardly ever perfect, after all. Golden Sun’s Djinn-based class system has a weakness that can have dire consequences: should you miss some Djinns, you may not access some classes and thus some spells that could be tremendously important at some point in the game. As you probably guessed already, I landed in this very situation over the course of my run. I ended up being stranded in the final boss fight, of all places; all that because I had missed one Djinn. One single Djinn, and the only one I missed during my run; but this was a Mercury Djinn tied to Mia, and not having it entirely prevented Mia from learning any Group Healing spells. Given that no other character has access to such spells and that there are no group healing items, I was basically stuck at End Game’s doors, unable to beat the final boss because I was missing those precious Group Healing spells. (I tried to make do without, mind you; unfortunately, it became obvious quite quickly that I stood no chance without a good, solid Group Healing spell.) Of course, I was not entirely stuck: I could have backtracked in order to find that precious and elusive missing Mercury Djinn—even though I had no idea where it hid—and I would have gained the Group Healing spells as soon as it was added to my pool of Djinns. However, I had already played a good 25 hours at that point, and the thought of adding a couple of hours solely devoted to backtracking was more than I could bear, so I purely and simply gave up. I’ll do better on my next run, I promise.

Another minor issue is the use of Djinns in battle, which is too complex for its own good and ends up being counter-productive. Here is an overall view: while fighting, you have the choice between regular spells tied to your class of the moment, weak but available at every turn, and Djinn spells and invocations, more powerful but only available every couple of turns. To put it simply, this is a case of “you cannot have your cake and eat it too”: somehow, you have to choose between focusing on your regular spells or on the Djinn-based attacks. Unleashing both at random may put you in hot water, because using the Djinns in combat can change your class, replacing a set of class-tied spells by another one entirely. I won't go into the technicalities of how this can happen, if only because I am not quite sure I fully understood them; suffice it to say that it can happen indeed. Just imagine losing your Healing spells all of a sudden in the middle of a boss fight and you’ll have a good idea of how impractical this can be. In most RPGs, the unleashing of invocations or any other devastating attack is tied to a special gauge that fills up gradually as you fight, which is both more convenient and more rewarding; why the developers of Golden Sun chose rather to go with this unserviceable system of sacrificing your class to gain access to the most powerful attacks is beyond me. I guess it was designed as a way to introduce a dose of strategy in the fighting, but it comes across as messy and unreliable. As a result, I focused mostly on the regular class-tied spells, using invocations only in case of dire need—i.e. during boss fights—while grinding my teeth at the unpracticality of the whole thing. This was hardly conducive to enjoyment, and I can honestly say that Golden Sun’s fighting system was the most tedious part of the game as far as I was concerned. I put up with that unsatisfactory fighting system because I adored all the rest—the puzzles, the exploration, the enticing atmosphere of the whole game—but I definitely wish it would have been simpler and more fulfilling, and I can only hope that all things fighting have been bettered and honeyed in the series’ subsequent entries.

That being said, neither of these flaws is a deal-breaker: there are more akin to minor issues, as I mentioned, and they certainly do not significantly tarnish the brilliance of Golden Sun. This is a gloriously good game, a true gem that packs some unexpected depth and is certainly worthy of the title of cult classic. Not only that, but Golden Sun is typically the kind of game that gets better with every re-run, just like the Zelda games: the first run may be a trifle tedious because it involves a lot of fumbling about and trial-and-error, but once you know how to solve puzzles, overcome obstacles and collect Djinns, you can enjoy the game significantly more and revel in your ever-growing mastery of it. All in all, I certainly got more than I bargained for by picking Golden Sun, and I’m delighted by this turn of events. I am firmly planning to do a second run in which I will collect all the Djinns and clear the game for good—in fact, I would have done so already, had Golden Sun been a shorter game; but I have to admit that after 25 hours of play, I was really not eager to start again from scratch. I’ll come back to the game sooner or later, when the mood is right; for now, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


My (most unexpected) Liebster Award

We’ll have something a little bit different this week, dear fellow gamers. A couple of days ago, I discovered that I had been nominated for the Liebster Award—to my utter surprise, shall I say. The blogger who honoured me with a nomination is YvoCaro at LadiesGamers, a delightful lady in her fifties who makes a point of keeping gaming and is an inspiration for me as far as my gaming future is concerned, and I thank her profusely. This was all the more unexpected as the social side of my blogging is quite poor: apart from occasionally commenting on my favourite gaming blogs, I behave like a grumpy old bear, content to post articles when they are written and leave it at that. But since I’ve been nominated, I will rise up to the challenge with gusto!

For those of you who know as little about the Liebster Award as myself before I was nominated, it is a tag whose primary purpose is to promote interesting blogs as well as give bloggers the opportunity to reveal funny anecdotes that they probably wouldn’t have mentioned otherwise. It involves answering a set of 11 questions issued by the blogger whom nominated you, then revealing 11 fun facts about yourself, and last but not least issuing your own list of nominees along with your own questions for them. Without further ado, let’s go Liebster and start with IvoCaro’s Eleven!

1. Can you tell something typical about the country you live in?
I live in Europe, these perilous and remote shores that Japanese RPGs hardly ever reached back in the days. I have cried tears of blood over this, but things are fortunately getting better nowadays. A little bit. 

2. Why did you take up blogging?
I’m quite keen on analyzing and dissecting games, preferably concentrating on details that you don’t find in professional reviews, and blogging seemed to be the perfect terrain to do so. I’m my own editor, which is incredibly fulfilling! The many excellent gaming blogs I read also gave me a lot of élan and helped me take the plunge, although I was literally terrified when I posted for the first time. Reserved gamer is reserved!

3. Do you set yourself a goal of number of blogs per week or month?
The rhythm of one post per week came rather naturally after a couple of months. More than that feels too rushed, and less feels not compelling enough. One per week is perfect!

4. Where do you get your inspiration to write?
As a rule, I need to finish a game before being able to start writing about it in earnest—the only exceptions being long-running games such as roguelikes and simulations. Then, I mull over the whole experience until I nail down what I call “the Angle”, i.e. my own structured analysis of the game. “The Angle” is often fairly subjective, as I tend to pore over some points and gloss over others; it reflects the mental prism through which I view games and the elements that matter to me as a gamer. So it’s really the meeting between games and my gaming subjectivity that sparks posts into life! :D

5. Do you own more than one gaming device, and which ones?
Definitely! I’m a bit of a collector, so I own several copies of some of my devices. As for what these devices are, here’s the list:

—Gameboy Advance: I own four of them, including a precious backlit model.
—Nintendo DS Lite/Nintendo DSi: I own one DS lite and five DSi, including an XL model.
—Nintendo 3ds/Nintendo 2ds: I’m very proud of my “Fire Emblem” Nintendo 3ds XL, and I own a 2ds which is incredibly comfortable to play. I also own a North-American 3ds, and I’m not excluding to buy a couple of extra models in the years to come.
—PSP: I own five models in various colours.
—Vita: For now, I only own one. I wouldn’t be against purchasing a Japanese Vita with gorgeous colours, though…

6. What are your favorite kinds of games?
I have an undying love for the Holy Realm of RPG, as you may have guessed already. :D I’m also a huge puzzle game aficionado, and I tend to adore games that mix RPG elements with puzzle elements, such as the Zelda and Golden Sun series or Avalon Code. Dungeon puzzles could be my daily bread!

7. What are your three favorite movies?
That’s a bit of a hard one, because I very seldom watch movies… But I would say Groundhog Day, the Shrek saga and Inception: the first two for their obvious comedic appeal, and the last for its mind-blowing narrative and gorgeous aesthetics.

8. What is your go-to music when you feel sad?
There is one track that always puts me in a perky and bouncy mood: Get Lucky by Daft Punk!

9. Does your work or study match your blogging topics?
Not at all, and that's probably for the best. Although I love gaming dearly, that would be a bit too much of a good thing. 

10. If you have a partner, is he or she into gaming?
I have a partner… Who’s not one bit into gaming, but very tolerant and occasionally curious about the whole thing, which is great.

11. What kind of pet do you have?
I don’t have a pet right now, but I used to take care of an adorable old female cat a couple of years ago. As a whole, I just cannot resist cats.

Now let’s go for the fun facts! I’m not too keen on revealing private details, so I’ll keep it gaming-centered. That’s what we’re all here for after all, right? :P

1. I read gaming magazines every morning while eating my breakfast, my magazines of choice being Retro Gamer, JV and Pix’n Love.

2. I held a fifteen-year-long grudge against Sony, starting when they took the gaming industry by storm by releasing the Playstation. I deemed them responsible for having destroyed gaming as I loved it, all flamboyant pixels and vivid colours, and replaced it with ugly polygons and shitty shades of brown. The gap was only bridged a couple of years ago when I purchased a PSP.

3. All my gaming systems were destroyed in 2000 when the family’s apartment was flooded. After that, I retreated into emulation and didn’t purchase a gaming system for the next ten years.

4. Super Mario Land on the Gameboy was the first game I purchased with my patiently saved pocket money, back in 1990. However, I would beat it only ten years later on emulation. Hard game is hard!

5. Talking about Super Mario Land, I babbled about the game to such extent that my father still remembers the name of the first boss—the accursed King Totomesu—to this day, a good twenty-five years later. (But hey, I spent days stuck on that boss! I had to vent out my frustration somehow.)

6. Since portable systems are not popular in my country, I rely heavily on importation to keep me supplied with games and consoles. I'd say that a good 95% of my games and systems are imported, if not more.

7. I like playing games while listening to TV shows, all the more so if the in-game music is mediocre.

8. I’ve always been a portable gamer at heart: first by obligation, since my parents didn’t want me to occupy the only TV of the house with my gaming—this was Europe after all, a part of the world where most people have only one TV set, all the more so in the ’80s and ’90s—then by choice, when I was finally allowed to purchase a Sega Megadrive and realized that I preferred the coziness and intimacy of portable gaming after all. That Megadrive remained the only home console I ever owned.

9. Since the end of the 16-bit era, I’ve never been tempted by any home console game… That is, until very lately, when I found myself yearning to play Bloodborne after peeking at a playthrough. I certainly won’t buy a PS4 just to play that lone game, though—especially since I don’t own a TV in the first place.

10. I first though of buying a DS in 2008, but didn’t do it because I was afraid of not finding enough games to my liking. Knowing that my DS collection now counts hundreds of games, it’s highly ironic in retrospect. For the record, I finally got my first DS in 2011 and it was a gift from my sister. 

11. One of my favourite gaming systems ever is the Game Gear. Although it was enormous, ate batteries like candies and had a small library of games that were ridiculously easy for the most part, and although I certainly wouldn’t replay most of these games nowadays, the Game Gear left an unequivocally positive impression on me. Game Gear games had a special and unique atmosphere, visually as well as aurally, and I adored every single Game Gear game I purchased and played, which cannot be said about any of my other gaming systems. (Except for the Vita, which is doing fine until now; could it become my new Game Gear? Well, I’d certainly like that, thank you very much.)

Now is the time to introduce my nominees! I decided to give the Liebster to bloggers who didn’t get it lately, which led me to exclude a couple of my favourite blogs. No offense meant, really; it’s all for the sake of avoiding repetition. Without further ado, here are the happy winners!

And here are my Eleven for them, dripping with gaming curiosity:

1. Can you tell something typical about the country you live in?

2. Why did you take up blogging?

3. Do you set yourself a goal of number of blogs per week or month?

4. Do you have a favourite gaming system, and if yes, which one and why?

5. What do you think of the current console generation?

6. What are your five favourite gaming genres?

7. What was your first gaming system?

8. Do you see yourself gaming until a ripe old age, or is it something you may give up after a couple of years?

9. Does your work or study match your blogging topics?

10. Which were/are your favourite gaming eras and why?

11. Last but not least, which gaming system(s) do you currently own?

Voilà! That’s all for the show. I’m quite curious to read the answers to these questions, if these honorable bloggers are kind enough to answer them. :D This was an interesting and entertaining experience, and I thank IvoCaro again for giving me the opportunity to stray from by usual writing path! That was quite refreshing for me, and I hope you enjoyed this little incursion into my private gaming life. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Conception II: Deceptive appearances

Gee, it seems that I’ve been playing nothing but fan-service-laden games lately, doesn’t it? Whether this is purely coincidental or revelatory of a deep-seated trend in modern gaming—or both—would be an interesting issue to tackle, but I’m not going to do so here. Instead, I’m planning to examine the no less interesting issue of the fan-service’s purpose and importance in Conception II—along with other juicy subject matters such as the gameplay, obviously. After having played a handful of fan-servicy games in short succession, I’m starting to realize that there is, say, fan-service and fan-service. But more on that soon.

For now, let’s focus on the usual bit of data. Conception II: Children of the Seven Stars, developed by Spike Chunsoft and released in 2013(jp) and 2014(na/eu) for the Vita, is the sequel to Conception: Ore no Kodomo o Undekure!, a Japanese-only PSP game. The two games are built on the exact same formula, namely an alternation of dungeon-crawling segments and dating sim segments, peppered with a solid dose of fan-service for good measure. They also use the exact same gameplay mechanics—so much so that Conception II could be seen as a copy-paste of the original Conception with updated graphics and a new cast of characters rather than a true sequel. Reviewers were mostly unimpressed by this second effort, if the scores of 62 on Metacritic and 64.46 on Gamerankings are to be believed. Reviews were average for the most part, describing the game as solid yet not especially dazzling, and not really standing apart from the RPG mass despite its risqué undertones and romance sim side. And that is not so surprising, given the way both fan-service and romance sim mechanics were implemented in Conception II and their real purpose in the game’s context. 

Alluring glaze is just that—a glaze

Indeed, although the primary purpose of fan-service in games is always to lure the potential player’s eye and make them open their purse while salivating in anticipation, nothing forbids said fan-service to serve secondary purposes as well. As a matter of fact, fan-service does so in nearly all the games it occupies, and these secondary purposes are usually related to the overall concept of the hosting game. In Code of Princess and Senran Kagura Burst, the fan-service was a self-derisive addition that gave a parodic overtone to both games; in Criminal Girls, it was woven into the gameplay and molded into a brand-new take on leveling-up mechanics. So, what is exactly the fan-service’s secondary purpose in Conception II?

Well, the answer is simple: the fan-service in Conception II acts as a glossy, appetizing glaze conveniently applied all over what turns out to be very classic RPG gameplay mechanics. It is the honey that is bound to attract flies, i.e. potential players, to the fold: why go with the vinegar of arid old-school presentation when you can lure a greater audience with the sticky sweetness of risqué looks?

Take the game’s most prominent and eponymous fan-servicy feature: the infamous Classmating, which is none other than the conception of the Star Children who will accompany you in dungeons. It shows your lady of choice wreathing and undulating, naked and bathed in light, before joining hands with your character at the end of the act. We could argue that these sequences are hardly titillating, with their garish colours and mediocre CGIs that make the girls look like plastic dolls, but that’s not the point. The point is that we do not know the exact nature of this ritual. Is it plain old-fashioned physical intercourse? Is it a spiritual connection? Is it a mix of both? The Classmating sequences are not exactly self-explanatory, and neither is the narrative, which bandies vague terms such as the females’ “Star Energy” and the males’ “Ether Count”—and yes, you’re totally supposed to detect innuendos here, but that doesn’t change the fact that we do not precisely know what Classmating is. But this uncertainty is entirely normal, because that whole Classmating business is nothing more than a sexy coating whose sole purpose is to revamp what is actually a mere character creation interface. Well tried, game, but who do you think you’re fooling with this transparent trick?

The same goes for every fan-servicy element present in the game. The fact that the ladies and your main character don a tighter, skimpier outfit—especially the ladies, as you’d expect—when you enter the Labyrinths, treating you to a Sailor Senshi-like tranformation? Just a plain attempt at titillation, useless as far as gameplay is concerned and serving no other purpose than to make you lose a couple of precious seconds. The excessive jiggle physics? No comment. The fact that you have seven ladies conceiving and fighting at your side instead of just one? Pure harem-RPG fare, pandering to otakus who want to bite off more than they can safely chew. It’s all glitter and shine, designed to make you forgot that you are actually playing a classic, old-fashioned dungeon crawler—to no avail, as far as I am concerned.

That’s not to say that Conception II’s brand of fan-service is horrendous. Superficial it may be, but it does have a couple of redeeming qualities. For one, it’s not too obtrusive: the risqué parts of the Classmating sequences can be skipped, as well as the pre-Labyrinth transformations, and most of the jiggling will pass you by as you read the dialogues. For another, it tries to expand its horizons by including elements that can cater to a different audience: the game is rife with homoerotic undertones, from the ambiguous relationship between your main character and Alec to the brand-new possibility of “Classmanting”, i.e. uniting with another male through the multiplayer option in order to create even stronger Star Children, without forgetting the “bromance” ending you’ll be treated to if you don’t woo the ladies hard enough. Last but not least, Conception II’s fan-service is light-hearted and humorous. It’s not hilarious enough to make the game a genuine parody of romance sims as some claim, but it’s certainly amusing enough to make one grin rather than roll their eyes. The occasional silly sexual jokes are quite mild and have a bantering edge that reminded me of my teenage years, in a good way; I even smiled fondly when witnessing that sequence in which the characters wonder if drinking from the same straw is akin to indirect kissing. Ah, sweet youth.

Skin-deep romance is uninvolving

And since I’m mentioning kissing, let’s move on to the next juicy matter in line: the romance, folks! L’amour! It is the logical continuation of the fan-service, but unlike said fan-service, it has been integrated into the gameplay. Somehow. Let’s face it, this integration is far from being conclusive, and the romance business appears more often than not uncomfortably disconnected from the main chunk of the gameplay instead of being tightly woven into it. Not every game series can be Persona, indeed, and here are the main failures of Conception II’s romance sim side:

L’amour is boring. Now, your mileage may vary on that one, especially if you have a high school fetish; but truth be told, Conception II’s romance is more likely to induce yawns than flutters in the stomach. The girls are both cliché and cruelly devoid of personality, and that lack is not helped by the fact that they all don the same school uniform—bar one. The bland and expressionless CGIs used in the romancing segments do not help either, neither does the fact that there are no fixed events like in most romance sims—and let’s not talk about the entirely generic school setting. And talking about school, the game seems intent on pushing the teenager envelope as far as it can by offering an incredibly tame take on romance, all coy blushes, quid pro quos and hesitations. That’s kind of cute, but it’s hardly thrilling. In fact, it can be seriously disappointing: I spent the whole game wooing Fuuko only, saying the nicest things to her and showering her with gifts, only to be rewarded by monologues such as: “Don’t get all worked out, he doesn’t mean it, there’s no way he loves a girl as plain as me.” Well, excuse me, but I’m trying my hardest to convey my love here, and I would have liked to see my efforts rewarded in a more fulfilling and conclusive way. 

L’amour is incoherent. This is an even worse flaw than the one above, because it disrupts the natural flow of the romance and prevents you from immersing yourself completely in it. To put it simply, there are two types of romantic scenes: the Key Scenes, which are milestones showing the (meagre) progress of your relationship, and the Filler Scenes, which are here to fill in the blanks between Key Scenes. The Filler Scenes show some generic babbling that is entirely noncommittal as far as romance is concerned, and that’s where the problem lies: such scenes break the immersion by not taking into account the romantic developments between you and the involved girl up until that point. Worse, they can sometimes blatantly contradict said romantic developments. During my run, I witnessed a Key Scene in which Fuuko declared her love for me, after which I was served a Filler Scene in which we chit-chatted and she tried to convince herself that we were just classmates and that there was nothing between us—scene that I had already witnessed several times since the beginning of the game. I don’t know about you, but I find rather hard to be swept away by such a disjointed love story. The game also occasionally forces on you scripted scenes in which one of the girls mourns the fact that you’ve not been roaming the dungeons with her lately and begs you to take her along next time you go crawling. I played the whole game with Fuuko only, and yet I got not one, but two such scenes with her. And I am supposed to believe that there is a strong bond between us and that we are actually in love? Well, excuse me, but I find a teeny-weeny bit hard to do so.   

L’amour is utilitarian. Wooing the girls is the most efficient way to gain some so-called Bond Points, which then can be spent to perform the Classmating ritual or to perform special attacks. While this may seem like a neat way to tie the romance to the gameplay, it actually cheapens said romance by turning it into a mere trick to cash in currency. Added to the tedium and incoherency of l’amour, it can lead to a situation in which you find yourself triggering and fast-forwarding romantic scenes solely to get the Bond Points you need, which is anything but fulfilling. Romancing in RPGs is always better as an extra option independent from the main gameplay, a yummy side dish that acts as a lovely breather from all the crawling and butchering and that you can savour when you’re in the mood for it, not when you need some currency. 

All in all, I was most unimpressed by Conception II’s take on l’amour. Of course, I understand the logic behind some of the design decisions regarding romancing: relationships must stay mostly noncommittal because of the school setting, romance scenes have to be partly disconnected from one another in order to allow the wooing of several girls at once without any jealousy involved, as well as disconnected from the dungeon crawling in order to be triggered at any point in the game; this all makes perfect sense, but it doesn’t make for a pleasurable gameplay experience. The romance ultimately feels like an unnecessary addition that cannot hold a candle to the core of Conception II’s gameplay—which is none other than pure, unadulterated dungeon crawling.

Dungeon crawling is strong with this one

Indeed, forget the glossy fan-service and l’amour; behind these shiny looks, Conception II is a dungeon crawler through and through. That’s exactly what I expected from the start, so I was delighted—all the more so as the crawling experience offered by the game is a highly solid and enjoyable one. Conception II may not be the best conceived and most addictive dungeon crawler ever, but it certainly holds its ground thanks to an enticing combination of old-school substance and modern form.  

Indeed, the substance of Conception II’s brand of dungeon crawling is as classical as it gets. This is old-fashioned roaming at its best, with a completely assumed aridity that should delight any dungeon crawler aficionado who thinks that less is more. The design is clear-cut and no-frills—to a fault, may say some—and identical for every dungeon: square rooms bristling with monsters connected by corridors devoid of any, one ward that lets you escape the dungeon and another that lets you move on to the next floor, all generously sprinkled with tons of safes to loot and occasional traps. And nothing else: no secret passageways, no hidden bosses, no Monster Rooms—although all rooms could be considered as such, in a way. The aridity of the whole thing is further reinforced by the fact that the dungeons are randomly generated: this is a pure and astringent crawling experience that serves you a brand-new challenge with every single floor and never lets you rely on the comforting knowledge of the dungeons’ layouts to ease your way through. Pleasure is derived not from beating the dungeons per se, since they are ever-changing structures, but rather from the slightly compulsive urge to scour every single floor and leave no stone unturned, no safe unopened and, for the most hardcore of us, no foe alive. The crawling becomes significantly less fulfilling when one tries to make a beeline for the exit, because Conception II’s dungeon design is made to accommodate both thorough exploration and assiduous fighting. It is bare-bones, it is repetitive, and it is deliberately and unapologetically so—classic dungeon crawling for the most dedicated aficionados of the genre.

The form of Conception II’s brand of dungeon crawling, on the other hand, is unashamedly modern. Spike Chunsoft knew better than to stick to the clunky aspects of old-fashioned dungeon crawling, and they tried their hardest to give their game a good dose of sleek modern gaming chic—to great success. It starts with the game’s gorgeous aesthetics: aridly designed dungeons do not have to be incompatible with eye-candy, after all, and we are thus treated to a unique brand of stylization that could best be described as “Baroque abstract”. It involves geometrical patterns and ingenious combinations of vivid colours—one combination per dungeon, from the most harmonious to the most garish—as well as celestial or aquatic backgrounds that can be glimpsed at when you position the camera properly. Talking about this, the camera can be rotated around the characters at well as tilted in three different positions; not only does this flexibility allow you to discover dungeons from a new angle—literally—but it is also incredibly useful to spot monsters and safes. Said safes are pleasantly numerous, yet not overwhelmingly so; the balance in that regard is perfect, and this cleverly dosed amount of safes provide a great incentive to explore dungeons to the fullest. Conception II also boasts a good dose of user-friendliness when it comes to escaping and entering the dungeons. Every floor has an escape ward, conveniently localized in the very room where you start the roaming. This is already neat enough, but there is better: the game lets you re-enter dungeons from any floor that has been previously cleared, meaning that you can basically start over from where you left off. Add to this the fact that you are automatically healed every time you exit dungeons and you have the catering cherry on top of the convenience cake. As a result, every progress becomes meaningful and every cleared floor is cleared for good, creating a deeply fulfilling dungeon crawling experience that also happens to be perfectly tailored to the brand of portable gaming offered by the Vita. There are tons of other useful features designed to make things easier, but enumerating them all would be tedious; suffice it to say that Conception II is a game that takes user-friendliness to heart.

Conception II is thus thoroughly dissected and laid bare under your eyes, and you know what to expect now: a pure dungeon crawler with skin-deep risqué looks and unconvincing romancing mechanics. From what I’ve understood, the first instalment fared a tad better as a dating sim: it had twelve ladies instead of seven as well as seasonal events, which are completely absent from Conception II. Could Spike Chunsoft have decided to let l’amour take a step back in Conception II favour of pure, unadulterated dungeon crawling? Since I didn’t play the first game, I cannot say for sure; but if you know, you’re more than welcome to fill me in. What I can say for sure, however, is that I truly loved Conception II. I didn’t care that much for the romance in the first place and was mostly looking for a good, meaty dungeon crawler; that is exactly what I got, so I’m delighted. More than that, I’m starting to dig the Vita’s brand of dungeon crawling, and I’m more than ready to lap up all the Vita dungeon crawlers that come my way—which is quite neat, given that there are tons of them, most being already part of my precious collection. My Vita prospects look bright indeed, as well as my dungeon crawling ones! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!