Thursday, May 1, 2014

An Ill-conceived Notion

Skullgirls is a lot like anime, in that I will never forgive it. Skullgirls, for rendering me incapable of enjoying games that aren't Skullgirls, and anime, for giving me the capacity for sadness. Did you know that I felt an emotion for the first time while watching anime? But that's a story for Another post.


There is, however, one genre that seems to be exempt from the ruination that Skullgirls has brought on my enjoyment of games: Role-playing games. Specifically, Japanese Role-playing games. So I will now discuss a few of the JRPGs I've played recently: Bravely Default, Shin Megami Tensei Devil Survivor: Overclocked, and Conception II. Oh yeah, by the way, RPGs have some pretty strange titles. But don't worry; Conception II is actually exactly as bad as it sounds.

So, first of all: Bravely Default. Bravely Default. Yo. If Smash Bros. wasn't coming out later this year, I could probably declare Bravely Default Game of the Year with no regrets. Bravely Default is my favorite JRPG of all time, just barely edging out SMT IV. Like Shin Megami Tensei, it has just about everything you could want from an RPG: Fun combat, a compelling story, a variety of options when customizing your party, bravo bikinis, ect. While Bravely Default lacks SMT's worldbuilding and the unique thrill that comes with recognizing demons, it more than makes up for it with its characters, killer soundtrack, and the most memorable final boss fight of my entire life. But before I get to those, I guess I should probably explain why it's called Bravely Default. Square Enix is stupid and bad at names. End of explanation.

Much like Frozen, Bravely Default is a great work in and of itself, and I'm probably going to be doing it a disservice by focusing so much on its soundtrack. That said, its soundtrack is sweetdiculous. It is K-rad. It is Fashionaaaaaaabluh. It is actually pretty sparse, with just 45 songs, especially considering how long the game is (The amount of time I spent playing it is somewhere between 100 hours and the amount of time I've spent playing Skullgirls [counting the endless beta]). To make up for this, almost every song is a masterpiece. It's hard to pick a favorite out of such an all-star lineup, but I think I'd have to go with the song that plays against the final boss. With music like that, staying pumped up through an hour long boss fight with more stages than Saturn V rocket is a snap. Unfortunately, its title is something of a mild spoiler, so I'll just link to this hour long live concert of music from the game. But before you click that link, be warned: this is no mere concert. It is a spectacle. You've got a rock band up front, a platoon of suit-and-tie men in the back, half a dozen singers, props, a man rocking a trumpet with blistering precision and surgical intensity, and a narrator with the voice of James Earl Jones, if he was injured as a cop in the line of duty and had to be re-built as a literal instrument of justice.

I'm just getting warmed up with these Skullgirls references.

I really wish I could talk more about Bravely Default, but, as you're about to see, I have a lot of things to say about Conception II, and I don't want this going too long. Honestly, it's already too long; when you read it, I imagine you will exclaim something to the effect of “Jesus God, this man clearly has issues if he has both the ability and willingness to discuss magical sex at such great lengths.”

Speaking of God, he's a very prominent character in the next game I'm talking about, SMT Devil Survivor Overclocked. I think that's how that transition went? I lost this part the first time I wrote it when I tried to upload a picture to my blog from public transportation.

It probably wasn't this one, but let's pretend that it was.

Anyway, God. And not just “a god”, or “some gods” (Although there are plenty of those), but “The God”, as in Yehowah, the Original G, deity of Judeo-Christian Lore. While SMT IV's God was strongly implied to be the biblical God, Devil Survivor pulls out all the stops. He's even called “Yehowah”, which my spell-check controversially believes to be "hogwash". But the similarities don't stop with names. This game is rife with biblical references, and God is responsible for all of them. Many classic tales from the Bible show up in the story: Things like Noah's Ark, The Tower of Babel, The Garden of Eden, King Solomon, Cain and Abel, The Book of Job, and the weird parts parts of The Bible where it tells you when it's OK to sell your daughter into slavery.

He wouldn't be much of a G if he wasn't packing heat.

In the interest of avoiding spoilers, some of those examples were red herrings. Not all of those stories appear in the game, but some of them do. In the interest of fostering an understanding of how rad this game is, spoilers be damned, I will say this: In this game, you can use the power of the Internet Hate Machine to annihilate the Old Testament God. Now, I didn't get that ending, so I can't say for sure that you actually do it, but the idea is brought up. I really don't know that there's anything else I can say here to sell you on this game, so I'll just move on.

Conception II. Conception II. Yo. But not “Yo” in quite the same way as with Bravely Default. More like “Yo. I have seen some things. I have done some things. I... I just need to tell someone about this. Is this what it feels like to be Catholic?”
My sins could never have absolution.

In keeping with the theological theme, Conception II is kind of like God. It so far transcends the understanding of humans that the nature of its existence cannot be expressed in words. The tool of analogy can be used to further understanding of it, but it must be understood that these analogies are necessarily imperfect, as full comprehension is simply outside the realm of possibility. Are we on the same page so far? No? Good.

Conception II is a game in which you father children that help you fight to save the world. This description might sound familiar, because the very same thing happens in Fire Emblem Awakening, one of my favorite games of all time. But there are many important differences between the two. In Conception II, the main character maintains a sizable harem of 7 classmates with whom he is all but required to have children. Excuse me, that's not quite right. 6 classmates and 1 teacher. But don't let that trick you into thinking that there's one less underage girl you'll be knocking up; the teacher is a prodigy who graduated college at 14, and is the same age as everyone else i.e. 16-18. If you're wondering how I came to be in possession of such an obviously illegal piece of software, and why I'm posting about it to my newly de-anonymized blog, I should probably clarify: No one in this game has sex. At least, not as far as I've gotten. In fact, you don't have real children. You have “star children”, by performing a holy ritual known as “classmating”. As an aside, I just want you to imagine what kind of church official discovered the secret to creating life out of nothing, and then decided to call it “classmating”. The process of “classmating” consists of little more than holding hands. Then, the male puts his “Ether” in her “star womb”, which forms a “Matryoshka”. Then, a prayer is offered to “Mother Russia”, and a Star Child is born! It's OK. No underaged persons were sexed in the making of this game. Contrast to Fire Emblem Awakening, where the children are produced, at least implicitly, through sexual intercourse. Only once is the subject of creating children through magic brought up, and even then, the guy says something along the lines of “Maybe you could help me with research, if you know what I mean”. This is what makes it so ironic that Conception II is far more lewd, despite not having actual sex.

No one asked you.

Maybe it's the fact that Classmating is explicitly referenced and showed onscreen, with girls writhing around all magical girl naked. I hope it is understood what i meant by that phrase I just made up, because I have no desire to explain it any further. I mean, I'm a huge fan of Skullgirls, so it can hardly be argued that I'm a prude when it comes to sexualization in my games. That said, one of the girls' magical girl outfits (And the teacher, no less) has underboob that puts even Ms Fortune to shame.

If it seems like I've been bringing up Skullgirls even more than usual, it may be because the new character Big Band was just recently released. So if you've ever considered buying it, now would be a great time do so. If you haven't considered buying it, now would be a great time to start.

Another comparison that I feel can be instructive is that between Conception II and Katawa Shoujo. You know, that thing that I've brought up twice since I said that I'd stop bringing it up. The two are rather similar in that they both have premises that, at first blush, are embarrassing to even think about. If anything, Katawa Shoujo's might be even worse. For those of you lucky enough to forget what it is, Katawa Shoujo is a visual novel made by people on 4chan, a place generally agreed upon to be one of the worst on the internet, about hooking up with crippled girls. Each girl has a different disability. There's one without arms, one without legs, one's deaf, one's blind, and one's covered in burns. But the difference between KS and Conception is that KS surprises you. With a description like that, you might start KS expecting a trashy, exploitative visual novel that makes light of people with disabilities. But that's not the case at all. It's about the kind of high school relationships that everyone can relate too. Er, well, I imagine everyone else can relate to. The disabilities are in no way the main focus of each girl. That's not to say that they're just “informed disabilities” that have no effect on the story, but they are not the driving force. In the end, persons with disabilities are just persons. Girls are persons. And you're a person, aren't you? So, by the law of syllogism, you are now disabled. And a girl, too. Yikes, today really isn't your day.

Now that I've thrown away the entire message of that paragraph in one joke, let's contrast that with Conception II, which has no surprises, at least as far as I've gotten. Granted, I haven't gotten terribly far, so there's every possibility that in the endgame there will be a “This is why you're actually terrible!” moment. In fact, I am very much hoping for such a moment. But, as it stands, it's just about as bad as it sounds. Playing this game has cost me every feminism point that I won from Analogue, and then some. The girls exist solely to serve the main character, who is actually, seriously referred to as “God's Gift”. The characters are, for the most part, one dimensional, and have the aggregate self esteem of a blog writer who can't come up with a funny metaphor to put here. That said, it's not as if I didn't care about them at all. They're all well-worn tropes, but they have a certain charm to them, and they're all desperate enough that you feel bad any time you favor one at the expense of the others. And due to what I suspect may be a flipped inequality in the game's code, (Remember, coders, it's like an alligator that wants to eat the larger number) they'll only complain about not going adventuring with you enough right after you've finished adventuring with them. I've probably spent about as much time agonizing over who to spend time with as I did actually playing the game. Really, your ability to enjoy Conception II is limited only by your own capacity for self-loathing.

Another problem with the family dynamic in Conception is the children. In Fire Emblem, each child is a full-fledged character, like any of your other units. In fact, I think it's fair to say that the children are some of the most likable characters in the game. Star Children, on the other hand, come with no emotional investment. And it's made perfectly clear that these aren't emotionless golems who exist only to fight monsters. While not human, they do exhibit capacity for feeling every time they say “I love you so much, daddy”. This makes me feel kind of uncomfortable, because they are utterly disposable to me. There are probably demons in SMT that I've felt more attached to than these kids.

Pic unrelated

They're kind of like Pokemon. Yeah, there are a few that you keep around because they're good, but if they aren't useful to you, then you let them languish in your computer until you decide to release them. And while I know that I have neither time nor space to waste, I'd like to mention that I think that Pokemon also kind of suffers from this. Sure, Pokemon Black and White, they say how all trainers really love the Pokemon that they're forcing to fight each other, but do they really? Is it really right for all those trainers to abduct Pokemon and stash them in a digital abyss where they'll never see their families again? Because that seems pretty- wait a second. That's... that's not something most people do. Most trainers only have 3 or 4 Pokemon. The only one who hoards them like that... is you. Is us. Only the player character has that many Pokemon. We're the real Pocket Monsters.

Anyway. Conception does have a certain charm in its dialogue and ballsy premise, but overall, it lacks the depth to really be engaging. This concludes my post about all the dating sims I've been playing recently.

Wait a second. That's not right. It was RPGs! That's right. I was so caught up with all the child having that I kind of forgot about all the fighting and stuff. It was only possible for me to do that because I'm good at forgetting things. In reality, this is one of the most role-playing games I've ever played. Your party consists of 1 hero, 7 different heroines, and up to 70 Star Children. When going into dungeons, you bring 1 heroine and 9 children, split up into teams of three, so that you still have the standard 4 units, but it's still a lot of bodies to train, equip, and so on. The combat system is pretty interesting in the way that you have to position your units as you attack, but it's damn complicated. There are a lot of meters, menus, and mammaries to wade through, and they can be pretty clunky at times, with confusing explanation that I skipped through. The story is nothing incredible so far, and is set up in such a way that the player can progress on his own terms. This is problematic, because my terms suck. Sweetdiculous? K-rad? Fashionaaaaaaaabluh? Those aren't my terms. I stole them from these games. My terms are stupid, like "exfightment" of "juicebumps". So I spend hours inefficiently grinding with heroines I don't intend to use, rather than actually playing the game. There was nowhere else in this post to fit this image, but I wanted to make the joke, so here it is.

Girl, are you a Jukebox hero? Because you, er, have stars in your eyes.

All in all, Conception II is by no means a good game, but it's not too bad. (WARNING FROM THE FUTURE: Conception II is, in fact, too bad) If you would enjoy playing it, then you probably already have it. There's no real need for me to recommend it. But in the time since I started writing this, I've come to like it in a way that only barely resembles the symptoms of pop culture Stockholm Syndrome. I have won the victory over myself. I love Conception II.

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