When Atlus announced last year that they were bringing the relatively obscure Conception II over to the U.S., the first comment I heard was, "It's kind of like Persona 4."
Naturally, those words piqued my interest. Anyone who knows me will tell you that that I'm a huge fan of the latter Persona games, particularly Persona 4 Golden. I was even willing to overlook the uh... unique premise... which seemingly entailed reenacting "Teen Mom" to save the world. However, having now seen Conception II for myself, I can say that it's not much like Persona at all. And let me be clear: That's not a bad thing. It's best to go in with the right mindset though, because otherwise you're apt to be disappointed. With that in mind, let's quickly break down the differences.
1. Conception II is a Dating Sim, Not a Friendship Sim
On more than one occasion, I've heard Persona 3 and 4 referred to as "dating sims." In my view, that description is not quite accurate. Yes, dating is part of it, but Persona 4 is as much about platonic friendship as it is about romance. Even if you don't end up dating Chie or Yukiko, you still learn their innermost secrets, and eventually become very close friends.
Conception II is more of the traditional form of dating sim. The main character -- a superpowered teenager -- attends an academy with a handful of similarly talented female classmates. You build up a bond with them by helping out with activies like giving class presentations, but the end goal is always the same -- making superpowered kids. In that way, the relationships in Conception II are necessarily a bit more superficial than those of Persona 3 and 4. Each of the classmates has a storyline, but they don't seem to delve much deeper beyond the anime archetypes upon which they're based.
2. Conception II's Structure is Different from Persona 3 and 4
It's tempting to say that any RPG that takes place in a school is exactly like Persona 3 and 4. But it's ultimately the structure that makes those games unique. Both cover an entire school year day by day, allowing relationships to slowly grow and flower. There are few RPGs like it.
Conception II, for its part, mostly lacks that sort of structure, opting instead to focus on the relationships and exploration. There are events, but classes and exams are mostly afterthoughts. This is actually kind of a welcome shift, since the classes and exams in Persona were always of tertiary interest, existing more to add color to the story than anything else. In that way, Conception II comes across as a bit more focused, despite sharing a school setting with Persona.
3. Conception II's Star Children Aren't like Persona's Demons
So about Conception II's "Star Children" -- it's not what you think. There's no underage sex involved; if there had been, it's doubtful that Conception II would have been localized. Instead, you engage in a ritual known as "classmating" (good one, Atlus), in which you hold hands and imbue a doll with life. That doll in turn becomes a party member with stats derived from the strength of your bond with your classmate.
In that, Conception II's Star Children are a bit like Persona's Demons, but there's a crucial difference -- no Demon Fusion. And as any Shin Megami Tensei fan will tell you, playing around with different demon combinations is half the fun. Instead, you create more powerful children as your bond continues to get stronger, assigning them one of a handful of classes in the process. In a way, it's more like Pokemon than SMT; except that instead of "releasing" a child you don't want anymore, you send them into town to become independent and upgrade the facilities. Same difference though, right?
4. Conception II's Battle Systems is Different
The final difference between Persona and Conception II: The battle systems are quite a bit different.
Conception II's system works something like this. When you enter battle, your party -- which consists of three groups of Star Children plus the protagonist and the heroine -- surrounds a monster. Success is predicated on attacking a monster from the proper direction, thus exploiting their weak spot and building up a Chain Drive. Once the gauge is filled, the monster is "chained down," opening them to attack.
Conception II brings a few more elements to the table, such an Ether Gauge that increases your party's speed and a cover system, but that's the basic gist of it. It's somewhat similar to Persona in that you're targeting a weak point, but the setup and the flow is quite a bit different. If anything, Persona is more conventional, with the primary focus being on buffing your party, keeping them healed, and using the right attacks. Conception II, by contrast, is more about turn management and being as efficient as possible with your attacks.
With that, Conception II and Persona 4 may seem superficially similar; but in practice, they have different story structures, battle systems, and party building mechanics. Even the dungeon crawling is different, despite sharing a randomly generated floor mechanic. In Persona 3 and 4, the dungeons are tightly interwoven with the story, and paced accordingly. Conception II's exploration, by contrast, appears to be much more open-ended.
To be clear, I'm not passing judgement on Conception II one way or another based on these differences. I just want to make it clear that if you're expecting more Persona, then you're probably better off waiting for Persona 5 to show up in 2014 (or maybe playing Persona 1 or 2 -- they're pretty good!). If you're willing to put aside any preconceptions and accept Conception II on its own terms though, it seems like a perfectly decent RPG. And on the 3DS and Vita, a good, solid RPG is always welcome -- yes, even one that isn't exactly like Persona.