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Disclosure: The author was provided with a copy of the game by Aksys Games for the purpose of this review
Publisher: Aksys Games
Platform: PC (original version available on PlayStation Vita)
A group of Japanese high school students discover they have the power to summon strange beings that are reflections of their other selves. Using this ability, they spend their time after school traveling to a strange dimension to fight deadly creatures and recruit new teammates.
Heard that one before? It’s become a fairly common premise in Japanese anime, manga, and games, and probably the biggest influence of this is currently Atlus’ role-playing games Persona 3 and Persona 4. Mind Zero is another title I could apply that vague blurb to, and is also a Japanese RPG aiming for the same audience as the modern Persona series. Being derivative isn’t some great crime however, and Mind Zero may indeed be worth a look for fans of the concept. It just depends on how much you can forgive.
Originally released for the PlayStation Vita in 2013 for Japan, and 2014 for the West – Mind Zero has now seen a PC port for Steam after a successful Steam Greenlight vote in 2014. The game is comprised of three main gameplay elements: visual novel storytelling; first-person dungeon crawling; and turn-based RPG battling. Players take on the role of Japanese high schooler Kei, who finds himself waking up in an extravagant otherworldly weapon shop at the start of the game. The strange shop-keep tells Kei that he must choose a weapon if he wants to return to his world. Choose the true weapon he is meant to wield and he can leave. Choose wrong, and he’ll die.
Kei and his two schoolmates Sana and Leo are forced to take up a weapon each, which causes them to awaken their special inner powers – summoning supernatural beings called MINDs. The three students form a team of ‘Minders’ who can discover distortions in their city, allowing them to travel to another world called the Inner Realm – a mirror dimension inhabited by vicious unbound MINDs. From here the team strives to explore the mysteries of the Inner Realm, and confront a group of sinister Minders threatening the city.
Despite my earlier comparions, using the power of MINDs in battle is quite different than something like Persona. Each of your three in-battle characters has both a human mode and a MIND mode. When a character’s turn comes up, you hit the left shoulder button to summon their MIND and access skills and magic, as well as strong physical attacks. Having your MIND summoned will drain your MP with each turn, and MP acts as a MIND’s health while they’re active, so if an enemy attacks a character with an active MIND, it’ll cause damage to MP rather than the character’s Life Points. If MP drains to zero, you won’t be able to summon your MIND again for 2 turns, and if it drains from taking too much damage, the character will be left stunned and wide open for attacks on their next turn.
This means battles are focused on the risk-reward strategy of switching character’s MINDs on and off again. Characters in human mode can use items and escape from combat, but are weak physical attackers and are unable to use skills. Furthermore, if their LP hits zero, they’re rendered unconscious and will need an item or skill to be revived. Your main actions when in human mode will be item usage, and charging – which has them block attacks while regenerating MP quicker. The balancing act is further complicated by the fact that MIND skills consume Life Points, as well as your limited TP meter. It’s a battle system that presents a lot of depth, but can be frustrating especially if enemies gang up on one character and stop them from doing anything.
Aside from the mechanics, what is perhaps most apparent in battles is that Mind Zero is a game with quite low production values. The PC port doesn’t exactly compliment the visuals; with blocky character models and dated environments throughout, and that’s the game at its most animated moments. Along those lines, the unimpressive battle animations can test your patience especially as MIND summonings are skippable, while skill usage is not. The most unfortunate result of the low-budget is that the sound effects used for combat are of egregiously poor quality. I can actually compliment the PC version here somewhat, as the audio in the Vita version of the game would suddenly go underwater whenever you entered battle. The SFX doesn’t degrade like that anymore, but it doesn’t change the game’s cheap sound design, with awkward swoosh effects for blade swipes, and horribly compressed noises coming out every time you summon a MIND.
I feel the 3D graphics also let down the first-person dungeons you explore. I can actually see what the developers were going for with these environments in concept, but the execution is more akin to a PlayStation One game than something released in the last 3 years. The initial abandoned factory level has some nice atmosphere to it, even if it relies on a lot of brown and grey corridors, but the fidelity of the town seen on the “Spirit’s Path” is rather embarrassing. I will at least say the music for these dungeons is a really entertaining mix of ominous and soothing sounds, especially in the “Lament of Life” factory area.
These dungeons aren’t particularly impressive when compared to other first-person dungeon crawlers like Etrian Odyssey or Shin Megami Tensei either. There’s the occasional switch, locked door, or conveyor belt, but it really just comes down to walking from the end of one floor to another while dealing with a mix of random encounters, and (for some reason) similar encounters that are fixed to specific tiles, with giant markers telling you it’s another fight. There’s not much to discover aside from alternative paths for side quests, and treasure chests with a bit of equipment. I like dungeon crawling in the aforementioned games a lot, but Mind Zero‘s dungeons are just blandly designed and a chore to get through. Especially baffling as they aren’t even randomly generated levels.
Back in reality, the game lets you explore a city map in order to visit item shops, equipment shops, a store to upgrade your skills, and a detective agency where you can occasionally take on missions that involve tasks ranging from killing 10 of a specific MIND variant in the Inner Realm, to finding a lost cat in the real world. Aside from that, both the story and the map’s optional scenes present you with a slew of visual novel cutscenes chocked full of dialogue. A lot of it is fully voiced, and Mind Zero does offer both English and Japanese audio tracks. The scenes feature some nice character art, even if there’s rarely any change in scenery or visual effects used. The story also has a tendency to reuse its special artworks, so prepare to see the characters repeating the same poses with their MINDs a lot.
The story itself unfortunately falls kind of flat. The cast of characters are all pretty typical anime archetypes, with little in the way of development or reason to be invested in them. Kei’s friend Leo acts as the main source of comic relief, and manages to outperform Persona 4‘s Yosuke in terms of obnoxious behavior (funnily enough Yuri Lowenthal voices both characters). Kei at least avoids the trope of the silent protagonist, though he makes for a dull hero; stoic in most every scene and only really focused on getting more exposition for the script. I hate having to compare Mind Zero to the Persona games so much, but it’s clear the game aimed to be like Atlus’ beloved high school adventures, and ends up playing out like a really mediocre anime series. If you can’t stand generic shonen characters and stories, Mind Zero will do nothing to change your mind (sorry).
That’s a general overview of Mind Zero as a whole, but just how is Mind Zero PC specifically? Sorry to say, the port is quite a letdown in several areas. There are no graphic options to speak of, with only a windowed and full screen mode to choose from. Switching these settings doesn’t change anything until you restart the game, which is especially awkward as there isn’t even any option present to quit the game; so you’ll have to jump through a few hoops if you’re playing in full screen. Resolution is also quite a problem when it comes to the visual novel scenes. Full screen mode stretches the picture, allowing you to see all the aliased outlines of the character portraits, and (most glaringly) seams across the middle, and sometimes way above each bit of character artwork. This can also apply to some of the art used in battle portraits. Take a look at the screenshots below, and be sure to click on them to get a full picture of these issues:
The PlayStation Vita’s control scheme is recreated very faithfully when using an Xbox GamePad. Mind Zero PC also lets you use a keyboard and remap your keys, but in general I feel the game is awkward to play without a controller. It also lets you use the mouse to recreate the Vita version’s touch screen functionality, though this is about as clunky and poorly implemented as ever, especially with the 2 second delay it takes to register when you’re trying to click to advance dialogue or select a menu option. It’s also rather laughable to have the game retain its touch screen prompts unaltered when you can just hold the confirm button and press a direction.
I did say there was at least an improvement in the PC version when it came to sound effect quality in combat. The port also cuts the obnoxious load times found when transitioning to battle. Unfortunately nothing seems to have been done to fix the insane 10-30 second loading screens present when entering a dungeon floor, or even switching your party members in the field menu. The Vita game was pretty poorly optimised, and the PC version is sadly not much different, locked at 30 frames-per-second even with its low-end visuals. The final offense that comes to mind (sorry again) is that the game’s opening movie has some insane audio and visual compression, making it look like I downloaded a YouTube video at sub-HD quality. A real shame as I’m quite fond of the opening.
It may not seem like it, but I actually rather like Mind Zero. I’m willing to admit that it’s perhaps the most average RPG Japan has ever produced, but that’s not actually a bad thing (nor is it good, of course). I still have a soft spot for JRPGs and anime cliches so I can forgive its lack of innovation while appreciating some of the things it tries to do such as the MIND-based battle system. Progressing through the game is somewhat of a chore due to a generic story, heavy grind, and bland level design, but as an alternative to Persona it’s not a terrible game. What Mind Zero offers is a budget RPG that feels familiar, but tries some neat ideas with varying degrees of success. While the PC port is lacking in a lot of the quality one might expect from their purchase, it could be worth playing if you’re a die-hard fan of the genre and are forgiving of the game’s shortcomings. If you’re interested in Mind Zero, get it on PC if you (like many) don’t have a PlayStation Vita and are hungry for something similar to Persona. If you have a Vita though, that’s honestly the better version of the game.
If none of this appeals to you though, you can give Mind Zero a miss. It’s a low-budget JRPG with execution lacking in places, and a PC port that makes more problems than it fixes. If you’re curious about the game though, there are worse RPGs you could spend your time with, and it might manage to satisfy your niche cravings a little until the day when Persona games finally grace the platform.