Without a doubt, Mind Zero appears to be a genuinely high quality JRPG. It has an enticingly sleek art direction, an atypical twist on its familiar gameplay, a diverse cast of characters, and a promising story premise, so we were naturally impressed by the brainpower that must have gone into the game. But as we delved a little deeper into the core experience, we were left craving far more creativity and depth to bolster the otherwise great potential that this game possesses.
The story hinted at this unfortunate outcome first, but it had our minds enwrapped early on. Set in real world Japanese locations like Akihabara and Nippori, the opening sequence sets the scene with police officers talking about an illegal drug called MIND, which they are trying to apprehend and dispose of. Its effects are not entirely known, but it supposedly makes people go insane and gain unrivalled power, which is demonstrated when you hear two officers brutally murdered by a MIND user over a communications channel.
Afterwards you’re slowly introduced to some of the main protagonists – a group of young adults with personalities ranging from the cool-headed, cunning Kei Takanashi to the energetic yet intelligent Sana Chikage. Their high school lives are expectedly average, but that changes when they find themselves in a shop with a mysterious woman, who tells them that they must choose a weapon here or die.
The weapons in question are unique and bound to their wielders, which gives them access to bizarre monsters called MINDs that are from the Inner Realm – a dimension paralleled to our own. With this newfound, dangerous power, it’s your job to figure out the world of MINDs, how to stop those that misuse them, and why they’re being erroneously labelled by the police force.
However, while the core premise is well and good, other story factors greatly hinder the dramatic plot. It’s all told through dialogue sections that seemingly make up more than half of the game, degenerating the story to a monotonous pace as conversations slog with unimportant banter. We eventually began skimming through them, waiting for those moments where the plot progressed after bouts of uninteresting character development.
This surprisingly revealed how boring the characters are with their cookie cutter or unlikeable personalities, such as with Kei, who’s eventually defined by his disinterested, stoic disposition. It doesn’t help that the English voice acting is downright irritating. From bland, forced lines to a couple voice actors that don’t seem to fit their roles, this is yet another shining example of a problem that plagues the majority of JRPGs.
There’s an option to select the Japanese voice acting, which is thankfully significantly better than its counterpart, but the same can’t be said for the sound effects and music. While the latter consists of a decent yet unmemorable assortment of tunes that play during battle and in hub areas, the sound effects are shockingly bad. Nearly all of this lo-fi audio sounds compressed beyond belief; the developer could have done much more to improve this area. For example, when ambient noises like rainfall cut out constantly when characters talk, someone didn’t do their job.
Part of the slack is picked up in the visual department, most notably with the character and background stills presented during dialogue. While not as dynamic as what Conception II: Children of the Seven Stars accomplishes with its vibrant and partially animated art, Mind Zero nevertheless exhibits an attention to imagination with the characters’ cool MIND creatures and an interesting focus on utilising a dark colour palette. Several moments in the game will display full pieces of art that are incredibly gorgeous to stare at, and we confess to doing that every time. However, there are downsides once more. The dungeons – while filled with more detail and variety than we expected – look as though they belong on the PlayStation Portable, including the rough 3D character models.
Is the gameplay a cornerstone on which this title can be worth your time? Like other games of its ilk, you could divide the experience it provides into two camps. For starters, half of your time is spent sifting through dialogue, navigating through the main hub, and managing your party and inventory. While we acknowledge that the first point is not truly gameplay, it’s something that you’re engaged in a lot, and there’s nothing to give it meaningful interaction like multiple dialogue options.
There are mini story “missions” where you can engage in extra dialogue to discover more about the characters, but these mundane chats are the same as the usual dialogue. Sometimes you’ll receive money when you talk to several people or even revisit dungeons, but that doesn’t make these quests any more fun. Besides this, there are the usual shops where you can buy restorative items and armour that you manage in the menu, where things like equipping items, referring to the helpful guidebook, or switching party members are done.
When it’s time for dungeon crawling, it’s odd and somewhat interesting that you do it from a first-person perspective, which gets a bit annoying since you traverse the maps without direction on a four-directional grid. You’ll be searching around for treasure chests and the next floor during this exploration, often meeting with opposition through random encounters. Once you’ve gotten the hang of the enemies and their strategies, though, the battle system is fairly easy to command. With up to three party members in combat, you can choose to attack, defend to slowly build up stats, burst to move twice, use items, or escape. It doesn’t stop there either, as the integration of using the characters’ MINDs freshens things up a bit.
They almost act as shields when they’re summoned, functioning with separate health bars that, once depleted, will have you fighting without them for a couple turns. These monsters can also be assigned skill moves that can range from deadlier attacks with elemental attributes to stat boosters that raise health or defence. The symbiotic partnerships between the MINDs and human characters play an interesting role here, but the gameplay is still something that we tried to avoid when possible. Most battles had us utilising the same general strategy to win, resulting in a cycle of repetition. The battle system is fine mechanically and rewards players who use skills wisely, but we felt that there wasn’t enough enemy diversity and variety in how to attack them, which is something that the developer should have learned from Pokémon outfit Game Freak.
There’s no shortage of longevity since the game should take you over 20 hours to complete. If you play on the Normal or Expert setting, though, be prepared for some steep difficulty curves, as the game requires level grinding. It’s one reason why we switched to the lowest option early on since it felt more doable. Other than the dull side content, we don’t think that there’s anything else recommendable here to fall back on to boost replay value.
Mind Zero played mind games with us. It’s deceiving with its admittedly excellent art direction, cool usage of MINDs during gameplay, and grabbing story premise, but the magic wore off when we peeled back those layers to discover its lack of identity. The game just depends too much on its uninteresting characters, only damaged further by tedious dungeon crawling and its other half-baked aspects. We think that there’s something buried here that would have made the game a must-have, but it’s too undeveloped to butt heads with better titles in its class.