Publisher: Aksys Games
Genre: Role-Playing Game / Dungeon Crawler
Reviewer: Marcus Way
Overall: 4 = Below Average
In the world of fiction, few sects of the global community are in as much danger as teenagers in Japan. Whether they’re being called upon to pilot giant robots, battle evil magicians, or train incessantly to fend off an inevitable alien invasion, they are always at risk. The universe of MIND?0 (I’ll just go with Mind Zero), a dungeon crawler co-developed by Class of Heroes’ creators Acquire and Zero Div and published by Aksys, is no different. Serving as the guiding hand that controls a group of friends pulled into a mysterious realm of violent creatures and bizarre dungeons, players must unravel the mystery behind this strange land and discover who or what is behind its increasing, violent encroachment into the real world.
After an average day at school, friends Kei Takanashi, Leo Asahina, and Sana Chikage find themselves transported to a peculiar weapon shop. The store’s proprietor informs them that they can choose one of any weapon to keep for free—and that they must do so, if they wish to leave. There’s another catch: if anyone selects the wrong weapon, they will die. The group survives the selection process relatively unscathed, save for Leo. It turns out that grabbing a weapon instantly forms a pact with a demon known as a Mind, and that Leo’s was able to get the upper hand in the deal; as a result, while the others look normal to one another, they see that one of Leo’s arms has been replaced with that of his Mind. Not everyone will notice the change, though, as only those who can see Minds will detect Leo’s demonic appendage. The group’s new powers are quickly put to the test as they must safely find their way out of this odd world, known as the Inner Realm, and back to their world, the Outer Realm. But between the shop and home stand hordes of violent Minds, those not in a pact with their Outer Realm human counterpart, and the labyrinthine dungeons in which they reside.
Back in their world, the teens discover that Minds have been invading for a number of years and that the government has been covering up their incursions. They also learn that a Mind that makes its way to the Outer Realm can overpower any nearby human who is sufficiently emotionally vulnerable for their innate psychological guards to weaken, and that this process leaves the shell recklessly chaotic and ferocious. The police blame the possessed’s behavior on drugs, but a private investigator, Yoichi Ogata, quickly befriends the group and reveals the truth. After taking the students under his wing, he invites them to assist him on cases and further investigate the Inner Realm as they work outside of his detective agency. The group gradually adds two more to their ranks, the bookish Kotone Shiragiku and aristocratic Lina Albertine, and determines to sever the realms to save mankind.
Persona fans will undoubtedly find this setup familiar. It’s difficult not to see the similarities between the two games, as each one features a group of teenaged friends capable of summoning powerful, ethereal creatures to battle monsters in dungeons within a surreal realm. The archetypes are there are as well, with the wacky male friend, the spunky athletic female friend, the straight-laced friend, and an investigative backstory with a tired lead detective and a luckless junior officer. There are tunes that sound straight out of Persona 4 as well, in addition to two voice actors who are (coincidentally voicing their Mind Zero counterparts). The resemblances quickly prove to be superficial, however, as both take very different approaches to plot development, exploration, and combat.
One of the more striking elements of Mind Zero is the visual-novel-style cutscenes. Unlike Persona 4, players do not get a say in how bonds form between characters during their interactions and conversations with one another. Relationships unfold along set paths, and only a handful of side missions (Requests) allow for any additional character growth. These are fairly benign, however: fetching items, fighting a battle on a particular dungeon floor, killing a number of certain enemy types, and so on. Most of the dialog that results from these are more general chit chat than revelatory, though there are a few quests that delve a little deeper and reveal some personal growth. For the more lackluster exchanges—a few bad jokes or throwaway lines—there can be a tangential benefit to undertaking Requests, such as special character-specific or general skill cards. Despite the numerous opportunities for character exploration and development, Mind Zero’s main narrative thrust isn’t about the party members themselves but rather their connection with what’s going on between their world and the Inner Realm.
The majority of the game will take place in the numerous dungeons scattered throughout Akihabara, Amamiya, Nippori, and Yokohama. In addition to the dungeons, each area is dotted with various shops to acquire new equipment, items, and skill cards. Convenient stores are available in all areas, and stock a variety of replenishing potions, ailment cures, and relics to relieve exhaustion. The other stores are only in certain areas, but traveling between them is easily done by heading to the local train station or using a hotkey to access the world map. Equipment can be bought early on, but getting to the Antique Shop to acquire and enhance skill cards will take some time. The primary reason why skills cannot be manipulated early on is because of the time it takes for characters to unlock new slots in which to assign cards; their few accessible slots are easily filled with numerous weaker cards dropped by enemies during combat. The handling of the Antique Shop leads to a number of issues, however: the beginning is less interesting as a result of the limitations, there is an overabundance of upgrade choices once the shop is open due to the thousands of Skill Points accumulated during battle, and the odd distribution of upgrade spheres required to level up skills is obtained at strange intervals, which often left me with spheres too powerful to acquire the mid-level upgrades necessary to utilize them. As it happens, pacing is a recurring problem throughout Mind Zero.
Once everyone has been outfitted with the best gear and the potions have been stockpiled, it’s time to tackle the dungeons. Just as the visual novel moments stand out for looking sharp and vibrant, the dungeons stand out for looking muddy and bland. Trudging through the majority is the antithesis of what one experiences in an Etrian Odyssey; there is no excitement, intrigue, or trepidation—only the shock of having shifted from a world of sharply drawn, colorful characters to one of overblown, blocky textures decorating such exciting objects as closed shutters, bare hallways, and empty streets. Save for a few interesting dungeons that actually exude something approaching a sense of style, there is such a lack of creativity and thoughtfulness that going through them is a chore.
A few lackluster levels wouldn’t be so bad, but after spending hours upon hours walking through soulless hallways and rooms, it’s difficult not to be disappointed. That’s especially the case after visiting one of the more imaginative realms, such as one based off of being inside a German folk book or a warped Chinatown. In addition to lackluster art design, the dungeons are just poorly designed. I’ve never played a game with so many winding hallways that lead to empty rooms or dead ends. The game’s ridiculous encounter rate—a battle every four or five feet, on average—makes progress especially slow, and the amount of backtracking becomes fatiguing. Given that loot is restricted to (boring) potions and (slightly less boring) armor, due to characters not having to buy weapons, the only real impetus to explore is the discovery of a switch to open a locked door, the stairs to another level, or one of the portals that warp the party to another floor or out of the dungeon. Needless to say, finding nothing but a wall at the end of a snaking side path is discouraging and irritating. It also doesn’t help that the most boring dungeons have parallel counterparts that open later, which is a strange design decision, considering it forces players to spend hours repeating portions that quickly wore out their welcome the first time.
As mentioned, the game has a serious problem with pacing. In addition to having to repeat nearly carbon-copy dungeons with similar themes and largely palette-swapped enemies, the story recedes around the same point and doesn’t come back in any meaningful way until halfway through the last act. When the story returns, it does so with a deluge of conversation and expository text. Right when the game feels like it should be wrapping up, it’s just getting its narrative juices flowing. As a result, it felt like hours were wasted on a treadmill of filler because nothing interesting story-wise happens during that entire time, and the Requests struggle to maintain the player’s interest in what seems like an endless series of battles with crabs, scorpions, possessed knights, and Osiris-styled guards. As with the dungeons, the enemies are largely generic and uninteresting. Considering that most enemy designs are based around fantasy tropes, their designs could’ve been more acceptable had it not been for their ability to absorb sizable amounts of damage dragging out the many, many battles. After a while, it’s hard not to get sick of seeing them.
Combat is anchored by a solid underlying system, but it doesn’t offer the kind of variety required to keep so many battles fresh. Only three of the six party members can be called up at a time, and this proves to be a major sticking point. Initially, three characters suffice, but as the game goes on and the first of the two difficulty spikes appears near the halfway point, it becomes apparent that three of the characters will have to be relegated to the rear. The limitation not only restricts the player’s tactical flexibility, but the experience earned is so desperately needed for each of the bosses, who easily eclipse the nearby minions, that giving one of the other three time in the front makes one far too weak when it comes time for the big battle. This becomes worse as time goes on and the enemies become deadlier, frequently appearing four at a time and unleashing multi-unit attacks that inflict an ailment. Characters in the fight absolutely need as many available skill slots as possible so as to counter the enemy’s elements—water, fire, earth, and wind—with single and multi-unit attacks along with special attacks, assist buffs, and recovery spells; there are never enough slots, and going into the later battles without the maximum possible, which will occur if anyone is swapped out for any length of time, is a sure way to die. The characters have access to very few character-specific skills, so there are actually few reasons to opt for one over the other, save for personality or art design preference.
Defeating enemies requires carefully balancing the health of both the character and the Mind. Each character has three gauges that are constantly in flux during combat: technical points, health points, and Mind points. Mind points are drained each round that the Mind is summoned, while one or more of the 10 technical points are used every time they use one of their skills. The character’s health points are safe as long as the Mind is summoned, though some ailment attacks, such as poison, can bypass the Mind and deal direct damage. Minds become ‘broken’ if the character runs out of Mind points. If the points are drained as a result of time, then the Mind cannot be summoned for a single turn, while points being reduced due to damage will result in a harsher penalty, with characters stunned for one turn and unable to summon their Mind for two. Each round will return some of the technical points, but these will quickly be depleted once higher level spells are attained. In addition to technical points, skills will also frequently require some of the character’s health, and it’s this factor that can cause problems for the rash player. Only the characters can defend, however, and while this makes them susceptible to heavy damage, they gain a greater amount of technical points and Mind points.
This dynamic can create some very tense moments, and it’s here where the non-visual-novel elements shine. Having to constantly factor in whether the character is strong enough to take a hit to replenish points or if it’s worth risking a Mind break to land the killing blow is a strong hook. Enemy composition frequently throws a monkey wrench into this balance with some ostensibly innocuous units being time-consuming pains, such as scorpions that are heavily armored, deal damage to multiple units, and can inject poison with each attack, quickly draining every point pool possible. The boss battles, despite the grinding required to win them, offer some of the best fights because they allow players to really explore the system and formulate effective attack patterns. When everything lines up, the combat is great, but things don’t far too often.
Mind Zero is a lackluster dungeon crawler with some great ideas largely drowned out by tedium. Despite some funny dialog and a few likable characters, the story is poorly paced and crams most of the plot in the last few hours, which leaves much of the game bereft of anything interesting to uncover; on top of that, the ending is a complete dud. The combat system has a lot going for it, with a great check-and-balance system built around the character-Mind relationship, but it has a difficult time sustaining the 50-plus hour adventure given the excessive encounter rate, unimaginative enemies, interchangeable characters, and bland dungeons.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)