Inside Pulse 12

Review: Mind Zero (PC)

Mind Zero
Genre: JRPG/Dungeon Crawler
Developer: Acquire, ZeroDiv
Publisher: Aksys
Release Date: 03/08/16

The past year or so has been harsh on Japanese game publishers trying their hand at bringing games to the PC marketplace. While a few, like Sega and Idea Factory, have done so admirably (Valkyria Chronicles and the Hyperdimension Neptunia series, respectively), this year has seen the not-so-well received PC releases of Tales of Symphonia and Disgaea already, and we’re just three months in. It’s not that the idea of publishing the games is bad, mind you; people clearly want the games on the PC, as recent releases like Danganronpa have shown, and with the PC marketplace expanding (and the console market stagnating to a point) it’s worthwhile to try bringing games to a new market. However, there’s a difference between “a port” and “a good port,” and as often as not the latter is far harder to pull off than the former. I bring this up because Mind Zero is an attempt at this very same sort of PC port exposure from the folks at Aksys, and you can definitely see how such a game could have had a good shot at PC viability. However, the game is quite literally a direct port to the PC, which is quite a bad idea for a few reasons, such that the end result is, to be frank, almost impossible to recommend to anyone but the most diehard JRPG fan, and honestly, that person probably owns the Vita version already.

On Persona 4, basically

Mind Zero has a fairly complicated plot going on behind the scenes, but you wouldn’t know it from the first couple hours of play. You take on the role of Kei Takanashi, high school student of ambivalent nature, who’s best friends with a young lady, Shizuku Kamina, who can see strange things. One day, Shizuku happens to see a man who appears to be wrong, and when Kei attempts to intervene in the events surrounding this man, he gets sucked into a parallel dimension by a lady named The Undertaker (which, as a wrestling fan, is super confusing) and given the Holy Grail choice: pick a weapon, but choose wisely or die. Fortunately for the plot, he does choose wisely, and unlocks the power of MIND, essentially allowing him to summon a spirit ally through his weapon, both of which are invisible to the naked eye, and grant him the power to defeat people who have been possessed by MINDs, like the aforementioned man. Along the way he ends up meeting other MIND users, like fellow students Sana Chikage and Leo Asahina, and… well, the first few hours or so, frankly, feel a lot like someone played a lot of Persona and decided to emulate it. The main character feels very much like Makoto Yuki, Sana and Leo bear more than a passing resemblance to Chie and Yosuke, and the entire description of how MINDs operate in our world feels point-for-point like a description of Shadows in most respects. While the plot eventually travels into its own direction (about halfway through the story), and the overall plot isn’t bad, it doesn’t do a great job shaking that first impression, and the core feeling of the plot never recovers. The fight to stand on its own certainly doesn’t help matters, but it’s also simply not as interesting a plot as the games its emulating, and given that the comparisons are there, and obvious, it’s not a great starting point for any game, to be honest.

Visually, Mind Zero looked adequate for a Vita game when it came out back in 2013, but as a PC title, it looks downright archaic. If anything has been done to clean up the visuals, it’s not immediately apparent; character models are blocky and feature little in the way of interesting or detailed animations, and enemy models are random in design and generally repeat too much too soon. The environments show some signs of artistic flair, but technically they’re just as low-tech as the rest of the game, and the only real saving grace is the hand-drawn artwork, which is still amazing two years later. The PC port also suffers from poor visual handling; that is, there are only two display options provided, in a full screen mode that looks poor on high resolution displays and a windowed mode that offers exactly one display setting which appears to be somewhere around 1280×720, if that. Aurally, the game is much better off, thanks in large part to a mostly stellar soundtrack… albeit one that also takes a couple bites from Persona. While some tracks stand on their own, like the stellar title track “Rampage Machine” and in-game tracks like “Transversal Wave” and “Undertaker,” tracks like “City Scape,” “A Call from Abyss,” and “Recall” sound way too close to something from an Atlus soundtrack for comfort. The voice work is also in the same boat; while the game offers the choice of English and Japanese voice tracks, and both are expertly cast, the English cast is a bit… concerning. While Matthew Mercer turns in a good performance as Kei, for instance, Erin Fitzgerald as Sana and Yuri Lowenthal as Leo are casting choices that are… a bit on the nose; not that they’re not awesome voice talents, but casting Chie and Yosuke as not-Chie and not-Yosuke feels like bad form. It’s not bad per say, as both turn in a good performance (though Erin’s feels… off), but it definitely contributes to the game feeling like it’s borrowing from others a bit.

On crawling dungeons and summoning MINDs

Mechanically, fortunately, Mind Zero is a good bit more of its own thing, combining elements from dungeon crawling RPGs with some novel combat mechanics that help give the game a bit of its own shine. Structurally, the game is your conventional JRPG at its core, meaning that you’ll spend time in an overworld map talking to NPCs and visiting shops before being pushed into a dungeon of some sort, so if you’ve played a more conventional JRPG in the past few years you’ll find this to be easy to jump into. Gameplay is quite simple to adjust to if you’re using a traditional Xbox 360 controller (or a reasonable facsimile), as the game maps its display buttons to the controller prompts, and you can bring up a button map on most screens to tell you what does what if you’re confused. Movement is accomplished with the left stick and the D-Pad equally well, and the majority of your interactions can be accomplished with the A button, though the game also offers custom key bindings in the event that you don’t have a controller or don’t want to use one, so you can set up your key controls however you like. Either way, the game works off of a turn-based format, so it’s fairly easy to figure out what you want to do when you want to do it, so no matter what control type you’re using it’s not difficult to get things down and work with the game as needed.

A decent amount of the time is spent on the overworld map, which works off of a more modern style “highlight points on the map to go there” setup, so you can just move the cursor to a location and press a button to go to that location. The game world is divided up into different districts in Japan, which you can travel to by interacting with a train station icon when you wish, allowing you to travel from place to place whenever you want. You’ll want to do this partly because each different district has different items available for purchase in their shops, so outfitting your team will often mean moving from one district (for weapons and armor) to another (for skills) as needed. However, each district frequently repopulates with new interactions between your teammates for you to see, some of which can unlock new missions to complete while others are simply there for character building, so it’s worthwhile to scout around every time you complete an important event. You’ll also find you can take on missions out of a detective agency early on, which also updates its mission count between notable plot events, so routine visits are a big plus. Finally, each zone has different dungeons you can access within it, so if you want to revisit a specific dungeon for grinding or item collection purposes, or to complete a sidequest, you’re more than capable of doing so. It’s true that the overworld map doesn’t allow for any extensive interaction beyond menu navigation, but the game does a lot to make working within it as involved as games that offer such elements might, and honestly, after a couple of hours you won’t notice the stripped-down design much at all.

Eventually, everything you do directs you into a dungeon of some sort or another, at which point the game goes into first person dungeon crawling reminiscent of something like Etrian Odyssey or Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey. Movement is handled entirely from the first person, and the game auto-maps movement for you, so you don’t need to keep track of where you’ve been or where you’re going when the game does so for you. The dungeons themselves are generally all based around a warped aesthetic, so designs will change from industrial zones to cities to Alice in Wonderland style romps, but generally, the motive in each remains the same: move through the dungeon, find your objective, collect or kill a thing, and get out. Early on, dungeons will minimize their puzzle elements, but as you progress you’ll find dungeons that often have multiple branching paths to completely different floors, moving platforms, abnormal walls and tiles that disorient your movement, among other things, so you’ll find navigation to be more of a challenge as you go. The dungeons also utilize the occasional interactive element, such as a switch or a level, that needs more direct interaction (which are remnants of the touch screen controls) and doorways that are locked until set actions are accomplished, so if you can’t move on, chances are good you’ll have an idea of why. There’s not really anything here you haven’t seen before, but it all works as well as it ever did, so you’ll enjoy the mechanics as well as you ever have if you’re a fan.

Combat is where the game shows off most of its unique elements, as it tries to be more than just a game that does exactly what you’d expect. For one thing, when you jump into combat (either through random encounters or the occasional static enemy placement), your team starts off in their default combat status, but they can essentially summon their MINDs any time they want. Each character has three energy bars to monitor in combat that dictate how well they can perform, though they don’t work entirely as you’d expect. LP measures how much direct damage a character can take before being knocked unconscious, as you’d expect, but TP acts as your skill bar; every turn, a character earns TP, and each skill can consume some from the bar, so skill usage is something of a balancing act rather than a simple “expend bar until empty” scenario. MP in this game acts as, essentially, the health of your MIND, as rather than “summon to use skill” helpers, MINDs in this game act more like Stands from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, meaning that they have to be summoned to be active, and once active they’re directly involved in combat. Essentially, MIND usage dictates a fair amount of combat; when a MIND is inactive, characters can use items and run from battle but cannot use skills and take direct damage, and when a MIND is active, characters can use skills and their MIND takes damage for them, but they cannot escape or use items. Further, when MINDs are active, they consistently drain a small amount of MP each turn (on top of any drained from taking damage), and if MP bottoms out the character is stunned for a turn as a result. However, if the character isn’t using their MIND, they will regenerate some MP each turn, and you can even have them use a Charge action, which not only guards against damage, but also regenerates more MP to bring a MIND back into play faster. This offers a lot of interesting theoretical depth, as swapping between normal and MIND combat states as needed can keep battle hectic, and it gives the battle system more depth than the standard fare.

Another interesting aspect of how the game handles its combat systems comes in from the Skill setup itself, as unlike in most games, characters have no set skills themselves, but instead equip any skills you acquire. Skills can be collected in a few ways, from finding them as loot in dungeons to finding them as drops from enemies, and any character can equip any skill you find so long as they have an open slot for it (the higher their level, the more slots for skills they have). Collected skills can also be leveled up in two ways: you can either evolve the skills to a higher level version of the skill (IE, improving the healing skill “Candle” into the more powerful “Fire”) using skills and improvement materials, or you can improve their level by burning other skill cards to level up the chosen ones. Character stats still have a lot of say in how well they can utilize a skill, so you’ll still want to keep that in mind when assigning skills, but there’s some interesting depth here in how you can spread your skills around that makes the concept interesting. Speaking of character leveling, that’s handled in a fairly traditional manner here; when characters level up, they get a bunch of stat increases and occasionally a new skill slot. Characters can also equip three pieces of gear to improve their stats in various ways, from obvious defense and agility boosts to more involved elemental bonuses, though their weapons are more or less locked to them from jump so you won’t be swapping those out. Finally, since this is the sort of game where you have more party members than active slots to use them, it’s worth noting that you can swap party members whenever you like (though doing so in combat has its risks), and inactive members earn some experience points, though not as many as active participants.

On grinding and PC woes

You can probably clear out Mind Zero in around thirty to forty hours if you focus on clearing out all of the mandatory content, though if you focus on doing all of the side quests and hunting for side dialogues you can expect to add another ten to twenty hours to that number. Beyond that, while JRPGs are starting to find their way to the PC marketplace more and more these days, there’s still something kind of interesting about the idea of getting access to what was until now a Vita exclusive, especially if you’ve not jumped on the Vita bandwagon. The game also offers some compelling options to keep players coming back, such as variable difficulty options for both newcomers and diehard genre fans alike, and a New Game Plus option that basically carries over everything but experience levels and unlocks a massive dungeon for you to take on at your leisure. The Steam version of the game also offers the standard compliment of Achievements to unlock for those who are so inclined to earn these things. As JRPGs go, Mind Zero has enough content to keep fans coming back for a while, especially for its twenty dollar price tag, so from that perspective, it’s easy to see how that could be a selling point.

That said, as PC ports go, the port for Mind Zero is honestly so atrocious that it’s hard to recommend this game even as a novelty, as it’s just so poorly optimized for the PC that fans of the platform will likely hate it on principle. For one thing, the game just isn’t optimized to work properly on PC at all; outside of the visual issues with the resolution and the fact that the game hasn’t been touched up at all from the Vita release, the game also just isn’t designed to work well on the PC. For example, the game has no inherent method I could find to quit to desktop short of closing the window, which only works in windowed mode; in fullscreen the only method I could find to quit the game, outside of using the Steam overlay, was alt-tabbing to desktop and force crashing it, which is terrible. The game also does not feel mechanically designed for PC play at all, as the predetermined hotkeys don’t feel at all natural, and there are way too many that have to be assigned to the keyboard to feel intuitive. The game just has no idea what to do with a gaming mouse, as keybindings that would work great with a multi-button mouse simply don’t allow for such an option, and the game just feels really awkward when you aren’t playing with a controller. This is made worse when considering the touch screen controls, as you’d think such things would work well with the mouse, but no; you have to screw around with keyboard bindings, again, to make these work, which is just inexcusable. As PC ports go, Mind Zero feels like one that was focused on getting the game running on PC above all else, and it’s not a good look.

Outside of the PC port issues, Mind Zero also feels like a game that has some good ideas, but no real idea of how to execute them. For example, the skill system seems like a neat concept, but its implementation is rough; you can’t upgrade skills that are equipped, for example, which makes skill upgrading way more cumbersome than it needs to be, and having skills be so fluid makes characters feel generic mechanically. The MIND summoning system also feels like a good idea in theory, but Digital Devil Saga handled this concept of form shifting much more seamlessly; here, while boss encounters can be challenging, random battles just feel onerous and boring more than anything. This is hampered by the fact that grinding is almost a way of life here, between trying to keep characters at even levels (or grinding up an unused character when they’re needed) and acquiring skills for skill manipulation, and on its own that’s not great, but in a game where random combat feels tedious the whole thing suffers for it.

In the end, Mind Zero feels like a game that had some good ideas, but wrapped them in mechanics and structures other games have done before (and better), and the fact that its PC port feels like a straight, unoptimized port of a Vita game only makes it even harder to recommend to anyone than it would’ve otherwise been. Taken purely on its own merits, the story is eventually fine after the first few hours, the artistic aesthetic has some merit, the game sounds great throughout, and the core mechanics work as well as they ever have. There are also some good ideas in the combat and skill structures, at least, and there’s the hint of a good concept here that might be appealing to genre fans, especially since there’s a decent amount of content for the price. However, the game spends its first few hours feeling like a straight parody of Persona 4 before fading into an experience that blends elements of SMT: Strange Journey and Digital Devil Saga, and it doesn’t do enough to overcome that déjà vu feeling in the long run. The game also feels like a PC port of a Vita game, meaning that it’s visually underwhelming and feels like it was designed for a controller, which isn’t helped at all by the PC port lacking any kind of mechanical optimization for the PC platform, leaving the game feeling like a mechanical mess if you’re not using a controller. Even if you are, the game doesn’t do enough to make its novel systems work, as custom skill palettes leave characters feeling generic, challenging combat mechanics improve boss fights but leave random battles tedious and boring, and the game just suffers for its mechanics, especially when grinding. Honestly, Mind Zero is just a hard game to recommend to anyone on the PC; if you’re a diehard JRPG fan, you probably have a Vita already, and if you’re not, between the awkward systems and the rushed PC port, this just isn’t a game that’ll keep your interest, even at its twenty dollar price tag.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Mind Zero isn’t the easiest game to recommend on its own merits, but the PC version takes the good and bad of the original release and ports it in the most unfriendly way possible such that, put bluntly, it’s almost impossible to appreciate. On its own the game has its good points; the plot manages to do some fine work after the first few hours, the artistic style of the game is solid, and the audio presentation is top notch in most respects. The core gameplay framework isn’t bad on its own, and the game does have a few neat ideas to show off, which, combined with its fair length and replay options, make a strong case for the game in spite of its flaws. However, as a PC port, the game does nothing to improve the technical performance from the Vita version and is poorly ported in general, such that the game is in no way PC optimized, only plays well with a controller, and does next to nothing to improve or streamline the experience technically or mechanically for its PC release. It also doesn’t help that the game is flawed on its own merits, as the skill system leaves characters feeling generic, the combat mechanics improve boss fights but leave random battles feeling flat and frustrating, and the game relies too much on grinding because of these issues, which makes the whole experience feel uneven. The end result leaves Mind Zero feeling like the sort of game that only the most diehard of JRPG fans would be interested in, and honestly, most of those people probably own a Vita anyway, leaving this game hard to recommend to almost anyone.