Once again it’s time to dive into the murky waters of obscure recently ported JRPGs, today we have Mind Zero, which was published by Aksys Games and developed by Acquire and Zero Div. To quickly sum it up, the game is an unabashed Persona clone but it is not without its own charms. The game does a good job of aping the better parts of Persona’s writing and presentation and it has a take on standard turn-based combat that is very strategic and unique. Unfortunately though it ultimately falls apart due to a poorly structured gameplay loop that forces to you to grind far too much and for not enough reward.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the gameplay though, why don’t we talk about the story. As I said earlier, this game takes a lot of inspiration from the Persona series, and one area that really shows is the plot. The premise here is that you are an aloof high school student by the name of Kei who one day gets dragged into a parallel world where he is quickly joined with his other self, referred to as a MIND (read: Persona). You and a group of friends, who’ve also connected with their MINDs, then get involved in an investigation into a number of suspicious crimes which have all been attributed to the other world and MINDS. As you can see that plot is only a walking teddy bear away from Persona 4’s; it’s so similar that a lot of the characters even line up along the same archetypes. You have Leo, your immature but earnest best friend (Yosuke); Sana, a cheerful short-haired tom boy (Chie); Kotone, a quiet yet driven girl with a very traditional Japanese upbringing (Yukiko); and Yoichi, a hard-boiled detective with doubts towards his paternal abilities (Dojima). These characters are so similar to their Persona 4 counterparts that in a lot of cases I’m pretty sure they even hired the same voice actors but honestly that ends up working in the game’s favour.
This is because those characters-and the narrative overall-manage to recreate a lot of the things that made Persona 4’s writing so good. Your party is well-developed and complex despite being familiar and the mystery angle gives the story a good focal point to work with. Mind Zero even manages to outdo Persona’s writing in one key area, its protagonist. In pretty much every Persona game, your main character is a blank slate which works perfectly for the themes in those games, but Kei on the other hand has an established personality and it’s actually somewhat interesting. He’s initially seems to be nothing more than a standard stoically apathetic anime protagonist but right from the start they do a great job of adding layers of compassion and curiosity that humanize him quite a bit. A lot of this development comes from his relationship with his girlfriend, who is not a party character but is deeply involved in the story. Theirs is a very quiet and comfortable romance, there is no exclamations of true love or sappy monologues, rather it is shared shopping trips and a sense of happy almost symbiotic antagonism through which they pull on each other and reveal their personalities. In fact the relationship is so subtle and ingrained that as far as I can remember, in the 20 hours or so I played it’s never actually stated outright that they’re together; rather the way they interact and the way others interact with them makes it obvious, a sign of either good writing or me reading into things just a little bit too much.
The gameplay is a bit more of a mixed bag, featuring a nicely innovative take on classic turn-based combat but ultimately lacking when it comes to proper pacing and progression. What makes the combat interesting is how well merged the characters and their MINDs are from a mechanical perspective. Rather than simply having HP and MP to manage, things are a bit more complicated than that. HP is your character’s life points, but it’s also what your MIND uses to cast spells. MP is your MIND’s life points, which are separate from your own because when your MIND is activated it takes hits for you by acting like a shield. Lastly you have TP, which is a constantly regenerating resource used in combination with HP for spell casting and for activating Burst mode which allows you to take an extra action immediately and completely outside of the turn order. This means that combat, while still being rooted in the turn-based gameplay we all know, becomes a smarter and more strategic affair. You have to decide when to have your MIND out to cast spells and soak up hits, when to draw it back so you can recharge MP and use items, and when to use your TP to Burst and quickly heal or do some extra damage. It’s definitely a complex system compared to the standard JRPG fare and some may find it a bit esoteric but it allows for a fantastic degree of flexibility.
Unfortunately though an innovative and fun combat system doesn’t save the gameplay from ultimately becoming tedious and boring. The level progression is fairly slow in this game compared to the ramp up in enemy strength and as such regular lengthy grind sessions are to be expected but sadly the game does nothing to make that chore enjoyable. There are very few proper side quests to complete and the rewards are minor at best. All the equipment you can find or buy provide naught but minor stat boosts, as does leveling up thanks to the skills being confined to cards you can pick up around the dungeons (the selection of which is area dependent until you eventually unlock the card shop). Throughout the course of grinding, you’re rarely working towards an actual goal, just higher numbers, and that lack of motivation really kills the game’s momentum. You’re also never really getting any proper sense of progression or evolution until you finish grinding and move onto the next dungeon, because only then will you start finding new skills and fighting new enemies. Of course those new skills won’t be that interesting nor will be the new enemies you’re using them on thanks to a utter lack of variety. Palette swaps run rampant throughout the enemy design with the same strategies working for every iteration of a foe and the skills feel quite limited and mechanical in their execution with little flavour or punch. This means that despite the combat offering plenty of room for creative strategy and flexibility, you’ll still end up doing the same thing ad nauseam until you eventually get bored and turn the game off.
Moving onto the presentation, things start looking up again thanks to strong art and sound design. I mentioned earlier that it sounds like a lot of the voice actors in this game are the same ones from Persona 4 and they turn in similarly good performances, not overly squeaky or annoying and adding a good amount of emotion to the proceedings. The music, as you might expect, also goes for a very Persona feel by mimicking Shoji Meguro’s work but it actually manages to do fairly good job at it; the pieces are smooth and appropriate and while not super catchy or memorable do feel well made. To talk about the visuals, things are good but inconsistent. The game overall has a nice darkly realistic tone but where the 2D portraiture and UI looks sharp and well detailed, the actually gameplay is riddled with ugly boxy looking dungeons, stiff animation, and polygonal models that don’t quite match their head shots. I will say that they at least try to give the dungeons some life with some good details here and there such as rolled up carpets, decrepit machinery, and closed storefronts but it’s not enough to prevent the visual fatigue that quickly sets in, especially when you’re grinding.
Overall Mind Zero is a solid JRPG with a strong story, good presentation, and an interesting if not somewhat esoteric take on turn based combat. If you’re a big fan of dungeon crawling JRPGs and have a VITA then it’s certainly a game worth looking into but be warned, if you don’t have the patience for grinding then this game will not be for you. With all that in mind I’m giving Mind Zero a 3 out of 5 stars; for as much the story is compelling and the combat is unique, the grind is just too much in places and the lack of proper side content to fill the gap ultimately made me put it down.