JRPGs used to dominate my gaming time. Then something changed. Maybe I changed, but I think it’s fair to say that JRPGs changed as well. There was a cultural divergence perhaps 10 to 15 years ago. Japanese games increasingly embraced lengthy narrative exposition, often without even offering the player options for how to respond. In North America, while cutscenes continued to play an important role, increasingly people came to talk about the sacred pursuit of enjoyable ‘gameplay’, often at the cost of narrative goals.
I wanted to come away from Mind Zero able to assure you that this is not a terrible game, if you’re willing to give it a chance. I wanted to recommend that you make that cultural leap and get comfortable with the visual novel format that dominates so much of your engagement with this game. Within a few hours of starting, I knew that this wasn’t going to be possible. Mind Zero isn’t simply different. It’s just not good. And it’s not because of the culture gap.
Dungeons and dialogues
Mind Zero is a visual novel with a dungeon crawler attached. The comparisons with the Persona series are obvious, and this project feels a little like a cynical attempt to exploit the formula at low cost.
As a visual novel, it’s passable. The art is up to standard, the characters are endearing, and the story about high schoolers summoning powerful beings from another world hits metaphorical notes that are appealing, even if clichéd. The localisation is not terrible, and some of the jokes seem to land better in English than in the original. While the voice acting in Japanese is perfectly enjoyable (and you can choose to listen in Japanese with English subtitles) some of the English-speaking actors seemed to drain their characters of their unique flavour.
The story even carries themes like duality and identity that fit the game’s overall structure remarkably well. Narratively, Mind Zero shows a lot of squandered potential. The characters are likeable enough that I didn’t need every bit of dialogue to move the story forward, but the amount of pointless chit-chat was far too high. Even the developers don’t seem to care that much about everything that their characters have to say; not all of the dialogue has been voice-acted, with many scenes simply punctuated with little snippets of generic noise in each character’s voice. The writing quickly starts to feel careless, as if someone was just trying to churn out the right volume of text, and as a result the story loses momentum very quickly. The plot ultimately goes nowhere, with no questions answered by the end of the game.
While Mind Zero features a pleasant but ultimately worthless visual novel, it’s the dungeons that really make this an intolerably bad game. While the 2D visual novel side seems to have been put together by a reasonably competent art team, the 3D graphics of the dungeons are extremely poor. You are effectively moving through a series of boxes, with painted walls and occasional props strewn around in an attempt to build a sense of place. The low number of polygons here needn’t have been a deal-breaker if the textures and lighting had been of any merit at all, but sadly this is not the case. It looks dull and cheap.
Random encounter battles happen often, and are not over quickly at all. Difficulty spikes mean that most battles are either tedious or frustrating. Combat is never fun. There just aren’t that many interesting decisions that you can make as a player. I was particularly annoyed that this was the case at those critical early stages, when a good game would be teaching you basic concepts by pushing you to try new things. Mind Zero will show you a tutorial, and then nothing will happen that gives you any reason to put those lessons in practice. The enemies are boring and don’t die quickly enough, even at the lowest difficulty setting. The majority of non-random battles feature the exact same enemies as the random ones, giving me the sense that I had nothing to look forward to. I was grinding in preparation for more mediocrity.
The 3D character models are dead-eyed puppets that just don’t convey the same personality as the 2D images that you spend more time looking at. This is particularly unfortunate when it comes to the MINDs, other-worldly beings who are summoned to fight on the characters’ behalf. The MINDs are beautiful in 2D, and their 3D representations don’t follow through. The bad character models also contribute to how boring the combat is, since it’s very rare for any enemy to have that villainous charisma that makes you motivated to overcome the arbitrarily difficult challenge they represent.
The Persona games set out the basic formula that governs Mind Zero’s structure, as regards having story bits and dungeon bits, and the duality between the story areas and the dungeon areas is then backed up by a storyline about the duality of the self.
What seems to have happened here is that Acquire just didn’t have the budget to do either part of this formula to a high degree of polish, and each part of the formula has been simplified in a completely different way: the non-dungeon areas have been pared back to a rudimentary visual novel, and the dungeon areas have been made in poor-quality 3D graphics. This fundamental incongruity between the narrative part of the game and the combat part never really feels justified.
It’s not the cultural gap that makes this game difficult to relate to. The visual novel element has some potential, and if the rest of the game had just built on what it does well there, it might have been fine. Instead, we’re left with a story that needed more direction, dungeons that were needlessly built in poor quality 3D, and combat that wilfully wasted the player’s time without offering any meaningful challenge