(The date listed above is for the Japanese release)
Dungeon crawlers are, as Hannibal Lecter would say when talking about meat preparation, sorta my “thing”. I enjoy the experience grinding, the traps, the riddles, the mazes and the joy felt when barely surviving a battle with a single character left who barely clings onto life. With so many of these gridders having come out in the past few years, my backlog has been steadily growing. Nonetheless, I always welcome new entrants into my collection with open arms and an open mind.
Having just recovered from a 90+ hour month-long affair with Demon Gaze, I was pleasantly surprised to see another dungeon crawler, this time Mind Zero, pop up on my RPG-hungry Vita. Though I knew very little about it, I could tell by looking at the screenshots that the game was everything I loved about this genre.
First person dungeons, customizable characters, lots of level-grinding and a fantastic soundtrack all made me anxious for the day I could finally install it and devote every waking hour to its gratifying wizardry-esque gameplay. After all, a game made by Acquire, the gifted designers behind Labyrinth of Lost Souls and Class of Heroes, had to be another amazing dungeon crawler, right?
Mind Zero starts off well enough. Borrowing from games like Persona, Digital Devil Saga and Wizardry, it takes the concept of young Japanese schoolkids summoning demons and puts them into that old familiar dungeon crawler formula that seems to be regaining steam as of late. A slick user interface, a melodic (perhaps very Shoji-Meguro-esque) soundtrack, and a moody main hero all greet you within the first few minutes of starting a new game …
… and it seems to go all downhill from there.
Sure, Mind Zero is a dungeon crawler with roots firmly planted in Wizardry‘s well-plowed fields, but it quickly deviates into “teen high school drama” land and inundates the player with reams upon reams of poorly worded Japanese schoolkid dialog complete with childish sighing and high-pitched females.
As if these frequently visited 2D dialog scenes weren’t bad enough, the game consistently uses the “pitter patter” sound of feet hitting the ground whenever someone enters or leaves the scene; a trope that I thought only fanmade visual novels were guilty of overusing.
I could stomach the rather long and poorly acted dialog scenes were it not for the fact that the characters are all JRPG stereotypes ripped straight from the Shin Megami Tensei series. Whether it’s the Baofu clone, Yoichi Ogata, playing the older distinguished man role; Sana Chikage doing a spot-on impersonation of Persona 4‘s Chie; or ditzy “Leo” channeling Persona 3‘s Junpei and Persona 4’s Yosuke simultaneously, it’s hard to take any of these characters seriously when they are nothing more than cheaply written imitations of JRPG stereotypes we’ve seen several times before. They even threw in a gothic lolita named Lina that both stylistically and personality-wise is annoyingly close to Victorique de Blois from the 2011 anime Gosick. Oh, and don’t forget the detective and his partner, both of whom act exactly like Dojima and his scatter-brained friend Adachi from Persona 4. The developers don’t even try to hide this fact.
I can’t really fault a game for borrowing frequently used character archetypes to tell its story, but when a game that is meant to be a battle-heavy dungeon crawler spends 3/4 of its time in dialog windows trying to sell said characters to me, it’s something that begins to become a slight problem.
Not to compare it to this year’s breakout Vita hit, Demon Gaze, but at least Kadokawa’s anime dungeon crawler didn’t try to be high-minded with its flaky JRPG characters and instead went full-on harem style with its gratuitous Japanese-ness. The fact that Mind Zero tries to be serious and “deep” with its own stereotypical characters is a huge part of the reason it comes off feeling so awkward and pretentious.
So the story and characters fall flat, fair enough. This game is a dungeon crawler after all, so a good combat system and clever dungeon design could save it, right? Sadly, neither of these two things exist in Mind Zero regardless of how long you patiently await the end of the visual novel-like scenes that stubbornly block your progress.
Instead, Mind Zero‘s combat is about as bland and flat as a Wizardry clone can get, which is saying quite a bit considering that first-person dungeon crawler fans like myself have fairly low expectations for our combat to begin with. Normally, all you need is a dark room to grind experience in and a liberal drop rate of loot and we’re good to go; unfortunately, Mind Zero manages to even get that aspect wrong.
With very little variety of monsters, very few distinct attacks from those monsters (most have, at best, two attacks) and very small dungeons full of one-turn corridors, it didn’t take long before I began yawning and leaning back in my chair every time I booted the game up.
Though the characters all summon monsters called MINDs that only they can see (mmmm… Persona!), this doesn’t translate into some deeper form of combat. Though you can fight each enemy as your human self or with your MIND, there isn’t much of a benefit to being a fleshy muggle when the random encounter screen flashes.
Essentially, it shares the same problem that Digital Devil Saga did: you are given the illusion of a choice between fighting as a human or fighting with your demon form but, in reality, your non-demon attacks and abilities are utterly worthless.
I think the designers knew this fact, which is why they put an option in the control settings to automatically and permanently keep your characters MINDs up and active at all times. I suppose this is also why they never gave you any real way to change the melee weapons on your human characters and instead focused on dropping tons of skill cards on you for your MINDs to use.
Which brings me to another shortcoming of the game’s design, the lack of uniqueness between characters.
Though the game tries to make it seem like some MINDs are damage dealers and others are healer or spell-casters, the reality is that anyone’s MIND can be equipped with nearly any spell or ability. Simply put, the skill/spell card you want in an available slot and bingo, brand new character archetype.
This lack of restriction, which I like to call “Materia Syndrome”, kills the feeling of uniqueness that you normally get with these types of games and results in you merely using the three characters who you like the look of the best, leaving the other three to languish on the sidelines unused.
Having a shallow combat system is just one of the game’s battle-related worries, since it also has very poor balancing and seems to delight in giving even normal enemies an unseemly amount of hit points.
Monsters are content to just sit there and take monumental beatings while swatting at at you with basic, unimpressive attacks that don’t vary in strength or intensity. It all combines to make combat feel like even more of a slog than JRPGs are already guilty of.
Mind Zero is a perfect example of a game that takes an oldschool idea and tries to make it appealing to a newer age of gamer; which is funny, considering that Acquire’s Class of Heroes series is painfully and unapologetically ancient in both its design and execution.
Mind Zero shamelessly takes ideas from every Shin Megami Tensei title it can, and splices them together like some poorly constructed roleplaying game chimera. Though I’m sure there are people out there who enjoy the silly high school drama, 15-minute-long dialog dumps, and snore-inducing combat, I am not one of them.
Adding insult to injury is the game’s climax, which is such a let down that many have claimed to have come close to chucking their Vita at a wall. After so much time spent wading your way through JRPG mediocrity, it isn’t conducive to building good will with the player when you give them a purposely unsatisfying ending.
At first, I thought that my wholly positive experience with Demon Gaze was to blame for me being so critical with Mind Zero, and I tried to approach it from a blank state of mind. Sadly, it did not help and my playthrough of the game felt like a job more than a delightful diversion. I approached each night of dungeon navigation and high school drama silliness with the same fervor and excitement I do a dental exam.
To be fair, there are some silver linings in this otherwise sad game.
Foremost among them would be the gorgeous artwork, which almost makes me feel guilty for badmouthing the characters who are so beautifully drawn. Also worthy of note is the soundtrack, which while lacking variety is actually quite impressive. Although neither of these two pluses can stave the flow of negatives that quickly devoured any chance at enjoyment the game might have given me.
There’s a market out there for Mind Zero, but I doubt it’s large enough to make it the kind of franchise the games it copies are.
Mind Zero was reviewed using a code provided by Aksys Games. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.