Back in January, Aksys Games contributed to a healthy trend in Vita game announcements when it revealed it would be releasing Mind Zero, an RPG developed by Acquire and ZeroDiv and released in Japan in August 2013 with the stylisation MIND≒0 (the ≒ symbol meaning "approximately equal to"). One thing that was notable about the announcement was that it brought forth a lot of comments relating to the game's apparent inspiration from Atlus' rather popular Persona games. While there are a few obvious parallels, those who are able to not dismiss it out of hand as as a copycat game should be rewarded with a fresh take on those superficial ideas that are shared, and also be able to see plenty of new ideas in action.
"[RPGamers] should be rewarded with a fresh take on those superficial ideas that are shared, and also be able to see plenty of new ideas in action."
Despite the basic similarity to Personas as beings summoned to assist in battle, MINDs (an acronym for "Mental Inside Nobody Dolls" in the Japanese version at least) are a considerably different being. They are residents of a parallel world, linked to the real world at various connection points. MINDs are able to enter the real world through these points, which often results in someone becoming possessed by these interlopers--usually one with a weakened mental state--and things often ending up a bit sour. The connections also allow people from the real world to enter the parallel world, although usually not by choice. The person who has been forced through these points is then required by a mysterious entity to select a weapon from a seemingly endless choice. Those who are lucky hear the voice of a MIND guiding them to the correct weapon, which if selected connects the MIND to the person, who will then follow them around and fight with them. Those who pick the wrong weapon, however, die. Only MIND users can actually see other MINDs, and this has apparently resulted in the government designating MINDs as a drug and the visions seen by the MIND-possessed persons as hallucinations.
The main cast is primarily made up of high school students who have become embroiled in the mystery of MINDs. The main character, Kei, is supposedly one of the story's strong points, being well liked amongst many of those who have sampled the game so far. Rather than being a silent (or mostly silent) protagonist, Kei is very active in conversations and supposedly a very likeable lead to boot. Joining Kei's party throughout the game are Sana Chikage, Leo Asahina, Yoichi Ogata, Lina Albertine, and Kotone Shiragiku. Sana is arguably the main heroine, a childhood friend of Kei who enjoys sports. Leo, meanwhile, is a cheerful, who appears to be on the receiving end of many of the game's jokes and more comedic events. Yoichi is a detective that teams up with the students. Lina is a young girl but very mature, with an apparently surprisingly amount of knowledge about MINDs. Kotone is a girl who seems to lack confidence, but holds a few secrets.
Battles take place with three party members viewed from a mostly first-person camera, although players will see their party members run in front of the camera whenever they attack. Each turn is planned out for the entire party in full, with the UI showing which order members will act in the turn. The player's first choice is whether or not to have a party member summon or hide their MIND for that turn. Summoning the MIND grants access to a greater selection of skills, and taking damage while the MIND is summoned depletes TP rather than Life Points. However, should a character's MIND run out of TP, they suffer from a MIND Break and can no longer summon their MIND for a time even if TP is replenished. When the MIND is not summoned, the character is able to replenish some TP. However, without the MIND protecting them in this state, taking damage will reduce their LP, which cannot be easily restored without using items or escaping the dungeon. This system should add an interesting strategic element to battles, requiring players to consider the MIND usage carefully, particularly on the game's bosses.
Dungeon exploration takes the first-person grid-based approach on pre-designed maps with random encounters, and players are able to revist completed dungeons later should they wish. Movement outside of dungeons in the game's real-world locations takes on a similar approach to that in Persona 3 Portable, with places or items of interest selected from an overhead view. One other significant area that differentiates Mind Zero from the later Persona games is the lack of Social Link-type content. Side quests and conversations that let players get to know the cast better are much more garden-variety, which should at least mean most players can complete the game in a respectable twenty to twenty-five hours.
It is evident that the game didn't have as big of a budget as some Vita RPGs, so conversations and events use the standard visual novel approach of 2D portraits in front of a satic background. Fortunately from what can be seen, the 2D sections of the game look pretty good, with some decent character artwork helping out. On the other hand, the 3D engine used in the battles and exploration clearly isn't the best around and could take a bit of shine off the game. The dungeon designs at least seem to make up for the lack of technical quality with some unique and atmospheric locations to explore, including one example that takes inspiration from a picture book yet still retains a very eerie atmosphere.
The game's Japanese release is mostly fully-voiced, getting the full treatment for virtually all story events, with the side-content hosting the biggest gaps. It remains to be seen whether the game is dubbed into English, but it seems like it would be more be of a pleasant surprise rather than something to be expected. Music for the game has been handled by Zizz Studio, and takes on a fairly dark and stylish sound. Available samples sound rather intriguing and the indications are that it combines very nicely with Mind Zero's aesthetic style.
Those expecting a title with the same level of polish as the recent Persona releases are only setting themselves up for disappointment, but it should be interesting to see another group of developers' take on some of the ideas and themes. There's more than enough to suggest that Mind Zero is far from an attempted clone of Atlus' creations. It may not have the sheer amount of content found in recent entries of the considerably more established series, but Mind Zero should be able to find its own group of fans when it hits PlayStaion Vita in the North America and Europe this spring.