It’s rare that I’ll sit down to play a game and then not want to get back up again until it’s finished. Part of that is getting older and having more responsibilities, so playing games for 4+ hour stints just isn’t a thing I have the luxury of doing anymore. It’s also because that’s not how I play games anymore either, usually favouring playing for a couple hours here or there before I move onto something else, be that other entertainment or the things that I really should be doing. So I was really surprised when I first sat down to play Mind Scanners, something I figured I’d play for an hour before needing a break from, only to find myself coming up for air some 3 hours later, still wanting to go back for more. On the surface it would look like yet another Papers, Please clone but it’s anything but, bringing with it fresh ideas and a compelling narrative that makes for some incredibly engaging gameplay.
You are a good citizen of The Structure, a bastion of humanity where a meteor brought with it the knowledge of a new technology that accelerated humanity’s development significantly. Unfortunately your daughter has been identified as needing treatment, her personality displaying some troubling signs that will need rectification by some of the most trained and skilled Mind Scanners that The Structure has available. If you want to see her again you must join their ranks as only a level 3 citizen is able to access the sacred halls where she’s receiving her treatment. This journey will introduce you to the various different citizens of the structure and make you question what it really means to be sane here.
There’s no arguing that the art style of Mind Scanners is deeply inspired by that of Papers, Please, the brutalist stylings instantly invoking thoughts of repressive regimes and the lengths they’ll go to control their citizenry. However they have put their own spin on it, ditching the muted green/grey/brown colour pallette for something that’s much more evocative of the sci-fi setting the game has chosen for itself. The soundtrack blends in seamlessly with it as well, providing the kind of subtle, synth-heavy backing noise that feels appropriate for the cyberpunk feel it’s going for. If I’m honest though I didn’t appreciate it as much whilst I was in the thick of it but, looking back over my screenshots and recalling my play time, it’s abundantly clear just how much care and attention was put into crafting the audio-visual experience.
Mind Scanners is a very unique take on the bureaucracy simulator genre, putting you in charge of treating the citizens of The Structure who display personality traits that are out of line with what’s expected of them. This starts out simple enough as the cases are pretty clear and dry, but you’ll quickly end up questioning what the meaning of “insane” really is in this world and whether or not you should be applying treatment to…well anyone. The treatments themselves are a whacky collection of mini-games, all taking inspiration from psychological treatments from yesteryear that either do or force your patients to do whacky things to treat their specific ailments. Couple this with the measured, predictable pace of the story elements you’re fed and the game just simply doesn’t let up, almost forcing you to keep playing because there’s always something else to discover or do.
The game is deliberately obtuse about a lot of its mechanics, giving you the basics of how things operate but not really revealing what will happen should you do one thing or not do another. For the sake of not ruining the game experience for you I’m not going to go into detail about the things you “should” know about each of the mechanics as not knowing what you’re doing is actually a pretty core part of how the story itself develops. Needless to say though, whilst the game doesn’t warn you upfront, it sure as shit lets you know when you’ve fucked up after the fact. To be sure, you can restart the day any time you’d like (and indeed towards the end of the game I did exactly that) but I feel going in blind and living with your mistakes makes the game far more rewarding overall.
The only tip I’ll give you is that the game has a particular cadence to it and once you settle into it you should be able to do anything you desire without the pressure of time. For me it seemed like you were able to treat one patient and diagnose another (usually beginning some treatment as well) in one day. Given that treating each patient gives you enough cash to stick around for 2 days being able to treat 1 every day gives you a great buffer of cash to spend on all the other things you need to make the game easier. Of course there’s random events that’ll usually drain a good chunk of it, but if you’ve got 1 patient already diagnosed then you can pretty much guarantee you’ll never run short of cash.
Among all the great elements of Mind Scanners the standout for me was definitely the story. Whilst the impacts you have on the overall narrative a pretty slim, with minor choices not really having any impact at all, you are certainly in charge of how you, the Mind Scanner, operate in this world. The game has numerous mechanics in it that can be used and abused in different ways and, depending on your choices, these will change the course of what happens inside the main story arc. Your interactions with different citizens also add a lot of flavour to the overall world, build out the picture perfect dystopian technocracy that all fans of cyberpunk will definitely enjoy. I’d say more but honestly if the premise, mechanics and knowledge of a good story are enticing you then you should really just go and play it.
Mind Scanners will probably go down as my surprise hit of 2021, seemingly coming out of left field as just another Papers, Please clone and then putting forward an experience that’s easily its equal. The art style, mechanics and story are all top notch, blending together so well that it’s only on reflection that I’m seeing them as distinct elements to critique. I could go on but by this point you probably know whether or not Mind Scanners is for you.
Mind Scanners is available on PC right now for $23.95. Total playtime was 3.9 hours with 21% of the achievements unlocked.