As we enter the final weeks of 2020, it’s fair to say it’s been a barnstormer of a year for games.
Sure, there’s the big AAA franchises everyone expected to make a big splash — Final Fantasy VII Remake, The Last of Us Part II, and Doom Eternal. But some of the year’s biggest stories have come from games that emerged seemingly out of nowhere, like Fall Guys, Among Us, and Hades. Genshin Impact, the expansive open-world adventure on PS4, PC, and mobile from Chinese developer miHoYo, isn't quite a plucky newcomer with a reported budget of $100 million, but it is astonishingly good.
Also, it’s free to play. That’s probably why the game was downloaded more than 17 million times in just four days. Much of Genshin Impact’s success comes from having a gacha (random chance draws for real-world money) system for obtaining weapons and characters that abstains from putting a stranglehold on your progress. With a massive, gorgeous world and wildly satisfying combat, Genshin Impact can rival the fun-factor of any AAA game released this year, and it’s completely possible to enjoy without spending a dime. If miHoYo can sustain this level of interest, Genshin Impact could inspire some major changes in how game developers approach monetization in the years ahead.
Early impressions of Genshin Impact from the gaming Twitterati can basically be summed up as Breath of the Wild — The Anime: The Game. That’s pretty close to the mark from our experience playing the PS4 version, and in the best possible sense. There’s a big emphasis on traversal, mini-dungeons, and crafting. You will spend the bulk of your early hours in Genshin Impact climbing, swimming, and gliding around the regions of Mondstat and Liyue. These are just two of seven planned regions, but even the map’s current size and intricacy gives Red Dead Redemption 2 and Final Fantasy XV a run for their money. The camera can occasionally become a hinderance during substantial vertical climbs, but hopefully those issues can be fixed in subsequent updates.
While there aren’t a ton of interior spaces to explore in Genshin Impact, the overworld is remarkably robust. You’ll encounter treasure chests, mini-dungeons, and hoards of club-wielding nogoodniks everywhere you look. At any given moment, your attention is pulled in several different directions – a puzzle to solve, monsters to fight, resources to scavenge. With so much to do in any given location, it’s easy for a short play session to suddenly snowball into several hours gone in a flash. All of this exploration works toward raising your Adventure Level, with story content, multiplayer, and challenge dungeons locked behind specific AR benchmarks.
Genshin Impact’s central story focuses on a traveler from another world suddenly arriving in the land of Teyvat, in which seven nations actively jostle for power. Each of these territories have a loose real-world equivalent — Mondstat is Germany, Liyue is China, the yet-unseen land of Snezhnaya is pretty clearly Russia. Each of these are governed by an elemental deity, and you’ll often have the chance to fight or recruit these immortals given flesh.
The localization is solid, and the characters each have personality to spare. However, the story and dialogue lacks the truly top-tier spark of something like a Final Fantasy VII Remake or Persona 5. The plot is unique and enjoyable, but the way Genshin Impact compels you to do other things between story sections does stymie its narrative momentum. Also, the ability to swap among your roster of playable characters at almost any time can leads to jarring scenarios where you see two of the same character on-screen at once — your party member and the “story version” of the character. It’s not a huge deal, but it’s certainly an immersion breaker.
The element of surprise
Just as Teyvat is governed by seven primary elements, each of the playable characters in your roster is aligned with a specific element and weapon type. (You’ll mostly use just six of those, because the seventh, Dendro, which has something to do with plants, hasn’t quite been fleshed out yet.) The same is true of the enemies you’ll encounter, which means you don’t want to bring a squad of fighters with ice alignments to a snowball fight. This encourages you to change up your fighting squad of four active party members fairly often, depending on the challenge at hand.
The elemental combat system is perhaps the most satisfying aspect of Genshin Impact, because it allows for a broad variety of strategies to approach a given situation. Fighting some enemies in the rain? You can freeze them, then electrocute them for bonus damage and stat debuffs. It’s an awful lot to keep track of at first, but soon you’ll be swapping among your four party members rapid-fire to stagger all these elemental combos. There’s a lot of open-ended strategy to take in here, so if you like fiddling with character builds, you’ll find a lot of satisfying intricacy here. Again, the camera can be a little wonky at times, but that’s a minor quibble.
That said, even for those of us who find intricate customization systems satisfying, Genshin Impact is an excessively complicated game, a never-ending matryoshka of things to unlock. This is in no small part due to the presence of the gacha system, but it doesn’t help that the game’s UI can be a real chore to navigate. Some mission rewards require you to check your Battle Pass, some require you to visit an Adventurer’s Guild location in one of the game’s large cities, others require you to click through various tabs in the Adventurer’s Handbook submenu. It’s a lot to keep track of, and on PS4 it doesn’t help that the button you press to access the main menu inexplicably changes when you’re in a dungeon.
Gacha right where they want you
The gacha monetization model has long been — quite rightly — criticized for making mobile games “pay to win,” or making it outright impossible to advance without spending real-world money. It’s also problematic with games that appeal to children, who may not fully realize how much cash they’re spending on a “free” title on devices linked to their parents’ credit cards. These are fundamental problems with the model and Genshin Impact is not immune to them.
However, miHoYo’s implementation of this system in Genshin Impact is mostly unobtrusive and unproblematic. Unlike most games with a paid loot mechanic, you can actually get a whole lot out of Genshin Impact without spending much — or any — real-world cash. If you’re exploring and taking on story missions, you’ll have enough materials to level up your characters and weapons, and even accumulate enough resources to get a few gacha pulls every once in a while. I haven’t reached a point where I felt bottlenecked and had to pay to progress the story, access more things to do, or where I absolutely needed to have a particular character in my roster to advance.
I’ve spent $15 on this game, for an upgraded battle pass ($10) and a month-long daily rewards pack ($5). I’ve been able to recruit more characters than I actually plan to use, and I’ve got plenty of powerful weaponry in my arsenal. As with any gatcha game, you’ll need to make a personal judgement call, set firm limits with yourself, and stick to them. That said, proceed with caution and keep an eye on your accounts if you’ve got younger kids pestering you to let them download Genshin Impact.
If you enjoy exploring a massive map, intricate character-building mechanics, and rapid-fire strategic combat, you’ll get a real kick out of Genshin Impact. At a time when developers are paving the way for $70 games, it's staggering to think a game this good could be free. However, if you have a youngster with an itchy purchase finger or issues with impulse control when it comes to gatcha, you might want to steer clear. 9/10
Genshin Impact is out now for PS4, PC, Android, and iOS.
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