Opinion

Zenless Zone Zero Is Pure Style Over Substance

Good looks alone might actually be enough to make Hoyoverse’s latest RPG a hit.

screenshot from Zenless Zone Zero
Hoyoverse

Zenless Zone Zero makes one hell of a first impression. The latest gacha game from Genshin Impact developer Hoyoverse debuted in early July, with players sharing a wave of impossibly cool-looking gameplay videos. And while Zenless Zone Zero does represent Hoyoverse at its aesthetic peak, the experience of playing the game doesn’t quite match up to the appeal of simply watching it.

After the success of the turn-based Honkai Star Rail, Zenless Zone Zero is a return to the action combat that made Genshin Impact and Honkai Impact 3rd popular. What sets the combat in the developer’s latest game apart is its sheer speed and style.

Where Genshin Impact emphasizes switching out characters to set up elemental combos with their distinct skills, Zenless Zone Zero doubles down on swapping teammates as a combat strategy. Stunning enemies and dodging attacks both open opportunities to tag in a partner for a powerful strike, complete with a flashy animation to punctuate it. Similarly impressive visuals accompany pretty much every element of combat, from devastating Ultimate attacks to basic skills.

Who needs substance when the style is this good?

The problem is that the aesthetic side of combat seems to take precedence over everything else. Every part of Zenless Zone Zero’s battles seems tuned to give players a chance to pull off those flashy combo attacks, to the point where it can be a bit disorienting to play. The basic loop of every fight boils down to mashing the attack button until an enemy either winds up to hit you or you do enough damage to stun it, at which point you can call in your tag team partner.

There’s some variation, like charge attacks if you hold down buttons or special combos if you use characters from the same faction in the story, but that variation doesn’t really add up to complexity. Even if you want to set up a particular combo, it can be hard to finish it before you’re prompted to tag in another character for one reason or another. If you really want to dig into team-building, optimizing your party based on skills and specialties adds some depth, but never really changes the mindless feel of combat.

Zenless Zone Zero has style to spare.

Hoyoverse

What makes Zenless Zone Zero hard to write off entirely is that, as shallow as it feels to play, it does look incredibly good. I found myself practically falling asleep as I fought off hordes of enemies by mashing the same three buttons over and over, but I still keep logging in for a few minutes every day to see if somehow today is the day it will click with me. The desire to stay immersed in the game’s aesthetics is a big part of why I’m still making that effort.

Hoyoverse’s critics often call out the studio for relying on samey character design. While there are plenty of standout characters in its games, many share the exact same body type and their faces are sometimes near-identical, with their appeal coming from variation in costumes and color schemes. That’s not the case at all in Zenless Zone Zero. Even at launch, we have a girl with a shark tail in a maid outfit, a gunslinging robot in a leather jacket, and a literal bear decked out in streetwear.

Hoyoverse seems to have taken criticisms about its boring character designs to heart.

Hoyoverse

In combat, they look just as distinct as they do in character portraits. Characters bring everything from electrified swords to black hole-launching bazookas to fights, and their attacks look totally unique even if they feel the same to pull off. At the end of every battle, you’re treated to a gorgeous freeze frame that slathers the screen in yellow while turning your characters monochrome, and it only gets better looking if you happen to finish the fight with a particularly impressive move. It seems more than a little inspired by Rollerdrome’s eye-catching victory screen, but it works just as well in Zenless Zone Zero as it did there.

Ultimately, Zenless Zone Zero’s shallowness may not actually do it any harm. Hoyoverse has said it’s aiming to reduce the typical gacha game grind with its latest title and so far that seems to be true. Unlike Genshin Impact or Honkai Star Rail, it’s totally possible to complete daily quests in a matter of minutes, and even longer missions are relatively quick. Its ease of combat certainly plays into that, as well as making it just as playable on mobile platforms as on consoles. Players looking to sink their time into one game might be as disappointed with Zenless Zone Zero as I’ve been, but Hoyoverse may have rightly predicted that the game’s overflowing style is enough to make up for its lack of substance for most people.

Zenless Zone Zero is available now on PlayStation 5, PC, iOS, and Android.

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