You can’t write about Genshin Impact without mentioning Breath of the Wild so that’s where I’ll begin, and I know a lot of people have frowned upon how liberally developer miHoYo has ‘borrowed’ from Nintendo’s masterpiece, so let’s address that:
Yes they have, and I don’t care. At all.
Sure, landscapes are similar, hilichurls (Genshin’s basic baddies) look and move a bit like bokoblins (Zelda’s basic baddies), cooking, climbing and gliding (there’s a glider) feel identical, even some of the environmental skills/puzzles have a Sheikah Slate-vibe about them. I don’t care.
We play the same ‘AAA’ games every year and each one of them lifts at least something from a predecessor or competitor. If it’s not EA’s annual repackaging of the same FIFA game we bought in 2006, it’s Ubisoft telling us to assassinate people in exactly the same ways in Greece as we did in Egypt, or pretty much every sandbox game regurgitating the best bits of GTA III. In this case, I actually appreciate how brazen they’ve been about it, because as the old saying goes: “if the wheel ain’t broke, why reinvent it?”
I think that’s the headline of this review: A Total Absence of Innovation. I can’t recall a single original concept in this game, just a broad collection of comfortingly familiar things put together really, really well. It works because it’s built on solid, well-trodden ground, yet is still ambitious, because they were bold enough to make it (essentially) free.
In a nutshell, it’s an anime-style open-world RPG with some online capability (you can team up with 1-3 others for dungeons, bosses, etc), it’s got a surprisingly decent main plot/quest line and a near-endless supply of errands and collectables, and it plays well on consoles, PC & mobile. The general consensus seems to be that there’s currently 100+ hours of content to get through, and plans to release more every couple of months, so unless you’re a streamer who subsists entirely on revenue from playing Genshin Impact online, you probably won’t run out of things to do. As a free-to-play-er with a penchant for taking my sweet time with things, I’m not even close to the end, but there are other people with differing experience - the so-called ‘pay-to-win’ crowd - who have spent a lot of money on progression.
How? Well, Genshin is a Gacha game, and for anyone unfamiliar that roughly translates as ‘gambling for children’. You can choose to pay real money for a multitude of buffs and bonuses that all boil down to an increased chance of ‘rolling’ rarer characters and weapons. I’ve had a couple of lucky breaks and snagged a bit of top-tier stuff through basic channels with fairly little commitment, so I confess, I don’t get it. I’ve read some complaints about hitting a pay wall at a certain level but haven’t seen it personally, so for now, I continue to be grateful to anyone whose cash injection allows me to carry on enjoying the game for free. Cheers lads.
Genshin’s opening sequence is a short, slightly confusing aerial scrap between a pair of twins and an unnamed, immodestly-dressed god. You choose which of the twins to play as, watch on as the other gets (sort of) captured, and shortly afterwards wake up on a beach, accompanied by a faithful-but-irritating hovering sidekick… See? I told you it borrowed heavily from Zelda.
From there you set off on a pretty classic RPG adventure, taking in a varied cast of (often playable) misfits and a pair of cities politically and spiritually aligned to elemental ‘archons’, the intricacies of which are the basis of most of your quests. It’s not a story that’ll have you anywhere near the edge of your seat, but it’s solid justification for all the stuff you get asked to do, and in places the writing is unexpectedly good. Music and story scene voice-acting are high quality too, and while the main plot line and character quests are all open-ended for now, the world they’ve created is an interesting and believable one.
Speaking of which: Teyvat, that almost-too-vibrant land of mountains, valleys, beaches and rivers that this all takes place in, is just lovely. On the PS4 it’s never jaw-dropping but they do a gorgeous sunset, even in the rain it’s genuinely uplifting to look at, and as an escape from 2020’s Lockdown London I can’t fault it. Within the fairly generous bounds of the world map you can go wherever you like courtesy of your Link-esque climbing and gliding abilities, and getting from A to B is rarely a straight line due to countless hidden chests, enemy camps and shiny things that’ll demand your attention along the way. The world is very alive, and even later on when fast-travelling is infinitely more practical, it’s still worth going on foot occasionally just to see what kind of treasure or trouble you can run into.
Earth, wind and fire
A good proportion of your time in Genshin is spent in combat, so it’s fortunate that the battle system is so rapid, layered and interesting. The basics are simple: you’ve got a couple of normal attacks and a couple of elemental attacks, and can move around and switch freely between a party of 4 characters to mix it up. You’ll need to master different weapon types, single-strikes, shields, counters, combos and area-of-effect spells, and get used to using them all in tandem, because (especially later in the game) success is all about momentum. Juggling ability cooldowns is one aspect of that, but things really come alive when you start chaining elemental combos, pairing up Cryo and Pyro attacks to trigger the Melt effect, or using Anemo (wind) to cause Swirl - which spreads any latent effects across a wider area. Knowing how to maximise those combos and which enemies they’ll work best against is a proper challenge, and a lot of fun.
Your opponents are a pick-and-mix of recognisable humanoid grunts, mages and archers at the low-end of the food chain, and giant mechanical guardians, dragons, direwolves and magic plants(?) at the top. They’ve all got unique attack patterns which keep things quite fresh, but I’d like to see them interact with each other in more interesting ways or do a bit more than just wait to be beaten up by passing adventurers. When you’re not out in the world picking fights, you’re in ‘domains’ picking more fights, and these seem to be where most of Genshin’s current endgame content is found. Dungeons to you and I, they might be a series of fights and puzzles or a timed encounter against a group of enemies with some sort of situational handicap, and they’re fine as a method of collecting more stuff, but feel a bit uninspiring when they form part of the storyline.
A little unusually for an RPG, the basic act of beating up baddies doesn’t directly contribute much to your overall growth, and instead Genshin relies on an interwoven network of points, consumables and tasks that enable you to level up one of the many, many characteristics of your team, items or the world itself. I’ve not had a real go at counting them all, but my best estimate is that there are about 25 different mechanics in play, including but not limited to: energies, currencies, base stats and multipliers, stat combos and ‘resonances’, food, materials for crafting, equipment upgrades, character progression and ‘ascension’, treasure-location, city-based reputation and daily/event-based errands.
Navigating all of these is second nature now, and I guess it’s testament to the subtlety of the learning curve that I don’t remember being taught how they work, it just sort of… happened. It’s well-balanced too, because whether I want a 30-minute job to do on my lunch break or a proper sit down at the weekend, Genshin has an appropriately-sized thing ready and waiting, and whatever is it will contribute meaningfully to the overall experience.
It feels as considered and diverse as Skyrim, for example, but much more manageable.
Ostensibly the motivation for doing all this fighting and levelling-up is to move the story along, but in reality, the pot of gold at the end of Genshin’s rainbow is full of rare, 5-star characters and gear. The popularity of the game so far is in large part due to the developer’s ability to create appealing anime boys and girls, then make them extraordinarily difficult to acquire via the Gacha system. A Forbes article worked out that forking over $365 should guarantee you a featured, top-tier character during one of the ‘events’ that increases their drop rate, but luck still plays a part and there are some (frankly hilarious) stories of people throwing thousands of dollars at a single character, and still coming up empty-handed.
Long story short, if you’re able to suspend gotta-catch-em-all urges while playing this game you’ll be better off for it, and as far as I can tell there is absolutely nothing stopping you from cracking on with a carefully assembled 4-star inventory either.
So yeah, I love this game. I might lose interest if I reach this supposed 'soft pay-wall', or if they run out of steam with the content updates and it becomes too repetitive, but neither of those things looks like happening soon. It’s bags of fun and remarkably solid, and while I encountered the occasional bug it was always fixed with a reset - a far cry from some of the major glitches common in Ubisoft, Bethesda, and (more recently) CD Projekt Red games. It’s got a multiplayer that’s so limited I’ve barely given it a look so far, but might turn into a killer feature later - and even if it doesn’t, I can live without it.
It’s a joyful, lovingly made and well-maintained action RPG with tonnes to do, none of the grief and pressure that comes with MMO gaming, and if you’re sensible, it’s entirely free. There’s really no excuse not to give it a go.