Of the many screen captures and countless hours of recorded footage during one’s playtime in Genshin Impact, it’s been a difficult task finding the ideal visuals to best sum up the current racking up of 25-or-so hours. In a way that’s both accurately representative, but also that which offers an insight into some of the more emergent and thus personal highlights. If you’ve been keeping tabs on this latest free-to-play title by China-based miHoYo, you may well have come across (or perhaps knowingly used) some of its more dismissive or undermining labels. A Breath of the Wild clone has been the more “popular” descriptor being thrown about, but even the premise of a game whose model falls more in line with the current Gacha format may already be enough to turn anyone away.
To tackle the former comparison — the reference to one of 2017’s more lauded releases and a radical shift in series convention, to say the least — it’s not that such a descriptor is inherently untrue. It doesn’t take long upon setting out into the fictional world of Teyvat to spot a fair number of similarities with Nintendo’s work, some more blatant than others. But to come both into and away from Genshin Impact and proclaim this to be a clone and nothing else massively downplays the ways in which this game is presented. And above all else, does a great disservice to a developer that — in all their imitation — understand why the exploration, world and very level design itself of Breath of the Wild worked so wonderfully. There’s even a case here that Genshin Impact actually builds atop the ideas Nintendo brought forth. Better still: masters them wholesale in carving out a game, a world, whose back-end monetization, brief technical frustrations and occasional grind can so easily be pushed aside.
There’s no greater a highlight than a moment around fifteen-ish hours into wandering the world. Having already established the omnipresent “the world is one big environmental puzzle” motif at the heart of Genshin Impact and successfully completing a near two kilometre trek to a new region, to activate another beacon filling in more of the map, only to spot one of thousands of optional collectibles atop an incline of rocks; a few seconds of climbing later and off in the distance, another beacon. A subtle indicator — of which the game does a great job at allowing players to organically discover parts for themselves — that hinted not only towards another environmental conundrum, but also of what may lie beyond. Even then: what other little moments will distract me. It’s a truly great, out-of-the-blue moment but another point in Genshin Impact‘s favor. How, indeed like Breath of the Wild before it, the journey becomes as pivotal and as fulfilling as the destination. Ultimately, the marvel of seeing yet another perspective on the vast world before you. Before long, you’re ready to plot another course and begin that journey all over again.
All of which should be read as quite the startling accomplishment to see achieved, given that at its most basic level, Genshin Impact is an action RPG whose fantastical storytelling, main characters and method for narrative are, though more direct and baked into progression, not exactly memorable or stand-out by any stretch. Your only agency or presence in the world as a character is that of one of two siblings referred to simply as the Traveller. A character whom, outside of a handful of solitary lines, rarely speaks and emotes with anything but an accepting smile. The supposed engagement with characters, like most Gacha releases, lies on the assembly of characters you accrue — be it naturally or through investment of real money — over the course of the story being told. And by extension, a significant part of the where the RPG elements come into play, maxing out the levels and skills of the characters at your disposal.
While there’s a period around ten hours in where the showering of XP, resources and crafting material shrinks to that of a trickle, credit where credit’s due. Genshin Impact is not as predatory or as manipulative with progression as this kind of business model may allude towards. Yes, that’s not to say that the meager doling out of Primagems (one of the many form of currencies) doesn’t eventually devolve from dismissive, to a touch annoying, to downright aggravating. Not least because in-game achievements and challenges also suffer from this same deliberate smidgen of an offering. So little in the way of crucial currency; obviously it’s an attempt to further coax players to the in-game shop where everything, including the potential pull of a four-star (maybe even five-star) weapon or new character dangles in front of you. Another ten pulls and you’re sure to get it this time.
But rarely does the monetization side of Genshin Impact get in the way of what feels first and foremost like an open-world adventure brimming with diverse and intriguing content to invest in. Content that isn’t just another fetch quest or another handful of items to gather, but a puzzle to work out, a chest to reach, or in the briefest of spots, a curious little spot of world-building to unravel. Grind is an eventuality once you start to near the high-teens and low twenties of your Adventure Rank. Adventure Rank being your character’s defining “level” of sorts whose meter can be fed through completing quests and achieving certain milestones. That reliance on levels does unfortunately rub the wrong way at points, especially when it becomes a barrier to later quests, story-based or otherwise. And while setting a minimum level cap on quests can be read as gentle persuasion to explore more of the environment, the abrupt nature doesn’t always feel entirely warranted. Particularly when the main story takes a dramatic turn and you find you can’t continue on that thread because your Adventure Rank (or AR for short) is one or two levels too low. So it’s to the daily Commission Quests or some other similarly short-term activity on the side, for the time being.
But perhaps the most crucial consolation in this part especially is indeed the breadth of content on offer in Genshin Impact. From environmental puzzles to work out, to small enemy camps to clear, to brief challenges that reward another chest to open, even just taking a glance at the map and spotting a more conspicuous landmark. To venture to said landmark and find a higher-level and [thankfully] more aggressive boss show up. Most of these content placements do feed back into the continual progression of XP and AR and currency (and of the game doing its subtle best to convince us to drop some money into the Gacha side of things). Like its inspirations, some of these are more blatant and unapologetic than others. But where Genshin‘s true purposes may not always be purely innocent in nature, what stops the experience from turning in sour or predatory most of all, is the thoughtful craft at which the world is structured. How, like Breath of the Wild, there’s no right answer to exploring in of itself, but there’s an answer to such things like “how do I get that collectible when it’s all the way up there?”
Even when the game moves away from its exploration aspect and quest-lines become the focus. When players are dropped into one of many dungeons — or whose side activities laboriously have you hopping from A to B…back to A again…and then literally back to that same B point straight-after — combat too is another area where Genshin Impact makes both meaningful but also a pleasure in engaging with. On the surface the set-up may not entirely be all that special; characters have their own pre-determined role of regular DPS, two-handed heavy-hitters or ranged whereby one of six elemental classes is assigned. The appeal lies in dabbling with the make-up of your party, of which you can have up to four characters that you can switch in-and-out on the fly. Combat is fast, frantic and at its best allows players to go wild with the elemental possibilities on offer.
Though the complexity of physical combat isn’t entirely deep, it’s the tactical side of things where most of the focus is placed. The continuous push for elemental buffs and certain status ailments on your enemies, made possible when you combine two or more elements in a given situation. Come across foes that are comprised of ice? Best to rid their armor with a character specializing in fire abilities, but not before having that interact with wind and topping it off with a clash of an electric super move that causes you to chain together damage to nearby enemies. While you can mostly get by simply throwing everything but the kitchen sink at things, later on the game does require players to think more strategically about the kind of elemental properties they want to wield. More importantly, when it might be best to use specific abilities — some running on a cool-down, others requiring a slightly lengthier charge up. But even at its most basic level, when taking out the elemental mechanics and the desire to multiply one’s damage output, there’s a simple pleasure in seeing your character hack-and-slash away. A more satisfying sight when such encounters have you surrounded on all fronts — some enemies even trying to stay back so as to unleash their own area-of-effect or elemental-based ailments.
But as alluded to near the beginning of this review, Genshin Impact does falter at the point where it seems the game is destined for undeniably phenomenal heights. Not entirely a deal-breaker or one that takes the player completely out of the accomplished immersion of its world or even its combat. But when totted up, does signal a game that could’ve used a bit more checking-over. When it comes to tackling some of the more technical components, Genshin Impact drops the ball one too many times. Even if you were to disregard the nature of the narrative or the way in which a group of characters can, at their worst, talk extensively (and absently off-screen worst of all), there’s a notable disconnect when the game, for example, continues to refer to your male sibling character as “she” or “her.” It isn’t the only basic error that crops up with many an instance of dialogue cutting off mid-conversation, not matching up with what’s written on-screen and at one point, a mere line of dialogue getting stuck on-screen for the rest of one’s play session.
While not the most glaring criticism to address, or one that offers any sort of long-term problem, it’s still admittedly a pain to find that the PC version of the game is lacking in the ability to custom map buttons to a player’s controller of choice. Made even more annoying when you factor in Genshin Impact instead has a peculiar interpretation of button layout via a strange decision to swap the generally agreed-upon use of A and B being that of confirm and cancel respectively. What’s worse is that for those playing with a controller, the game in its current state requires you to manually change input settings each and every time you boot it up.
Though the story elements won’t be to everyone’s taste — and as such, the efforts the game makes to inject a sense of drama and interpretation stakes can fall flat and veer into being completely off-putting — the sheer breadth and scale that Genshin Impact offers means that the brief lows in no way impact on the many lofty highs offered up. A free-to-play game whose content rivals the more higher-budgeted AAA releases of the past few years. Where miHoYo’s inspirations and references may be a little too on-the-nose or obvious in parts, it’s similarly made up for via its wealth of content and of an exploration element that is well designed, but more importantly brilliantly emergent. In one moment, it might be the intrigue of a distant landmark, or in another the wild and flashy power-trip that is its elemental-based combat. Wherever it takes you, Genshin Impact is a more-than-convincing proposition, not least for those adamant on never spending a single cent in-game. The grind to get there may not always feel wholly natural or that players are genuinely being left to wander without restraint, but Genshin Impact‘s meticulous approach to environment design above all pulls through in many wonderful ways. Crafting one of the year’s more immersive and surprisingly rich open-world RPGs.