Genshin Impact is one of 2020's best surprises

Genshin Imapct
(Image credit: miHoYo)
GOTY 2020

goty 2020

(Image credit: Future)

In addition to our team-selected Game of the Year Awards 2020, individual members of the PC Gamer team each select one of their own favourite games of the year. We'll post new personal picks, alongside the main awards, throughout the rest of the month.

Genshin Impact is the best game in 2020 that no one saw coming. It was easy to write off as a mobile Breath of the Wild clone, and I remember being immediately suspicious of its too-good-to-be-true trailers because, well, how could a mobile game ever look that good? But that's what makes Genshin Impact so special: it's an astounding, expectation-smashing RPG that has raised the bar for free-to-play games—even if its 'gacha' microtransactions come with a long list of caveats. I don't think I've fallen more quickly in love with any other game this year.

Much of what makes Genshin Impact so wonderful is how deftly it understands and recreates the joy of exploration found in Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Nintendo's seminal hit still feels ahead of its time, given how many open world games like Assassin's Creed Valhalla and Cyberpunk 2077 stick to the tradition of littering their maps with icons rather than letting you discover everything organically. But in Genshin Impact, vast stretches of Teyvat are uncharted until you go there and explore them, discover what resources and monsters are found there, and mark it on your map.

What's equally as impressive to me, though, is how quickly Genshin Impact has grown.

Call me a heretic, but I actually find exploration more rewarding in Genshin Impact than in Breath of the Wild. While ruined Hyrule feels a lot more like a living world—and the mysteries tucked within it, like hidden temples and flying dragons, create a sense of wonder—the rewards I'd get from venturing off the beaten track are a little mundane. But because Genshin Impact is a more traditional RPG with a load of cues taken from MMOs and grindy mobile games, its rewards feed into a complex system that is surprisingly engrossing. Hidden chests tucked into every nook and cranny reward gear, money, and experience that feeds directly into making my party stronger. It's satisfying as hell to spend a few hours just exploring randomly.

The combat has a lot of depth too, and I've come to really love its magic system where different elemental spells can combine to create unique effects. Positioning a magic tornado so that it scoops up a group of enemies and hits a nearby campfire, turning it into a fiery vortex, never gets old, and I've spent hours theorycrafting the perfect party so I can maximize the carnage wrought by their different abilities.

What's equally as impressive to me, though, is how quickly Genshin Impact has grown. Every few weeks there's a new event and rewards to chase, new characters to gamble for, and a massive new update just dropped that adds a whole new zone to explore (with more on the way). Not all of these updates have landed without problems, but developer MiHoYo has been pretty good at listening to feedback and making adjustments—even if they aren't as radical as players hope.

It's weird to feel this optimistic about a live-service game. The biggest names in the genre, like Destiny 2 and World of Warcraft, both have communities that rapidly oscillate between joy and all-consuming hate as updates fix one thing but frequently break another. But Genshin Impact feels remarkably stable, even when controversies like characters being heavily nerfed or its too-strict stamina system temporarily spoil the fun.

(Image credit: miHoYo)

I've played for well over a hundred hours since its launch in September, and I'm excited to dig into its new Dragonspine region over the holiday break. And, really, the biggest issue I have with Genshin Impact is how its grind can suck the joy out of (finally) getting a new character from its lootboxes. I wish there was more room to experiment and test out characters without having to commit hours to getting them caught up with the rest of my party.

These few barbs can leave scratches, but I really do love this lush world and many of its characters—yes, even its screeching toddler fairy. That I've sunk so much time into this game without really needing to spend money makes Genshin Impact feel uncommonly generous for a free-to-play game, and its Breath of the Wild exploration is fantastic. That's exactly why Genshin Impact is my personal pick in PC Gamer's Game of the Year Awards.

Steven Messner

With over 7 years of experience with in-depth feature reporting, Steven's mission is to chronicle the fascinating ways that games intersect our lives. Whether it's colossal in-game wars in an MMO, or long-haul truckers who turn to games to protect them from the loneliness of the open road, Steven tries to unearth PC gaming's greatest untold stories. His love of PC gaming started extremely early. Without money to spend, he spent an entire day watching the progress bar on a 25mb download of the Heroes of Might and Magic 2 demo that he then played for at least a hundred hours. It was a good demo.