Genshin Impact is easy to write it off as another one of the dozens of "gacha" RPGs that have become infamous for predatory microtransactions and exploitive progression schemes. I wouldn't blame you for being suspicious of it. When I first started playing, I certainly was. But in the 20-plus hours I've played since it launched this week (I've been a little obsessed), Genshin Impact has given me a gorgeous and densely packed world to explore, vibrant characters to meet, and a combat system centered on cleverly mixing elemental magic to destroy enemies. It's quickly becoming one of my favorite RPGs of this year.
And it hasn't once pressured me to pay up.
Breath of the waifu
Make no mistake, Genshin Impact is very much a JRPG in spirit, even if it's actually developed by Shanghai, China studio MiHoYo. You play as one of two twins who are on an interdimensional vacation when they get separated by some angry god or something who drops you into the medieval realm of Teyvat. Angry wind dragons, young bards who are actually the resurrected avatar of ancient gods, and a fairy sidekick who speaks exclusively in third person—Genshin Impact hits all the tropes with disarmingly light-hearted earnestness.
It's cliche, but everything is buoyed by surprisingly great quality. The voice acting is particularly good and pushes characters out of the realm of obnoxious anime heroes, but I'm more impressed with the serene soundtrack featuring the London Philharmonic Orchestra. When it all comes together in dramatic cutscenes or as I'm mindlessly roaming around, I often feel a bit gobsmacked that this is all free.
The story isn't the real reason to play Genshin Impact, though. Once I knocked out a few early quests, I was set free to begin exploring the vast, uncharted lands of Teyvat. It's here that Genshin Impact takes a lot of cues from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The similarities are so evident that someone even publicly smashed their PS4 in protest because Sony dared to show a trailer of Genshin Impact at a convention.
It is with great regret, then, that I must inform said PS4 smasher that he doth protest in vain. The ethos of Breath of the Wild is present, and there's a lot of superficial similarities like being able to glide around or climb on most anything, but Genshin Impact isn't the same physics-driven playground. I can't chop down trees to make bridges or kill enemies with carefully timed rock slides, but it's got it's own clever touches that make exploring really fun.
Above: You can climb pretty much everything so long as you manage your stamina.
Though it doesn't hit the same highs that I had in Breath of the Wild, developer MiHoYo has done an excellent job building a world with a similar depth and genius. It's the kind of world so rich with little secrets and puzzles that I want to pore over every inch. Some are obvious, like a big tower looming in the distance or glowing red statues that trigger special challenges like using my winglider to fly through an obstacle course or kill enemies within a time limit.
There are subtler secrets to find, too. Little spirits guide me to hidden treasure, tough minibosses lurk in hidden valleys, and even a suspiciously placed rock might reveal some loot. These secrets are so woven into the world that I've lost hours just bumping from one thing to the next without any larger objective. Though Breath of the Wild did it first, that kind of freeform exploration is still liberating when most open world games slap map markers on every goddamn thing.
What I really love about exploring in Genshin Impact is how tightly it feeds back into the core progression of my characters. While each of the heroes in my group have their own individual level, my overall progress is gated by an Adventure Rank that unlocks new features like multiplayer co-op, dungeons, and daily quests. Leveling that up would be a chore, except for the fact that everything grants me experience points toward new ranks. Opening a chest, solving a puzzle, finding a collectible item, turning in that collectible item, doing a side quest, fighting a world boss—it makes every little thing I do feel significant.
Fire and ice
While Genshin Impact's freeform exploration is fun and relaxing, I'm glad the world is also full of things to kill, because its combat is great. The core of it is familiar—rapid attack combos mixed with quick dodges—but there's a lot of explosive twists that quickly become evident the more I played.
The weirdest one is that even though I have four people in my party at one time, only one is actually visible at any one moment. With the press of a button, I can swap that character for another, and each has their own separate health bar but can only take damage when I'm actively controlling them. It's a bit odd to swap between characters like this instead of having them in the field with me like in other RPGs, but the trade-off is being able to queue up some wild elemental magic combos.
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Above: Step one, light enemies on fire. Step two, murder them with a flame tornado.
The first time I discovered this was when my main character unleashed her tornado ability that scooped up several enemies and inadvertently carried them over a campfire. In an instant, that tornado became a fiery vortex that charred them all to a crisp. That might be expected if you've already played Breath of the Wild (or even immersive sims like Bioshock) but Genshin Impact really expands the idea to its outer limits. Each of the six elements can combine with another to create some kind of magical effect—crystalline shields, electrified water, vapor explosions—and it's really satisfying chaining these together to deal massive damage while still avoiding enemy attacks or getting hurt by your own magic.
The main story supplies you with enough characters of different elements to get started, but the rest come from loot boxes that are either bought with money or currency you earn from most every activity. Each of the 23 available so far has their own associated element and unique elemental attacks—in addition to favoring a certain type of weapon. All this variety makes fights feel vicious and fluid. One second I'm stabbing a monster with Xianling's spear while Guoba, her magic panda, breathes fire on it, and then I switch to Linda to get some breathing room so I can unleash a lighting storm and trigger the Overloaded effect to deal enormous, explosive damage.
I have to be careful, though, because enemies will also use these same tactics against me. Using water attacks is probably a bad idea if I'm fighting an ice mage because they can easily freeze me solid if I accidentally soak myself, and fires I start can quickly turn on me if I'm knee-deep in dry grass.
These magical combos aren't just for fighting, though. I can use ice attacks to make bridges over rivers, for example, or use an air attack to propel me up to unreachable heights. Even the cooking pots I find on my adventures can't be used unless I light the kindling with a touch of magic first. Though I can only have four members in my party, I can easily switch them out for those in my reserves if I need to, so I'm never without an answer to a problem that can be solved through magic.
I love that my team has uses beyond their combat potential because it adds a whole new layer of strategy to exploring the world that consistently rewards creativity. Elemental magic ties everything together into a cohesive whole anchored by who I choose to adventure with. It's deeply satisfying.
Below: With her rapid spear attacks, Xianling is a powerhouse.
Grind and grind
I think Genshin Impact is great, but I do have concerns with how the experience might change over time. While its Breath of the Wild inspirations are PS4-smashingly obvious, Genshin Impact's roots as a mobile game means it still employs some irritating schemes to keep you logging in each day.
The loot boxes seem like an obvious concern, but they're harmless unless you're obsessed with min-maxing. The powerful characters you can get from one are so rare that it seems like a waste of money to even try and most in-game activities reward you with currency that can be spent on these loot boxes anyway. While those who pay will maybe have an edge, I'm very happy with how much I've been able to earn just by playing. And because Genshin Impact doesn't have any PvP, I don't feel punished for not having the most optimal crew.
I do wish the PC had its own user interface and more graphics options, though. It's not so bad that it becomes frustrating, but menu elements are spread out and blown up because they're intended for much smaller screens and clumsy thumbs. It makes navigating a bit of a chore. The game is also locked at 60 fps and there's not many options to tune the graphics (though it does run great for me).
What concerns me more is whether or not the grind will ramp up as I reach higher levels and need more resources to progress in the story. Armor and weapons also have individual levels that increase by feeding them lower-quality copies or special resources. But when you hit certain milestones, like level 20, you have to "ascend" that gear (the same goes for your characters) using extra rare resources.
This ties into Domains, which are dungeons that you can do alone or in multiplayer. Each one rewards specific upgrade materials, but the catch is the specific items change depending on what day of the week it is. With the party I have now, their weapons require four different types of resources that each drop on two different days of the week. It's easy to see how Genshin Impact is subtly pressuring me to play every day so I don't miss my chance to earn the required materials to progress. That's in addition to the usual systems like daily quests, login bonuses, a battle pass, and everything else that's become standard in this genre. There's even a kind of stamina system that dictates how often I can earn powerful rewards from certain activities, so don't expect to just grind your heart out on a single dungeon all night. It does replenish fully every 24 hours, though, so it's not too limiting.
As an MMO player, I'm used to these kinds of schemes and, right now, it doesn't bug me because Genshin Impact doesn't feel like an obligation. I'm just having too much fun. Sure, I need to wait until Saturday before I can upgrade one of my character's weapons, but there's so much else to do in the meantime. I still haven't explored two thirds of the map, tracked down a few other needed upgrade materials, or done the new story quests I unlocked this morning. That all of this is available for free is just astounding to me. I didn't know what to expect going in, but Genshin Impact is quickly becoming one of my favorite games this year.