Genshin Impact is a different type of gacha.
I knew that when I played it for four hours one lazy Sautrday, and didn't once feel pressured to look at a sale for a bundle of premium currency or a fan-service anime character. I was progressing at a satisfying clip with the characters the game provided – each full of personality, mechanical complexity, and unique animations.
And through it all, I was having fun – even if it was a little repetitive. If I didn't know any better, I'd think I just sat down with the best open world anime RPG in a VERY long time, and that it was well worth the $60 I paid.
But for the week I’ve spent with Genshin Impact – and the dozens more hours of content it promises – I haven't paid a cent.
Gachas often have the bad habit of being more like "gotchas." They reel you in with a solid gameplay hook and pretty visuals, only to pull the rug out from under you when you hit a certain insurmountable difficulty spike. At that point, your wallet becomes the only feasible way forward.
More often than not, these games have little to give back. Shallow gameplay mechanics (addicting as they are), pretty anime art to look at, and generally subpar storytelling. They’re easy to move on from when that rugpull comes.
That's not what's happening here. Genshin offers a lavishly crafted open world, full of satisfying distractions and a legitimately captivating story with memorable characters. It's enigmatic in how well it subverts expectations laid down by the genre. And there might not be a better bang for your buck in video games right now.
The best way to think of Genshin Impact’s open world design is to, unfortunately, compare it to Breath of the Wild. (I’ll spill some more thoughts on this later.)
After a brief tutorial, you’re thrust on an expansive, but initially contained open world. Every few dozen meters there’s a new distraction to guide you along – whether it’s a camp of enemies guarding a chest, a small environmental puzzle, resources to mine, or something bigger like a dungeon or mini-boss.
But while these smaller aspects of Genshin Impact’s open world design are strikingly similar to the last mainline Zelda, the quest structure isn’t quite so open-ended. The quests are chronological and take you through different areas of each zone methodically, guiding you toward each fast-travel point and major dungeon at a natural pace.
There’s also the key difference in that Genshin Impact’s quests are all voiced – with a talented cast, I must add. And many involve cutscenes with the various characters you’ll meet and control throughout your journey. It breathes a different level of life that at time felt missing from Breath of the Wild, with its limitation to text boxes.
If you can get past the chiefly anime aesthetic (unless it’s your thing), there’s a lot of charm to be found in this tale. And even with strong moment-to-moment dialogue, Genshin’s world is also rich with history and lore for the player’s willing to dig through the game’s many books fleshing it out.
As for combat, the game relies on a simple character-action style, with each of your four party members exhibiting different movesets and abilities. Each character also governs a specific element, and these elements work together to great effect on the local monster population. For example, water and electricity can combine to deliver double damage, and fire and ice together delivers a “melt” condition, and wet enemies will freeze solid when inflicted with any ice ability. With the right team, combat can take on a dynamic and satisfying rhythm, and the environmental elements are always in play to make for a highly varied experience.
The downsides are that the standard moveset is limited. One basic combo and a heavy attack for each melee character, manual aiming and a charged shot for bow characters, and two cooldown abilities each – one of which only recharges with standard attacks. At the outset it seems as if possibilities are limitless, but it gradually becomes clear that without a vast number of high-level characters, gameplay will become repetitive.
These quests and activities all fuel a number of different progression systems. And, being a gacha, this is where the real game is.
I’ll start with leveling. Rather than the typical RPG progression of quests and monster-slaying gradually raising your level, here in Genshin it only makes a minimal contribution. Instead, you spend gold and one of three color-coded books to raise your level, each with varying degrees of increase. It’s possible to skip 10 levels with the right skillbook.
This makes character leveling less a matter of practice with each character, and more about carefully allocating your resources to the characters you like most. Each level brings about the typical raises in HP, attack, and defense. But there’s also the separate constellation system where you can unlock new abilities and iterations on current ones using a material found from duplicate characters received in the gacha.
Weapons can also be leveled up, and enhanced with specific materials or duplicates of those same weapons for flat damage increases and entirely new characteristics.
All this is to say, there is a ton going on with progression in Genshin Impact. And that’s just on the character end. There’s a separate Adventure Rank system, which gates certain dungeon content and even core features like multiplyer (rank 15) and a battle pass (rank 20).
Then, of course, there’s the gacha. Which at once feels bloated and, somehow, in the background.
As you traverse the land and complete quests, you’ll gradually build up a stock of Primogems. These are your premium gem currency (not too shy about the name), which you spend on what are essentially tokens for spins at the slot machine. Each weapon and character you can earn ranks from 3 to 5 stars, with the 5-star drop rates being absurdly low. While certain banners provide a “rate up” for specific characters, and there’s a pity system that ensures you receive a 4-star character after every 80 spins or so (spins are generally in groups of 10), I didn’t get a single 5-star character in my many pulls of the lever.
So there’s a lot to say about the gacha. Based on future content, it might govern that feasibility of late-game content. But as of right now, it’s almost completely unnecessary to enjoy Genshin Impact. The characters provided for free are all more than serviceable for this first stint of the adventure, and you garner an astounding amount of Primogems through regular play. Only the most hardcore, completionist whales – or the supremely unlucky - will want to spend money for more right now.
And there looks to be a ton of content to still release. The initial release spans two vast zones, each with their own local flavor, music, enemies, and challenges. As each zone appears to govern one of the game’s seven elements, there’s logically at least five more areas to go. What’s already here is massive – five more zones like these seems insane.
However, even with a strong first impression, it’s hard not to notice where the game draws its inspiration – and even that is too kind a word.
There’s been much ado about how much Genshin Impact borrows from Breath of the Wild. One fan went as far as to publicly destroy his PlayStation 4 in protest. That’s the kind of extreme, irrational response I don’t necessarily condone, but can almost understand after my time with Genshin. It’s the elephant in the room, and it’s making a mess in the corner.
You see, the game doesn’t just take influence from BoTW’s graphical style – and does so with gusto – but wholesale lifts several of its most noteworthy mechanics. Climbing, sprinting, and gliding are governed by a stamina meter which grows as you submit collectible orbs to a statue. You can light grass ablaze to play a part in the battle. Air currents allow you to take flight in your glider. And all of this, aside from a notable lack of Link’s momentum, is near identical to Breath of the Wild.
It even leaks into the design. There are mini environmental puzzles dotted throughout the world with similarly mini rewards. It’s even got those offbeat tinkles of piano keys as you explore the expansive grasslands and engage with the local militias of goblins.
Genshin takes these mechanics and replicates them to the best of its ability, but each of them feel stiff and unpolished compared to their origin. They’re almost there, but the nuances are just a mite less satisfying than Nintendo’s implementation.
But far from just these core mechanics, Genshin attempts to replicate the very distinct feel of playing BoTW.
And BoTW isn’t the only game that Genshin manages to pilfer. As much as Genshin wholesale lifts a lot of the ideas from Breath of the Wild, it borrows the style of combat from my all-time favorite game Nier Automata. The dash-into-sprint feeling is near identical. As is the way the weapons materialize from your character’s hand and reappear on their back – not in a sheathe, but inexplicably floating about a foot away. It’s clearly deliberate, and meant to evoke the smoothness of Nier’s combat.
Now, despite my misgivings about Genshin’s core gameplay inspirations, I cannot stop playing it. It’s an addicting game that I’ve checked into daily since launch, and I’ve been singing its praises (with a big asterisk) to everyone I know.
I lead this review saying Genshin Impact might be the best bang for your buck in gaming right now. If you have any love for RPGs and action games, I have to amend that statement. It is the best bang for your buck.
For all its imitations, Genshin manages to provide an obscene amount of free content at no cost to the player. There’s plenty of things I didn’t mention in this review – both to prevent it from being my longest ever, and to spoil the surprise.
If developer MiHoYo’s record of supporting its games is any indication, we’re likely just at the beginning of a grand adventure with Genshin Impact. And despite its faults, there’s no reason players shouldn’t try it out.