Let’s get this out of the way: Genshin Impact and its beautiful, expansive anime world of Teyvat clearly draw inspiration from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and I mean a whole heck of a lot. From the art style to the stamina-based “climb anything” mechanic to the gliding, it’s impossible not to be reminded of Link’s open-world adventures in Hyrule while exploring. But this isn’t just some copycat, as Genshin Impact’s fantastical world, wide array of diverse playable characters, and deep RPG systems are all unique and awesome enough to let it stand on its own two feet – and every one of the more than 120 hours I’ve spent in Teyvat has been an absolute blast.
Genshin Impact is a free-to-play action-adventure RPG where you play a vague and mysterious “traveler” from another world who arrives in the land of Teyvat before being attacked by a sorceress or God or…something, and your twin is captured. After waking up on a beach at level one and with zero loot, you set off on a quest to find your lost sibling that involves a whole lot of picking fruit, crafting items, and fighting deities, but surprisingly little in the way of actually searching for your twin. Because, just like during Link’s rush to save Zelda, completing these quests where you *checks notes* feed ducks is way more important.
Genshin Impact’s story is one of its weaker points, using just about every anime character trope and story cliche in the book. Characters will re-explain the same magical jargon like they’re getting paid by the word, and the story meanders from one amusing misadventure to another with little cohesion. That poor pacing certainly isn’t helped by the XP-gating that happens between each act, where you’ll need to hit an increasingly more difficult to reach Adventurer Rank to advance to the next quest.
But since you’ll spend most of your time roaming the world and making your own stories as you rank up instead of listening to people explain whatever the heck an Anemoculus is, that messy structure isn’t a dealbreaker. And, with a few exceptions, the cast of quirky characters (a whopping 23 of which are playable) are a lot of fun to interact with and play as, even if I occasionally rolled my eyes when they made repeated and very uncalled for horny comments for no reason at all – yay, anime.
The real star here is Teyvat itself, a world that is absolutely bursting at the seams with possibilities. Every nook and cranny is loaded with collectibles to power your characters up with, chests to discover and pull loot from, puzzles to solve, enemies to take down, challenges to complete, dungeons to tackle, relentless bosses to fight, and quests to pursue. It’s actually almost distressing how much there is to do. In any given area in the massive world map, there always seemed to be about five or more things in my immediate field of view to pursue, each with their own challenges and rewards. Sometimes it’s difficult just to stay on task and complete major quests simply because there’s such an embarrassment of riches available to you as you explore the world. A locked chest that catches the corner of your eye might lead to an impromptu quest or multi-step puzzle. Following a fluttering blue fairy might lead to a massive combat encounter or even a lengthy boss fight. It’s a disgustingly addictive chain reaction of things to do in the best possible way.
It doesn’t hurt that the world of Teyvat is absolutely gorgeous to look at and listen to throughout, with the notable exception of some occasional obligatory over-the-top anime voice acting. Although it borrows more than it invents in terms of presentation, the sights and sounds of this world are still a joy to behold, with breathtaking vistas around every corner and a memorable soundtrack to back them up. On the PS4 and mobile, sometimes you’ll fast travel into an area before it finishes loading and have to wait for the world to catch up with you, but aside from those occasional hiccups, Genshin Impact looks and performs remarkably well.
Once you start unlocking new characters, each with their own fighting style, abilities, and elemental affinities, the world takes on different shapes as you gain completely new ways of interacting with it. What was once a lake too vast for you to swim across becomes easily traversable with the help of a cryo-type character like Kaeya that can simply freeze the water. Mountain peaks once too steep to climb become simple to reach once you unlock Venti and his ability to create wind currents wherever he pleases. Just when I thought I understood what my time in Teyvat was going to look like, I unlocked a new character, item, or ability that completely changed the way I played and reinvigorated my excitement for the next dozen hours of obsessive loot chasing.
Combat revolves around instantly switching between a party of up to four characters to shoot, hack, and explode through a broad assortment of enemy types. Each character comes equipped with their own elemental type and a few abilities that utilize that element. By switching between characters and using their powers synergistically you can unleash some seriously effective combinations. For example, if you use Xingqui’s water abilities to get the enemy wet, then follow up with Fischl’s electric attack, damage is multiplied and can wipe out a boatload of baddies in one go.
Filling out your roster of playable characters, weapons, and items, and discovering the ways in which they interact with one another becomes vital to your combat efficiency, especially for certain challenges that require you to finish the encounter before a timer runs out. This becomes particularly important as you approach the current endgame and enemies become more dangerous and gain beefy health bars, especially bosses. Whether you’re fighting a giant wolf who ruins your day with ice attacks that are just plain mean or taking on a flaming plant with some truly disgusting inferno abilities, using every tool at your disposal becomes indispensable.
Genshin Impact can also be played co-op after reaching Adventure Rank 16, but at the moment this feature feels pretty tacked on. You can host or join another player to tackle challenges and take down bosses together, but in the vast majority of cases the guest is unable to reap the rewards from any activities you complete. That’s too bad, because adventuring with a friend can actually be a lot of fun – but when one of you is locked out of nearly all loot and progression, merely able to help out in combat, it’s just not rewarding enough to do for more than a short time.
Microtransactions and its “Gacha” Model
Genshin Impact is entirely free, but the elephant in the room is its “gacha” model – also known as loot boxes – that tempts you to spend both in-game currency and real money on randomized characters, loot, consumables, and more. The ecosystem certainly flirts with being pay-to-win (a slightly less meaningful issue in a game with a focus on single-player and no PvP), but manages to strike a decent balance so that those who don’t want to spend a dime can still enjoy the whole game for free.
While it’s true that all the most powerful characters and weapons can immediately be acquired by investing enough money into loot boxes, they can technically be unlocked by getting lucky with the free currency provided as well – or if, like me, you manage to play over 120 hours in two weeks without paying anything at all and grind them out through sheer persistence. But more importantly, those powerful weapons and characters are by no means a requirement to advance, and I found myself breezing through most challenges through skill and grinding alone until I finally got lucky with some formidable unlocks that made the going much easier.
The real trouble with the gacha model comes in the later stages of progression, when the grind for account-wide “adventure XP” and upgrade materials becomes an exponentially steeper climb and time-gated activities that reward those things become a massive progression roadblock… which can be lifted for the right price, of course. This means that those willing to shell out some money are able to advance through the endgame much faster than non-paying players, who will have to play a heck of a lot more to catch up. In fact, just about every item in Genshin Impact can be acquired with enough help from your wallet, and anytime you run up against one of these barriers, you can be sure a pop-up will come to remind you exactly how you can overcome it. Admittedly it took about 40-50 hours of play before that wall really started to loom in front of me, but once it hits progression can slow substantially.
The good news is that I still enjoyed almost every part of Genshin Impact’s grind, even after more than 100 hours. The gameplay loop of exploring the world, solving puzzles, beating up baddies, completing quests, and unlocking new characters and equipment to upgrade and experiment with is incredibly addictive. Even in later stages when lucrative quests dry up and you’re left to wander Teyvat solving puzzles and finding hidden chests for slivers of XP and loot, it’s hard to complain when all of that is still a ton of fun. Even if the temptation to pull out your credit card is ever-present and sometimes in your face, the grind (so far) hasn’t been unpleasant enough to make the experience painful for me as a free player.