EDITOR'S NOTE: Genshin Impact won "best mobile game" in the Tom's Guide Awards 2021 for gaming.
Gamers first heard about Genshin Impact at E3 2019, but it wasn’t until August 2020 that it made a big splash. The game is an open-world RPG with lots of exploration and character-building, buoyed by a colorful anime aesthetic and the handy ability to glide almost everywhere on the map. Think The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but for the otaku crowd.
(I can’t find who initially coined the term “Breath of the Waifu” on Twitter, but that’s about the size of it.)
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Now that Genshin Impact is out on PC, PS4, Android and iOS, there are a few interesting things to note about it: It’s free-to-play, it employs gacha mechanics for new characters and equipment, and it really does draw heavily on Breath of the Wild for inspiration, right down to the soundtrack. One other thing: It’s also a thoroughly decent game, at least for the first few hours.
While Genshin Impact’s F2P mechanics have the potential to be as predatory and unsatisfying as any gacha game, the title’s core design is solid, its story is intriguing, its characters are endearing, and its world is worth exploring. Considering that Genshin Impact is free to play (and, like most free to play games, gives you a generous amount of premium currency right up front), it’s worth at least a few hours of your time this weekend, especially if you’re chomping at the bit for Breath of the Wild 2.
What Genshin Impact gets right
On a whim, I played through Genshin’s Impact multi-hour prologue, and what endeared me right away was just how accessible the game is. There’s no tedious backstory or complicated character creation. You start right in the middle of a short cutscene, pick whether you want to play as a boy or a girl, name your character, and that’s it. The time from booting up the game to actually playing it is a few minutes, at most, and that’s more than even some big-budget modern titles can say.
From there, the game’s core mechanics are extremely easy to understand. With some helpful nudges from your sidekick (a somewhat adorable, somewhat obnoxious fairy named Paimon), you’ll figure out movement, platforming, combat and unlocking more of the map in less time than it’s taken me to type this paragraph.
Once you understand the core gameplay loop, it’s extremely inviting. You visit a city, discover some quests, and set out into the countryside to complete them. The big difference between Genshin Impact and, say, World of Warcraft is that there’s a lot to do between quest destinations. You’ll come across hidden caves, enemy bases, environmental puzzles and plenty of crafting ingredients every time you leave the beaten path.
Most of these paths lead to treasure chests, which not only give you better equipment, but also help you improve your “Adventurer Rank.” This isn’t a character level, but rather an overall measure of how far you’ve made it in the game. The higher your rank, the more features you can unlock, from questlines to multiplayer.
Unlike Breath of the Wild, you’ll also be able to switch among four characters on the fly. You get some of these characters by playing through the story, and others through Genshin Impact’s gacha mechanics. Leaving the gacha influence aside for a moment, the characters themselves are varied and fun. Your first party member, Amber, can fire arrows that set enemies ablaze, while the witch Lisa can zap enemies with lighting up close — useful, if they’re standing in shallow pools of water.
Combining lightning with water is just the tip of the (sometimes literal) iceberg for elemental mechanics in Genshin Impact. Each character has a different elemental affinity: fire, ice, lighting and so forth. Every element interacts with other elements in a unique way. You can electrocute enemies in standing water, or freeze fiery foes solid, or create a dangerous whirlpool in midair. There are so many elemental combinations, it can be difficult to wrap your head around, but it also gives the game a lot of strategic depth.
Finally, like Breath of the Wild, you do indeed unlock a glider early on, which lets you fly around the huge world and take in the sights, stopping wherever you please to fight enemies, gather crafting resources and unlock new fast travel points. Genshin Impact offers a big, colorful world, full of likable characters and easy-to-understand core gameplay.
What Genshin Impact gets wrong
Whether you ultimately stick with Genshin Impact will have a lot to do with your tolerance for gacha games. If you’re not familiar with the term, “gacha” is a Japanese design strategy that comes from vending machine toys. Rather than simply buy the characters and equipment you want, gacha games charge premium currency for randomized drops. You’re not paying for the character you want — you’re paying for a chance to get the character you want, just like buying a pack of baseball cards.
There’s an obvious tension between relying on gacha for new characters, and trying to make those characters an integral part of the story. Naturally, some characters are also simply better than others (due to their level of rarity), which makes completing the game with free characters a bit more difficult. So far, the difference is not all that striking, but these disparities tend to rear their heads around the midgame mark, so I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.
All of the game’s different premium currencies can get quite confusing as well. One type lets you summon new characters; one type lets you buy the first type; yet another type lets you buy the first type, but only if you go through a specialized store interface. I appreciate that Genshin Impact wants to keep its focus on gameplay and story, but just a screen or two explaining exactly what each currency is, and how to get it, and how you spend it, would clear up a lot of confusion.
The game also employs some odd F2P mechanics even where they’re not needed. When the game begins, you can level your characters up to 20, and that’s it. Anything beyond that requires a character upgrade, which requires specialized crafting materials, which require a certain Adventurer Rank, which requires you to complete certain questlines, which requires you to level up other characters — you get the idea. Gating level-up content sort of makes sense in a mobile gacha game, where the idea is to draw players back in to grind every day. But in a single-player adventure title, it just gets in the way of character-building and exploration.
Still, considering it’s a game that was barely on my radar before this week, Genshin Impact gets almost everything right. I imagine the gacha mechanics might wear thin over time, but on the other hand, it’s not gating off any important content behind a paywall. All you have to risk is a few hours — and if the game clicks with you, then you’ll get a worthwhile reward.