A few years ago we argued about what came first: the grind or the option to bypass repetitive activities in games by paying just a few extra bucks. For the most part, we left behind this dark chapter of video game history, but "surprise mechanics" are still with us to this date. In a way, Genshin Impact is the next evolution in the lucrative field of live service games, blending together cheap microtransactions with AAA qualities. But, before we get into that, we should first lead the bull out of the china shop.
MiHoYo's new game is this Breath of the Wild clone that brazenly copies Nintendo's successful open-world formula. The extensive grassy landscape around Mondstadt shows a number of parallels to the latest Zelda adventure, although the Chinese developers do put their own creations on display later on in the game, too. In this brightly colourful fantasy world called Teyvat we fight off a handful of different monsters, go on treasure hunts regularly, and collect countless materials in between. Sprinting, sliding, and climbing are controlled by a central endurance bar, alike that of BotW.
We don't have to save our princess in Genshin Impact, but similar to Link we are in search of our better half. In this strange new world, we are drawn into an on-going political dispute between rival empires, but you can ignore most of the game's 'lore' if you aren't too much into squeaky anime voices or extremely one-sided characters. For example, there is this one guy who takes justice into his own hands because he believes that the local enforcement cannot protect the area on their own behalf. That recipe might work in Batman, but in Genshin Impact everything has to be so cool and edgy, that a few people will be turned off for sure.
Overall, the plot of Genshin Impact remains behind its possibilities, because MiHoYo is cutting all of their own efforts short because of the game's terrible monetisation. The story undoubtedly has its moments, but quests are often about building up tension that the game simply does not fulfill. This might not be uncommon for many live service games, but neither is it particularly tempting from a player's point of view. After just a few acts, the game ends at the moment, leaving the first chapter and many questions open. More content should be submitted in the future, we just have to wait for it...
In terms of gameplay, the title is all about exploration and combat. As mentioned before, the open world of Genshin Impact has some nice places to visit and there are many tasks to help you pass the time. You can even clear dungeons in this game but these linear caves have nothing in common with Zelda in terms of puzzles or structure. Unfortunately, various quests are getting locked away until your "Adventure Rank" reaches a certain level and although similar games are making use of this limitation, too, it remains annoying if you want to follow a mission thread.
The battles are very impressive from the start, even more so in the F2P space on mobile devices. Genshin Impact primarily relies on elementary chains, because each of your characters comes with a predominant element and corresponding status effects. Just to give you an idea: If we shock a wet enemy, our attack sets their teeth on edge, causing high extra damage. Not only does that look pretty cool, but it also plays great - just like a full-fledged action game does.
If you want to, you can even explore the open world with your friends, both of you first need to play a few hours in order to unlock the matchmaking. I don't think it's really worth it, because of how easy it is to trigger said elemental effects on your own, but I am welcoming the option very much regardless. When playing together, the joining player, unfortunately, has to accept a lot of cuts, such as not taking over any quest progress or being able to interact with the foreign world.
Over the course of the game, MiHoYo adds a few new characters with certain skills to your roster, so that you can further explore the world's secrets. In Genshin Impact we can switch back and forth between the four active characters of our squad at any given time so that we can access their elemental powers. This is necessary not only in battles but also when it comes to solving puzzles in the open world. For example, you should always have someone on your team who can create fire, because this element is needed to complete half of all challenges in the game.
However, if you don't want the cheerful Amber with you, you won't be able to solve many of the puzzles unless you happen to win the lottery. That's because you can only get other characters from loot boxes as random rewards with a fearsome low drop chance. You can unlock loot boxes after you put in a lot of work and time, but it's obvious that this is not in the interests of the developers. Instead, they keep building quests and dedicated tutorial dungeons, which are designed solely to showcase and highlight a particular character's set of skills (we can try out other characters regularly in disguise in story or side missions).
Another big problem rises as the game progress, and it's a bit more difficult to explain. Even if you by chance pull one of the rare characters out of the gambling trap, it will take many more tries before they become really strong. Everyone levels up individually and if you want to maximize everything, you have to get the same character several times, in order to unlock their passive talents through duplicates. However, every single team member needs their own artifacts and weapons, and of course, that can't just be trash either. That's why you need tons of raw materials and rare consumables and while the clutter drops every now and then, you always have the option to find a few more things in the aforementioned loot boxes...
This isn't a big problem in the early stages, but it will become one in the later parts towards the grindy end-game. You don't necessarily need rare characters or equipment to 'beat' the game, but it is fun to explore the world, even if you are not getting a payoff for it - i.e. it won't help you get the item you want. Instead, farming important materials is the order of business in every situation, because you have to put in an incredible amount of work if you want to create a potent arsenal. And of course, that would be completely fine if the overall design of Genshin Impact was more than a nicely packaged, but ultimately very bland open-world slot machine. Unfortunately, that's not the case at the moment.
Genshin Impact has been available for about three weeks now and there is a reason why I am only now making a verdict - the game simply repels me in many places. Apart from the loot box disaster, there are other excesses of time-consuming live service games, which are aimed at tying a carrot in front of the player's nose for as long as possible. For example, you'll find daily quests from the assembly line (there are positive exceptions, though), premium memberships with higher login bonuses, and a season pass was even introduced recently, too. If you really want it, you can also play the game on mobile devices and of course, there is cross-play, because your friends should be able to encourage you to buy loot boxes too.
The fact that such features are already available at the start on three platforms (PC, PS4, and iOS / Android) would be a welcoming sight in many cases, but here this focus is overshadowing the conclusion of the story and even the quest design. MiHoYo isn't the first company to try copying the iconic The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and neither will it be the last. In places, Its interpretation even succeeds in doing so, because the world and the battles form two strong, well-made game pillars. However, the completely unfair progress system in combination with the dangerous monetisation traps creates an unreal, dystopian reality. One can only be grateful that this kind of game isn't (yet) good enough so that even more people to fall victim to it.