Genshin Impact is one of those games which I wish I could recommend, but I can’t do so earnestly. It’s decent. It’s a little more than decent, in fact. It’s actually probably even good.
But it’s got a lot of bad, pushing straight into awful, with a good helping of predatory monetization.
Before I really get going though, there’s a lot to cover with game like this. It’s easy to say that it’s “like Breath of the Wild” but that barely scratches the surface of what’s going on, both good and bad. In light of that, this is going to be pretty long and broken up into multiple parts. This is largely so I can give different aspects the amount of attention they deserve.
In total we’re going to be looking at an overview, the story and world, followed by monetization, combat afterward, and finally my conclusion.
Genshin in General
The earlier callback to Breath of the Wild holds true. The core formula is pretty much that, exactly, with waifus and husbandos being the leverage to fork over cash for this free-to-play game. Weapon durability is stripped out (thank god) and combat is more heavily emphasized, but in large part the main addition to the game besides the ability to swap to different playable characters with their own playstyles and kit is the addition of an MMORPG layer driving the majority of the progression.
So you could say they decided to take something widely regarded as good, that is, Breath of the Wild; improved it minutely (namely in regards to weapon durability…), then tacked on two arguably pretty bad layers, and then threw it out on multiple platforms. Oh, and there’s co-op.
As with all of this, there’s good and bad. I’ve played gacha games which are less horrible than non-gacha F2P games, I’ve played MMOs that at times were pretty fun. You could say both of these ‘bad’ elements are stuff that is a matter of execution, and I’d agree that there’s definitely better and worse ways to do it, it’s just in both of those categories, Genshin seems to have chosen the worse options when it comes to its driving choices.
Then it kind of doubles down and makes them even more strange and esoteric.
If I were to name one thing that Genshin really screwed up on, in terms of all these big motions they decided to make, it would have honestly been to focus in regards to the platforms it was brought to. The game is absolutely gorgeous and is probably one of the best looking Unity games I’ve played, but when it comes to mission design, gameplay elements, and so forth, one of the real drawbacks is the fact this game is also intended for the mobile market.
…Which is also probably why the game has made about as much money as it has, but still, I insist:
It affects the controls, the complexity of characters, the number of enemies in every encounter, and so on and so forth. In large part, I’ll say a significant portion of this opinion comes from the stance I’ve developed regarding Daemon X Machina after playing it on both the Switch and the PC, that a game can easily be held back by the hardware it’s designed for.
Had Genshin Impact targeted next-gen consoles and PCs, I think this game would’ve been better, albeit, it probably would not have made the developers the same sort of money. There’s a middle ground there, though, which the game has also failed to reach: it doesn’t offer different experiences for the different levels of hardware.
Devil May Cry 4 originally was brought to PC with something called Legendary Dark Knight mode; it essentially filled the screen with enemies so much so that in a number of rooms or encounters, you essentially couldn’t see through the walls of bodies, only over them. I wouldn’t ask for that sort of extreme, of course.
That’s something that can be solved, though. What can’t be solved about Genshin Impact’s design with being friendly to mobile platforms is the limitations on its controls: there’s no amount of fixing the limited amount of real estate which could otherwise be used with a PC’s mouse and keyboard or a console’s gamepad.
A Sandbox with All the Right Parts
This is one of the real cruxes when it comes to some of the criticisms I’ve already made and the ones which will come later: Genshin Impact has, from the design perspective, all the right levers to really make a very complex experience. There’s a significant amount of interesting interactions between different characters as well as the world and the different entities within it.
In large part, you can simplify this to ‘fire burns stuff,’ and ‘ice freezes water,’ and so forth but here and there with Genshin you see that between the different characters and their toolkits, you have significantly more granular control when it comes to how you approach a wide variety of different situations and accomplish different objectives.
The real drawback overall comes from the lack of complexity when it comes to mission design, as well as the ever-present ‘number get big’ that is MMORPG growth. Genshin Impact has a pretty decent amount of side quests, quests, and Daily Commissions, but there’s some caveats to this:
Invariably, the side quests present some of the most interesting situations, arguably here and there more-so than your story quests, but unfortunately, these are non-repeatable. Daily Commissions, a set of four repeatable quests, are, but these are usually fairly simplified alternatives to some of the side quest missions. The first major patch introduced some additional daily commissions, but as a whole, the variety here is pretty lacking, even if one or two of the mission types can, admittedly, be a bit neat.
With the game, the world and its characters, there’s a lot that can be done even with the limitations of controls, but in general the amount your mileage will actually vary is dependent upon the characters that are released for the game – and of course, what you get.
But a lot of that feels arbitrary. You’re confronted with this elemental system, and initially, it seems like the rules are fairly clear and obvious as you play around with the starter characters, then, as you explore other characters, you find they don’t interact in the same ways in which you might have previously expected.
Some stuff does have significant synergy, certain character teams can do very interesting things. Others simply might not interact in that same way. I’ll cover that in detail later, but in essence, the point I’m making is that it feels like there was the idea of it, but it’s not completely executed, and there are a number of different areas in which it breaks down.
For example, the game mentions weather as well as it having a tremendous impact, but there’s the implication of a variety of types when in reality, currently, there’s only three types of weather that aren’t just regular sunny days: rain, thunder storms, and ‘windy days,’ a thing which I’ve never encountered but is referred to in a number of characters’ dialogue lines.
Now, that’s not to understate the impact of rain when it comes to combat – but I certainly haven’t seen lightning strike anything, nor have I seen any other types of interesting weather playing since release. Weather just, currently doesn’t really impact what you’re doing because it’s fairly strongly localized. I don’t really know what I would think that even a windy day should be in Genshin, but you know, I’d assume that it might turn fire into a pretty wide-spreading war crime to deploy against your enemies.
Now, there’s a variety of forms of progression in game especially when it comes to the end goal as any RPG of getting more powerful. You could think, and I’ve been a victim of this, that a significant portion of growth is locked behind the gacha system, which is partially correct. The progression it provides is really more horizontal, although I know what you’re thinking, and I’ll admit, there is some stuff that makes it partially right:
It’s a free-to-play game with a gacha system, of course a good portion of real power comes from playing the slots, right?
But in reality, the biggest way to upgrade your roster of characters is through the artifact system. More or less, five accessories that you equip to each character. You can level up characters individually, which I’ll talk about more later, along with weapons, again the same boat, but by using the right sets of accessories and upgrading them, you’ll see the biggest and most immediate increases to power.
Expanding your roster of characters and decent weapons is largely where the gacha comes into play. There simply aren’t too many characters or weapons you can earn for free, although a few very good weapons are.
Weapons and characters are a different matter. Weapons, more or less, you can level up by actively playing the game: mining ore nodes around the map, you can forge those materials into upgrade materials or actual weapons themselves. There is a daily limit to how much you can turn mining node materials into upgrade materials. Characters, however, do not really have the same active growth. They do, but it’s… Strange.
In Genshin, you can kill mobs in the open world as you would expect to get experience, but that experience, like in any RPG, is fairly minuscule. In this case it’s entirely awful. Instead, you rely mostly on consumables, ‘Adventurer’s Notes,’ that can be used to increase the experience total of a character. If the player could actually actively play characters to level them up, one would make the assumption that these XP-increasing items would be used to level up characters you weren’t playing or didn’t want to play to get up to your level.
Yeah, that’s not the case at all. You’re basically entirely limited to using those to level up and that’s it.
Overall, it’s also worth mentioning that the pacing of the game at varying points slows to a crawl with time-gated progression based off of your Adventure Rank. There might be points, depending on what you’ve chosen to do and how you’re playing the game, where essentially you have to stop and either go into a rotation of doing dailies and burning Original Resin – the game’s stamina system – or find some other way of increasing your Adventure Rank, which there are, admittedly, more than one.
Like a lot of games, when the content is there – that is, story missions, side quests, so on and so forth – the ride happens naturally. Genshin delivers fairly decent content, but the escalation of stakes feels hit or miss when a big story arc is said and done you’re back to those same old goons it feels. There’s definitely been an uptick in the difficulty of presented challenges over the course of my playtime, but a good portion of it has come from events and story quests. After those were done, it’s back from being the hero to doing chores.
If anything, unless you were specifically the sort of person who kind of enjoys an enemy who can take a hit (that is, the author), you’re probably not going to enjoy the way in which the world simply gets more difficult the more time the player invests. In a way, the power fantasy – or more specifically, the growth of power – is still lacking even if there are, slightly obfuscated, direct paths to vertical growth of power.
Before I conclude here and move on to the next part, it’s worth to mention again that hardware and the choice to develop this game for mobile devices is, undoubtedly, the source of a number of my complaints, and that this will come up again, later, in other forms especially when I get to talking about combat.
Maybe I’m just too elitist when it comes to the capabilities of PC hardware, or even just the capability your average last generation console has, but I do really think that if Genshin had targeted them, it would’ve been a much better game, but that is absolutely not what Genshin Impact is.
And I do get that.
It still sucks.
Follow up with Part 2 here.