I still refuse to believe Genshin Impact is real. Sure, I’ve played the game numerous times in 2020, from a hands-on event at PAX East in February to a closed beta in July and now hours of time spent with the full release. Despite all that time playing this very much real video game, I just can’t wrap my head around how something this polished, gorgeous, ambitious, addictive… and free! It’s free on PC, free on PlayStation 4, and free on your phone, yet no matter what device you choose to play on, you’re still diving into one of the most impressive and unobtrusive free-to-play games I’ve ever experienced.
When you see the label free-to-play tossed around, it implies one of two sorts of gaming experiences. You’re either looking at some sort of competitive, seasonal multiplayer video game or a flashy phone game full of menus and sub-menus and side-quests and event challenges that whisk you into an endless hole of contextless turn-based battles or tower defence missions. Genshin Impact is neither of these. Despite Chinese developer miHoYo gaining their fame from years of developing mobile grindfest gacha game Honkai Impact 3rd, Genshin Impact is a massive, open-world adventure with real-time action combat, recruitable characters, and a hefty amount of story.
At a glance, you’re likely to draw comparisons between this game and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. That’s certainly fair, as this game openly draws plenty of inspiration from the Nintendo Switch classic. Mechanics like a stamina-fueled climbing system, chests guarded by enemy encampments, a glider to let you serenely float down from clifftops, and cooking at campsites certainly weren’t invented by the latest entry in the iconic Nintendo franchise, but the way they’re implemented in Genshin Impact will definitely feel familiar to anyone who’s played Breath of the Wild. Having that same sort of naturally engrossing itch for exploration applied to a gorgeous, anime-as-hell action game like this is a delight, though.
The world and characters of Genshin Impact are jaw-dropping, no matter what device you play on, and it legitimately blows me away that this free game from a Chinese mobile developer manages to look better than almost every other anime stylised JRPG or action game I’ve seen this generation.
There’s a major focus on the interaction between elements in Genshin Impact, but unlike Breath of the Wild, this system is far more important to the flow of combat than the emergent action of exploring the open world. Sure, you can use ice characters to create walkable paths on bodies of water or use a fire character to burn thorns blocking off a chest, but the real fun comes in battle, thanks to your ability to instantly switch between anyone in your party of four as you fight. You can use a water-elemental to drench your enemies, then swap to a lightning character and conduct massive bolts of damage through them all. A wind-based archer might have trouble with shielded enemies, but if those shields are made of wood, switch to a fire ally like Amber and you can turn those defences to ash. The abilities of an individual character may be limited to a single standard combo, an elemental skill, and an ultimate ability, but the depth of the combat system is revealed once you start using all your characters in tandem.
Now remember, Genshin Impact is a free-to-play game. Surely, the character system is where they start digging into your pockets, right? Nope. Not at all. While there is a gacha system that lets you spend premium currency for a random shot at new weapons or characters, unlike every other game with a gacha system I’ve ever played, you never need to engage with this. The game never strong-arms you into going for a new character or blocks your progress until you get someone with a certain element. Most games give you a “tutorial” gacha roll to give you a taste of the gambling, but Genshin Impact simply tells you the system is there and moves on, dolling out new and powerful characters for free as you progress through the story.
If you do see someone you like in the Wish menu and decide to go for them, be warned that the odds of getting rare characters are pretty rough as of now. With a 0.6% chance of getting the highest rarity 5-star character on top of less exciting weapons being mixed in with your roll results, you’ll likely either spend no money or a whole dang lot of money on Genshin Impact depending on the kind of person you are.
Beyond the character and weapon gacha, there are other elements to Genshin Impact that will feel familiar to fans of mobile RPGs, but none of them encourage or entice spending in the slightest. You level up characters and weapons with unique materials that are earned through combat, and you have an overall Adventurer Rank that increases as you take on any number of activities and quests in the world. Whether you decide to tackle mini-boss hunt missions, collect rare items, take on enemy camps or more, you’ll slowly fill this rank up and gain access to new types of activities like big dungeons and impressive story missions.
The main quest of Genshin Impact isn’t just same-y combat scenarios strung together by fantasy mumbo-jumbo. As a mysterious dimension-traveling warrior who finds themselves stuck in a new land, you’ll engage in boss battles, stealth missions, mid-air Panzer Dragoon shooting sequences, and more. Like the rest of the game, the amount of variety in the main scenario is truly impressive.
I don’t really have any major qualms with Genshin Impact (despite the slightly stingy gacha rates), but one significant issue I do have with the PC version is its awkward controller support. If you choose to play with a gamepad, you’ll need to first navigate the menus with your mouse and keyboard and re-enable ‘controller’ mode every time you launch the game. Once that’s done, you’ll notice that the game swaps your confirm and cancel buttons like a Japanese console would. This is usually pretty manageable to get used to on a PlayStation controller, but having A be “Back” and B be “Accept” on an Xbox controller is utterly baffling at all times. Worse still is that you need to press X to talk to characters, and then swap to B to progress through the text, leading to pretty constant button confusion. You also can’t navigate menus with the D-pad, which just seems like a wild oversight.