When Genshin Impact first launched in late September, I assumed I would dip into it for a bit, get a feel of its fun elemental combat and anime aesthetics, then take my leave and move onto the next thing after I’d beaten its core story. That’s usually how it goes for free-to-play games – I like to get out just before it they start reaching for your wallet.
It’s now December, with Genshin Impact’s next significant update out today, which expands the world of Teyvat with a new region, and I’m still logging in almost on a daily basis. Just how did this so-called Breath of the Wild clone manage to hook me in so much that it’s become one of my favourite games of 2020?
It’s true that MiHoYo’s action RPG takes a lot of inspiration from Nintendo’s masterpiece on the surface, from its cel-shaded visuals to the ambient adaptive score, but it also does a few things that eases in casual players more naturally. You’re unlikely to run into anything that will one-shot you in the opening hours, you don’t have to run around stockpiling weapons (though you’ll certainly find many), and you’re never far from a puzzle, a fight or a treasure chest that just keeps enticing you to explore.
However, it maintains that same elegant game and world design of Breath of the Wild whereby simply having a beautifully wide open world that piques your curiosity. You can reach just about everywhere and find something new and wondrous without the overwhelming distraction of quest markers. That said, what’s unknown to you at first is that the map is filled with specific points of interests, such as ley lines, bosses and its dungeon-like domains – it’s just that you don’t realise their relevance to begin with.
The thing I find with most open world games is that I’m rarely compelled to stay and unpick every bit of content it has. Usually, after burning through one of these games for 30 to 50 hours, and once I’ve rolled credits, I have little incentive to return. So how is it I’m still playing Genshin Impact more than 10 weeks later?
For one thing, its story is far from over. At launch, its 1.0 version consisted of a lengthy prologue and the first act, which itself didn’t conclude until a later update (which also happened to culminate in one of the game’s toughest boss fights). Featuring just the region of Mondstadt and Liyue, that’s just a fraction of Teyvat’s world of apparently seven nations, with the snowy region of Dragonspine the next to arrive. I can imagine MiHoYo potentially updating Genshin Impact for at least a few years before they gradually ease off support for it. Sure, some open world games have a tendency to expand with a bit of DLC before bundling it as a ‘game of the year’ edition later down the line, but essentially Genshin Impact is operating in the same way as a live service game, akin to Destiny or Final Fantasy XIV.
Of course, there are open world games that continuously update too such as Fallout 76 and Grand Theft Auto Online – which finally has a map expansion with the recent Cayo Perico Heist – but these all happen to be online games designed to be played with other people. For this misanthropic gamer, who prefers his single-player experiences, that can be an immediate turn-off.
While co-op does exist in Genshin Impact, it’s far less integral to the experience, better used for a short instanced domain or event. You’re even blocked from certain things like story quests and loot if you’re not the host, so it’s really not meant to be treated like an MMO. It’s still ultimately a single-player action RPG where it’s at its best when you’re in control of your own party members.
For each session, I find myself easily taken up by one of a number of different tasks: taking on small quests that slowly raises my adventure rank to unlock more story quests, or as it becomes more apparent once your characters are past Level 40, scouring the land for materials or grinding bosses for important loot to ascend my characters and upgrade my gear in order to keep up with the world level strengthening all the enemies (but also improving loot drops).
Suddenly, its open world has more focus, as you recall those different points of interests for boss locations or domains containing relevant loot, the latter changing depending on the day of the week. That late game grind for materials is both a bit Monster Hunter and Destiny, but something I feel good at beavering away at in my own time (it’s still less time-consuming than those two games) rather than have to rely on or rope other people into who might prefer to do more interesting things.
As expansive as Teyvat feels, it’s also been deliberately designed so that you don’t rabidly consume all the content in one go, such as how unlocking rewards requires a regenerating resource called resin. Some may complain that this is how you’re pulled into microtransactions to increase your daily resin, but I disagree (and for the record, have yet to spend a penny). More than anything, it’s designed to discourage you from grinding for hours on end.
The best way to play Genshin is to just log in for an or hour or two at most, do what you can with the resin you have and then call it a day. You’re still free to undertake quests or acquire other materials in the world that don’t require resin. When some of us – myself included during an urgent review deadline – are used to devouring content in a matter of days, such an approach is refreshing, and another reason why I’m still playing months after release without feeling jaded.
Genshin Impact’s open world isn’t an innovative sandbox like Breath of the Wild or a Rockstar blockbuster. Instead, what it does is implement loops and systems from live-service games (hell, it’s even got a battle pass) that magically works in the context of a single-player open world RPG, and now I can’t believe no one had thought of it before.
For years, there’s been an ongoing dichotomy between single-player games and live service games, where one thriving at the expense of the other, only for the tables to turn. Genshin Impact instead asks, ‘why not both?’