A divine dichotomy of a despairful disposition.
Genshin Impact was definitely among the biggest gaming success stories in 2020, having garnered over 17 million players and brought in over $393 million in revenue. And when just looking at the game, it’s pretty easy to see why. As Genshin Impact is a free-to-play open world anime action RPG with AAA production values for PS4, PC, and mobile and it was the closest thing to the immensely successful The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild to hit the market since… Breath of the Wild.
I was interested in the title as it geared up for release back in September 2020 and more footage and coverage was fluttering about, but I ultimately passed it by as I knew it would be a mighty time investment, and I had other games I wanted to prioritize. At least that was until Nigma Box reader Tirlex requested that I play this game and give my thoughts on it. I am always open to suggestions and recommendations, so I invested over two weeks and over 40 hours into this title, going through a lovely honeymoon period before eventually cracking beyond the veil and ending my time with the game for reasons I’ll detail in the review proper.
Genshin Impact Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), PS4, iOS, Android
Genshin Impact kicks off with a cold open too information-dense and context-bereft to mean much of anything, wherein two angelic siblings battle against an unnamed god, only for one sibling to fall down from the heavens, where they are isekai’d into the fantasy world of Teyvat. A predictable JRPG world with expansive nature and biomes of starkly different topography and etymology. Lost in this ‘another world,’ the protagonist, commonly referred to as Traveler, quickly befriends this space-fairy-baby-Digimon-thing by the name of Paimon, who serves as the guide, emergency snack, digital companion, and mouthpiece for the mostly silent protagonist.
With their mascot in tow, Traveler ventures throughout this new world, where they naturally get involved in the ongoing business of others and become interwoven as part of a larger narrative involving great dragons who control the elements, gods of varying levels of strength and influence, and shadowy organizations. It’s all pretty standard stuff with a spectrum of colorful and affable main and supporting characters who the Traveler mingles with as they continue to express their chosen-one abilities. All while being subjected to a deluge of exposition laced with from-elsewhere-sounding terminology that I doubt reads particularly well in any language, but evidently sounded cool to someone.
However, the beats are easy to follow even with only a fraction of one’s full attention span, the story and all main quest lines are delivered in full quad-lingual voice acting, and things are kept eventful enough to grab and retain the player’s attention as the story ebbs and flows onward. Or at least it would, if not for the fact that it needs to also contend with Genshin’s underlying structure.
As an open world game, part of the game loop of Genshin Impact is exploring and getting lost in its vast world. Whether it be from a geographical oddity that visually promises goodies of some sorts, bands of meandering baddies, twinkling harvestable materials, or chests that are practically begging the player to alleviate them of their contents. It is a game where the player can, will, and is encouraged to head in a direction, zig-zag about, and take in these finely hand-crafted and expansive environments.
The geography between areas is distinct enough that I rarely ever mistook one locale for another, even if they were made using the same basic building blocks. By implementing the ability to scale up steep walls and soar through the sky lends the game to a great deal of vertical world design, which keeps exploration interesting and prevents the game from ever feeling like an endless flat field. As no matter where the player is, they will be able to pinpoint cliffs, mountains, and valleys for them to scale unimpeded.
It’s obvious that the developers of Genshin Impact took more than a few notes when they went through Breath of the Wild and how that title made the simple act of moving throughout an enormous world feel more engaging than most open world titles could even dream of. And despite lacking the player movement options of a reactive physics system, I would argue that Genshin Impact pulls off this style of open world better, and for two reasons.. First, the stamina system is far more generous in Genshin, meaning that the player does not need to stop and catch their breath nearly as often. And second, the progression system in Genshin Impact is one where it feels like you’re always making progress.
I mentioned this in my 2019 review of the title, but prevented me from loving Breath of the Wild was just how it handled player progression. How permanent health and stamina upgrades were handed out sparingly. How the Korok Seeds led to diminishing returns after the first hundred or so and were an ass to use. How the biggest upgrades in the game were limited to the Master Sword in the Lost Woods and the bomb upgrade in the Hateno Ancient Tech Lab. How weapons were, in my mind, best used as situational power-ups when the player encountered snafus. And how the scattering of materials the player can uncover are mostly limited to upgrading armors of nebulous non-cosmetic value.
By comparison, Genshin Impact is a lot more complex, a lot sloppier, but far better at making the player feel like they are always doing something by giving them innumerous things to do with the copious quantities of stuff they collect. Things that make bars fill in, make numbers go up, and permanently make characters better able to handle the threats they encounter along their journey. It is far from a perfect system, as the equipment, upgrade, and material grinding systems are clearly designed by a team with a background in mobile live service gacha RPGs. Meaning that there is a lot of material bloat, grinding for elusive drops, a randomized accessory/artifact equipment system that presents players with a sea of potential choices with hidden variables, and other… inscrutable things I’ll discuss later on.
During my time with Genshin Impact, I was constantly pursuing goals and felt the fruits of my labor as I unlocked character level caps, made their weapons stronger, and boosted my cumulative might and resourcefulness in combat while becoming more in tune with the game’s flow, mechanics, and inner workings. It has the blend of intrinsic player progression and extrinsic character progression that defines many of my preferred genres, and when combined with dizzying highs to aim for, different character playstyles, and an emphasis on character switching, there is a lot I love about Genshin Impact’s gameplay.
However, second to the jovial exploration, my favorite part would be the elemental system, where players can mix and match seven elemental properties and effects, afflicting enemies with burns, shocks, wetness, or frost before hitting them with another element and seeing the reaction play out. Some combinations definitely work better together, such as hydro and cryo or pyro and electro, but there is truly no bad move that players can make, and the best way to wrack up damage is to cycle through your four elemental-attuned party members in order to overwhelm baddies with explosive combos. All of which allows the player to feel crafty and creative while keeping the actual execution of these feats delightfully simple.
When combining and co-mingling all of its mechanics, there is a genuinely fantastic open world action RPG inside of Genshin Impact. But it is unfortunately hidden and obscured by two things. Starting firstly with the underlying balance of Genshin Impact and its combat. While the game’s difficulty starts out pretty mild, Genshin Impact does steadily become harder than I would have anticipated for a console-style game playable on phones and tablets, requiring players to do some not-insignificant footsies and crowd control during combat. Which I would be fine with if not for the fact that the game is so stringent when it comes to player health.
Healing in Genshin Impact is primarily done using equipment-specific abilities that heal a set percentage of a character’s HP after gaining glowy particles, felling a foe, or opening a chest. Secondary and more thorough healing is provided via meals the player can cook at any campfire, and by spending their reserve of auto-regenerating healing juice at specific teleport points across the map. In theory, this sounds like a fine system, and when it works, it works very well. For most of my playtime, I was able to steadily restore the damage they took in gradually as they adventure on, and can dip into items if they need an extra boost. However, that resulted from how I built my characters and how I only used weapons that regenerated HP for the first half of my playtime. If players don’t build their characters this way, then they either need to rely on their fast-travel healing juice or grab a bite to eat after every other combat encounter to shave off the damage they would inevitably take.
It works, it’s playable, but the way the game handles health feels needlessly restrictive and stingy, copying over Breath of the Wild’s basic system despite having a completely different combat system. It is a system that raises many design-related questions, and here are just some of them that came to mind as I jotted down notes for this review:
Why only make healing available at some teleport points? Why limit passive healing behind some pieces of equipment? Why is the cooking system so stringent and centered around ingredients the player does not actively find when foraging around the world? Where is my basic fruit and mushroom dish? Why, if the cooking system is so important, isn’t there a shortcut to heal during combat? Why is there no estus flask-like healing item that replenishes whenever the player visits a teleport point? Because that is one of the best healing systems of all time, and if there is one thing every game should learn from Dark Souls, it’s that!
This was a mild irritation for me during my first few hours of the game, before I found a way to steadily and passively heal my characters, but my problems with the healing system and the high damage threshold of certain boss enemies experienced a sort of spike during the end of my time with the game, as I just reached Adventurer Rank 30 and my World Level went up to 3. World Level in Genshin Impact determines the level of enemies the player encounters and the quality of treasures and materials they can find. As I reached this level, I found out had apparently been playing the game wrong, as enemies went from being a walk in the park to an irritation, and my characters began hitting the cap of their levels and overall power, which I didn’t have any immediate way of addressing.
With no way to lower the World Level, I was left with several choices: Struggle through this newfound challenge and use healing items all the time, like a virgin. Scour the world map in its entirety to access the in-game locations to farmable upgradable materials. Or uninstall the game to put it behind me and give me the opportunity to write this review.
Admittedly, there was another option to get through this hurdle— using this game’s summoning system to help accumulate greater strength in the form of new characters or upgrades received when the player obtains duplicate characters. But… I kind of loathe the summoning system of Genshin Impact.
Early on in my playthrough, I deliberated doing a thorough analysis into the monetarily aligned systems of Genshin Impact, but as time went on, I honestly forgot about it. I stuck with the four freebie characters given out at the start of the game for 95% of my playtime, I never felt compelled to switch up my team with low-level newbies who could ruin the synchronicity of my team, and I only wound up doing three tenfold summons, because the summoning currency is pretty sparse.
Actually, no, that’s too vague. I need to talk about the summoning currency for a moment, because it’s actually quite smart from a monetization perspective… but feels like garbage from a playing-the-game perspective. Summoning is done using Fates. Fates come in two varieties, Acquaint and Intertwined, and every summoning banner/showcase only takes one of these Fates. To get Fates, players need to accumulate Primogems, which are rewards for completing story and daily quests and also found within every new treasure chest, but the going conversion rate is 160 Primogems to get 1 Fate, with 1 Fate equating to 1 summon. This means the game can freely shower the player with chunky middle-sized numbers of Primogems constantly, throwing around 40 Primogems as a reward like they’re nothing… because they kind of are. That is a fourth of a summon, but it still feels like you are getting something, and getting something constantly.
Oh, but what are you actually getting when summoning? Well, that depends on the probability table, and Genshin Impact’s is easily one of the worst I have seen in the genre. When summoning, players have a 94.3% chance of getting a 3-star weapon, which you can find as random drops fairly often, a 5.1% chance of getting a 4-star character or weapon (but one is guaranteed with every tenfold summon), and a 0.6% chance of getting a 5-star character or weapon. These rates increase through a pity system, and after 90 summons, players are guaranteed to get one 5-star, but the math here is still bullcrap for a game so stingy with its summons.
Throughout my 40+ hours, I think I got enough for maybe 110 summons by clearing the three-act prologue, doing some exploration, doing several rounds of dailies, and fully clearing the “Chalk Prince and the Dragon” event. Meaning that the game’s summoning system sucks on two-fronts, and this is all clearly intentional. Because miHoYo knows that many players do not understand probability super well, and they want them to pony up the renminbi.
It all makes me wish that Genshin Impact could be a “product game” instead of a “service game.” That miHoYo had the confidence, capacity, and financial justification to make Genshin Impact into a title that could be once and subsequently added to and iterated upon over time, expanding the title through an active development cycle. All without pestering players for their money through these unfair rules that encourage gambling. And not even in a good way.
A good gacha game makes players feel serviced and appreciated. It gives them some walking-around-town money. It gives them opportunities to make wise financial decisions. And it tries to make the idea of spending money in-game feel like a way to support a thing they love. Supporting a gacha game, or any game with in-game purchases, should feel like supporting a dope creator on Patreon. And here, it feels like the devs care about the thing they are making… but not the people who are playing it.
If they cared about their players, they would not lock an entire tier of characters behind a 0.6% appearance rate. Even with a pity system that boosts the 5-star rate to a max of 1.85%, that is still egregiously low and makes me never want to summon for anything. Because I know what these numbers mean, I know these odds are garbage, and this could have ALL been avoided if miHoYo didn’t pursue such malicious and cruel numbers. IF the Primogem conversion rate was… 100 per Fate, and IF the 5-star summoning rate was boosted up to… 3%, then I would be totally fine with this. But they didn’t want to do that and made the math behind their money-making system deliberately malicious.
However, when one casts away the math, ignores the shop, and pushes aside how the game shoves dedicated players into permanently harder content, Genshin Impact has a lot of fine qualities, and king among them is its world and presentation.
You do not see open world games that look like Genshin Impact with its vibrant colors and anime aesthetics. You do not see free-to-play games like Genshin Impact. And you do not see many open world games as hand-crafted as Genshin Impact. It is this excessive and lavishly produced feast of art assets, with environments rich in micro and macro details. From the low-poly tat filling the homes and vistas, to the awe-inspiring landmasses that are constantly along the horizon, begging players to explore them.
Bottom line, this game has one of the best worlds I have ever seen in any open world game, and no part of it exemplifies the world design prowess of the developers than the relatively new Dragonspire region. A beefy, tightly constructed, full-expansion-sized icy mountain area that’s positively lousy with points of intrigue strewn about every corner, branching and intertwining paths, and obscure secrets that are only visible from certain angles. All of which requires that the player look closely, carefully, and repeatedly if they want to clean this region of value, while also needing to take care in how far and recklessly they travel, as the region is so cold that if characters go more than two minutes without the warmth of an open flame, they will die.
Sure, the collectibles can be a sour-scented buttmunch to collect, and a few of the heat spots are questionably placed, but if this were a location in any other open world game, it would warrant multiple video essays extrapolating the finer points of this environment’s use of three-dimensional space and how the harshness of its terrain only makes the view from the summit all the sweeter.
Character designs similarly excel, with the cast being these grandly detailed persons who are practically begging to be replicated via fanart and brought into reality via cosplay. I know good character designs are a dime-a-dozen in the world of gacha games, but the cast of Genshin Impact are rendered with a palpable portion of flair and personality in their animations, allowing them to express their character well beyond a piece of portrait art or a few recycled voice clips. My only real criticism regarding the cast would be how mono-ethnic the current slate of characters is, boasting 30 playable heroes, but only two who deviate from the fair-skinned racially ambiguous anime race by having marginally more tanned skin.
Though, I should probably expect as much from a Chinese title, as China, like many Asian countries, has a less than favorable impression of darker complexions and views lighter complexions as more attractive and favorable. Which is a problem far bigger than the scope of this game, and something I had to remind myself of as I scoured the world for a single non-white-looking NPC. However, I would be willing to let all of this slide and just ignore it beyond a passing thought if the game allowed the player to customize and alter the protagonist— the Traveler.
In-game, the Traveler is clearly meant to be a player surrogate character, as they bear the player’s username, say very little beyond what dialogue the player chooses, and are the de-facto chosen one protagonist of the whole affair. Yet despite this, they have a static character design that the player cannot change beyond choosing to play as male or female at the start of the game, and something about that just strikes me as needlessly dated, when the game could have had a character customization system.
Now, I get that part of the hook of a gacha game is seeing and receiving characters with unique designs, but all I would want to see is some rudimentary recoloring and a few alternate hairstyles. Because I like the female Traveler’s design, but I would love her design if I could make her hair flowers blue, her hair black, her skin brown, her eyes red, and give her white dress some purple accents. …Lord am I predictable with my avatar design preferences
Getting back on track, the menus, while a bit overwhelming in quantity and purposes, are fresh, functional, have fairly little in the way of fluff or frustrations, and are generally visually appealing, boasting an ethereal spacey theme that works well with fantasy games. However, even in its early stages, I can see some room for improvements and things that should be addressed in future UX updates. Such as how two contradictory button prompts appear when upgrading equipment or how the character stories are relegated to a vertical sliver of the screen that only uses ~20% of the horizontal screen space. Which to me means the developers actively don’t want you to read something.
However, the weakest part of this high-quality production, at least to me, would be the soundtrack. It mostly consists of atmospheric noises, soft vocals, and relaxing symphonic melodies. None of which is bad, but it’s not the sort of thing I associate with adventure or exploration, which inspired me to substitute my own soundtrack as I played. By which I mean, I listened to the least played albums in my musical library in alphabetical order. This might seem incongruous or wrong, which it is, but I picked this habit up years ago, and without doing this or something similar, I tend to get bored or disinterested in the repetitious soundscape of open world titles. Besides, if your game is anime-styled, it probably works really well with 80s and 90s J-pop.
And as an anime-styled game, it should be no surprise to see the English voice cast be filled with familiar staples of the English dubbing scene, who deliver quality and admirable performances. This actually surprised me considering how much more attention was given to the Japanese, Chinese, and Korean dubs, which feature more renowned and celebrated casts. Casts that I briefly tried gelling with after the forced introduction scene, but I ultimately stuck with the English dub. What can I say? I have a fondness for the sound and tone of a typical anime dub, and after hearing Paimon’s love-it-or-hate-it English voice, which sounds like something from an early 2000s anime, I knew what I’d like the most.
To wrap up this loosely arranged collection of thoughts and mechanical anecdotes, Genshin Impact is a fantastic game in many respects. I adore its world, I enjoy its combat, I found its story cute, and I am in awe at how much robust and polished content is available in what is ultimately a free-to-play game. It is a game that I would play routinely if I had the time and a lack of responsibilities, and one that I could see myself fully falling in love with if I was a decade younger.
However, my experience with gacha games makes it all-too-obvious what kind of mathematics are operating under the hood of Genshin Impact, and… it is not a generous title. It is a title with sparse freemium currency, low summoning rates for new characters and upgrades, and one that urges players to the shop by getting progressively harder and harder as time goes on, and the numbers attached to enemies get higher, while the upgrade requirements for player characters get steeper and steeper.
This makes for a frustrating dichotomy and one that leaves me pining for something better. A Genshin Impact not restrained by the shackles of maintaining a live service, and one reworked and repackaged as something with better balance, no time-limited content, and more generosity with its resources.
Sadly, that will never happen, and I should stop pining for such an unrealistic fantasy. Because as games like Genshin Impact continue to experience such extreme success, and as these types of design trends become normalized, experiences like the one I am imagining will only become rarer and rarer.