First Impressions: Genshin Impact is half decent ARPG and half gacha

But which one got stuck in the other?

    
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It sells the landing.

I forget when I first heard about Genshin Impact, but it was a while back, and it was something that I earmarked for the future as worth keeping an eye on. It turns out that I didn’t keep a very good eye on it, though; my awareness of the game’s actual launch was when it was mentioned in chat here, at which point I resolved that I wanted to try that out and should do so sooner rather than later.

Here I am more than a week later, and I’m still not sure how much I actually like the game. But I do seem to keep playing it.

The thing about Genshin Impact is that in a lot of ways, it’s a game of two halves. One half is a game that is, ultimately, a solid ARPG with multiplayer elements that is perhaps not quite right to call “free-to-play Breath of the Wild” but is at least close to that marker. The other half is exactly the sort of gacha game that mobile titles – especially RPGs – have embraced as a way of making money for a while now. So the real question becomes whether or not those two halves have something interesting to connect them.

First and foremost, it’s important to note that the game is clearly hoping to use its visuals to impress you… and that’s a reasonable approach, because the visuals are impressive. Rather than going for a blanket cel-shaded approach, the game instead uses what seems like a mixture of low-poly models with some careful detailing and texture work… and the result is a gorgeous game. Characters animate well and with a real sense of weight and personality. Enemies are reactive and responsive throughout the world. Everyone seems to have distinct idle animations and looks immediately recognizable, the environments are sweeping and vast, and so forth.

It’s also a reasonable approach because like many games in the “mobile gacha title” department, the actual story is clearly hoping you will just brush over its initial weaknesses in a rush to get on with things. Right from the start, you choose between one of two twins (a male or female character, basically) and the other one is scooped up by some weird deity. Except it’s also unclear who you both are and why you’re fighting this deity in the first place, so… all right, whatever. It doesn’t matter. Here you are by the shore of a lake with your little traveling companion, the flying Paimon, and she directs you off to start exploring the landscape and unlocking things and so forth.

Let's get hacking.

From there it’s all about hopping and bopping your way through the gorgeous landscape and finding points of interest. Every character has five basic abilities. Your normal attack and your short-cooldown special ability, both of which have a press and charged version, and a larger ability that charges over time. You can also make a quick dash with a button press, open a glider after jumping into the air, climb things, and so forth.

Climbing, gliding, charged attacks, and dashes are all governed by your stamina, but it’s only a broad limiting factor and various upgrades can improve your overall stamina. Of course, this would all still feel pretty basic if not for the game’s main party gimmick that allows you to swap between four characters almost instantly. Which means that rather than having access to those five listed abilities, you really have a wider lineup.

Beyond even that, though, the game’s elemental system comes into play… and here’s where interplay becomes important. Elemental states have a notable effect upon things and are the core of choosing between your characters, with the main character able to (eventually) access all seven elements while other party members have just one.

For example, let’s say you hit your enemy with a water attack. Now that enemy is Wet. What will you do next? Well, you could hit an electrical ability that will use the water to your target into a conductive nightmare for any nearby enemies. Or maybe you should use fire to inflict Vaporize, dealing extra damage on the unfortunate victim. On the other hand, ice could freeze your target solid…

All of this encourages swapping back and forth and experimenting with elemental interplay and so forth. Which is… well, where you run into the problem of needing different characters to do that. And how do you get different characters? Oh, right… gacha.

Come home.

Credit where credit is due, the overall gacha system is not one of the worst I’ve seen. Especially in its “just launched” state the game has been pretty generous about giving free pulls to players, and with a pool of 20-odd characters there are also a fair number of events and promotional items to give some assured characters. However, it’s also not one of the best I’ve seen, and… well, what did I just say? It’s really easy to wind up with no characters of certain elements, because random pulls are random pulls.

There’s supposedly a behind-the-scenes balancing mechanism ensuring that you will eventually pull a rarer character, but it is entirely lacking anything serving as a real surety mechanism; you can’t be assured of getting the character you want if you bank up your Wishes (that’s what the random pulls are called) and so you just have to hope for the best. This may change when, again, the game is a bit more mature.

It also doesn’t help that the characters you get are tossed into your party with nary a word of explanation or story. All of them have a story you can access, and sometimes you don’t need much. You get Lisa automatically for doing story quests, for example; the story quests introduce you to Lisa. But the beginner pull gets you a maid with a giant sword and Earth powers, and she has no explanation for who she is or why she’s your friend or whatever.

Not that this is a huge deal, since the story here is… well, it exists. Pretty soon after your mysterious appearance you’re dealing with ancient deific nonsense and tormented dragons and kingdom politics and… look, no one gets points for figuring out how all of this goes. Most gacha games try to put some of the cast’s outsized personality front-and-center, but Genshin Impact seems reluctant to do so, like it wants to be an ARPG first and not just a gacha game.

But it really, really wants you pulling those gacha levers.

Dude?

There is also a monthly pass you can buy for a steady stream of Wish currency at about $5, and there’s also a seasonal content-style battle pass system with a paid tier and a free tier. The fact that these options are in place again makes me flip-flop about monetization. It’s definitely still pushing that gacha button, and it should be more open… but it also does have less-annoying options in there, and at least so far there’s no direct-buy options that feel faintly exploitative. I’d really love to see how common giveaways and the like will be in the future before rendering a verdict on that.

Here’s the thing, though… I’d probably feel all right about buying this one outright and just playing it as a slightly multiplayer ARPG without the gacha elements. I don’t know if that makes it better or worse, but it’s definitely there. It’s nice how, for example, the game encourages you to do things like burn through shields or hit the water with electricity. I like having modes of deployment for abilities. It’s fun to be able to swap between characters and use abilities that you fire and then forget, creating space for less frontline-worthy characters.

At the same time, the story is pretty threadbare, the monetization is definitely in the gacha abyss, and it’s easy to find yourself playing it for a while without being altogether clear why you keep playing. Not because it’s bad, but because it occupies that state of munching potato chips, where you keep eating more because they’re fine but not totally memorable.

And yet at the same time as well, that is because it’s ultimately kind of fun. It’s a bit janky, there’s stuff I don’t like, but I never feel like it has wasted my time. Sure, the daily objectives are just “go here and beat up these guys” most of the time, but… these fights are genuinely fun and a lark, so I don’t mind? This is fine dot jpeg?

Genshin Impact is not going to change your mind if you hate gacha titles, and it’s debatable whether it pulls past that. But it is a genuinely enjoyable ARPG regardless, and you might find that you’re willing to put up with monetization you aren’t wild about in exchange for a solid game that is otherwise free. And hey, the buy-in price isn’t bad.

Massively Overpowered skips scored reviews; they’re outdated in a genre whose games evolve daily. Instead, our veteran reporters immerse themselves in MMOs to present their experiences as hands-on articles, impressions pieces, and previews of games yet to come. First impressions matter, but MMOs change, so why shouldn’t our opinions?
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