THE WASHINGTON POST – For years, free-to-play mobile games have had a reputation of ill repute, and for good reason. They’re usually cheaply made titles with famous licensed characters with little gameplay value. And they’ll charge you for what’s practically a digital raffle drawing to see if you can pull your favourite character.
Genshin Impact by Chinese developers miHoYo breaks this mould by being a compelling experience, first and foremost. That the game is free isn’t the most remarkable feature. This game is well within the gacha genre of mobile games, similar to what we call the “loot box” system in the West. Gacha games are usually fast-casual games meant as distractions and time wasters, rather than full gameplay experiences you’d find on consoles and PC.
But Genshin Impact offers a shockingly coherent experience, both in narrative and gameplay. It looks beautiful, and the score performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra is dreamy. And, most importantly, it’s fun to explore this world and discover its secrets.
I approached the first moments of the game with extreme trepidation. But within a minute, I was let loose onto its massive, luxurious fantasy map, fighting monsters with snappy combat controls. Within 10 minutes, I was given a glider to navigate long distances, much like Link in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Yes, this game cribs exploration and crafting mechanics from the Nintendo Switch launch title in 2017, considered by many to be the greatest game of this past console generation. While that brought a bit of infamy to a studio little known outside of China, it also captured people’s attention. Before the release of Genshin Impact, the game already had over five million pre-registered users.
On Twitch, the game regularly has almost 100,000 viewers, just under long-time behemoths like Fortnite, Minecraft and the hit game of the moment, Among Us. Not bad for a non-competitive game trying to sell us characters nobody on Earth will recognise.
But miHoYo clearly wants us to recognise them in the future. You play as one of two twin siblings from a distant realm, rejected by a higher being for reasons unknown, and banished into an unknown kingdom.
An overly cheerful fairy person named Paimon acts as your guide, with an ear-piercing “golly gee” personality that just borders on annoying.
Otherwise, the characters are all fleshed out. I’m only at the early hours of the game, but already they’re showing a lot of wit, charm and even a little bit of palace intrigue. The plot starts out simple: After wandering the strange new land in search of your sister, you stumble upon a kingdom besieged by a dragon, among other bad things happening. It’s practically the story of Skyrim, in an anime skin. The story doesn’t overwhelm you with new jargon like most role-playing games do, and it’s not only easy to follow, but fleshed out. It makes sense.
The more attractive the characters are in looks and personality, the more players will want to spend money to roll for a chance to earn them to play in the game.
Much has been said about its aesthetic similarities to Breath of the Wild, but it’s clear the game wears its inspiration on its sleeve proudly. The gliders, the sound design and the climbing are all lifted from Nintendo’s seminal hit.
But it feels less like a copycat instance, and just more like part of the influence of the Zelda series. Many beloved games in the past have cribbed liberally from Nintendo, and to great success and acclaim. Developer miHoYo is merely using Zelda as a template, as many others have.
That’s not to say that the monetisation isn’t egregious in its own way. Luck-based online games in China are mandated to let players know about the odds, and in Genshin Impact, the chances of getting a great “five-star” character are less than one per cent. And I’m too early in the game to see whether getting new characters (or five-star weapons) would be necessary to complete it. And it’s healthy to stay sceptical in the early days. Live service games often adjust as they continue to exist, and not always to the player’s favour.
But so far, the game has given me no reason to try my chances at getting another character. I’ve only used the free currency doled out by the game’s quests and login rewards to roll for two new characters and dozens of new weapons I won’t need, but will break down for resources down the road.
The game’s user interface and controls may seem strange for anyone diving in on PlayStation 4 or PC.
But after testing it on an iPhone XR on its lowest settings (which ran well), the interface makes a lot more sense to tap than it is to navigate with a mouse or controller. It’s clear that miHoYo developed this game as a mobile title first, and retrofitted controls for other platforms later.
I can’t help but think about the recent Marvel’s Avengers release, and how it tried to do something similarly ambitious. Avengers almost reached the storytelling heights of developer Crystal Dynamics’s legacy in its Tomb Raider games, but it remains all too eager to herd players through the live service, multiplayer portion of the game.
Avengers hopes that you stayed invested in its version of the Marvel universe long enough to spend more money and time on its future story and characters.
Genshin Impact relies on no known names or heroes. Out the gate, its trying to convince you that it’s a world worth investing your time and imagination. While it’s still in its early days, the most remarkable thing about Genshin Impact is that its 400-person team clearly invested their own time and imagination too. And it dares us to imagine a mobile gaming world with titles with quality that matches the industry’s top-tier experiences.