Genshin Impact has abruptly surfaced a few times in the past year, but after each trailer or event appearance, it's always dipped back into a sea of obscurity. What is this strange, anime take on The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild? Why is it free-to-play? Is it related to Honkai Impact 3rd, that mobile game that all the sponsored YouTubers told me about? Well, now that the game's suddenly out on PC, PS4, and mobile, we can finally answer those questions. And let's get the big finding out of the way first: it turns out anime Breath of the Wild is actually pretty freakin' good.
To condense it down to one sentence, Genshin Impact is a free-to-play, multiplayer action-RPG that uses a gacha character system similar to the one in developer MiHoYo's Honkai Impact 3rd (where you get random characters by using real or virtual currency to roll for loot), and it uses ideas from Breath of the Wild as the foundation for almost everything else. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. I mean, if you're going to emulate something, emulate Breath of the Wild, one of the best and most important sandbox games of the past decade. And to its credit, the ideas that worked in Breath of the Wild also work in Genshin Impact, only now they're viewed through a profoundly JRPG lens.
Well that looks familiar
I'm a few hours into Genshin Impact, and playing 'spot the Zelda' has been a staple activity for my playthrough. It has a stamina bar you spend while climbing virtually any surface, sprinting and gliding around, and performing special attacks. It's got hidden little sprites that reveal secrets when you solve their environmental puzzles or, most blatantly, pop their balloons. There are impish little enemies that I've started calling Not-Bokoblins. There are mini-dungeons set in an ethereal realm with a dark stone aesthetic. You gather ingredients and cook buff-giving food by chucking it all into a big cartoony pot at camps. You offer spirit shard thingies at shrines to increase your maximum stamina. Oh, and you unveil portions of the map by discovering and often unlocking those same shrines.
Does Genshin Impact borrow from Breath of the Wild? Let's pencil in a yes. But again, I'm not mad about it, because it's not just a worse Breath of the Wild. It can't match the grace and sheer inventiveness of Nintendo's masterpiece, and thus far its story is less of a hands-off hero's journey and more of a hands on both of your shoulders shoving you into a stream of anime tropes, but Genshin Impact has some cool ideas that set it apart.
First of all, it's got co-op. You have to play the game for a few hours before you can group up with friends (and I do think it takes a bit too long to unlock this), but once you're there, you can explore, run dungeons, and fight bosses in a group. I also like that your character level and adventurer level are separate, with the former strengthening your units and the latter representing how much exploring you've done. The in-game achievements tie into these systems nicely, constantly dishing out a steady stream of rewards and XP while giving you goals to work toward.
Crucially, you've got a party of four playable characters that you can customize and swap between literally every second. There are a few dozen characters in all and you're not required to keep the main character in your party, so there's a lot of room for experimentation. I can swap to my fire spear-wielder, Xiangling, use her best ability, swap back to the main character and combo off of it, and Xiangling's ability cooldown will tick down in the background and soon be ready for another double-whammy. The party system really opens up once you realize that character elements are even more important than their weapon type, because these are the backbone of combat.
If you light an enemy on fire and then hit them with a wind attack, they'll take extra burn damage. If you soak them with water, you can freeze them solid with an ice attack and then blast them with a souped-up lightning attack or a shattering earth blow. There's a fascinating string of rock-paper-scissors combos between elements that really elevates the combat. The weapons feel fine to use on their own – and I especially like the spears and greatswords – but stacking elements is where it's at, and if you do it right you can whip up a storm of particle effects and damage numbers that's equal parts devastating and satisfying. The types of elements in your party also affect what passive bonuses you receive, which adds another wrinkle to building the ideal comp.
Oh right, the gacha
Of course, your party makeup is also determined by what characters you have, and now we're getting to why Genshin Impact is free-to-play and why some folks are understandably wary of it. You quickly recruit enough free characters to fill out your party, but after that you'll need to Wish (read: open glorified loot boxes) for other characters, especially the strongest ones. And yes, the drop rates on five-star characters are obscenely low – less than 1%. And yes, it's entirely possible, and indeed dangerously easy, to sink loads of real money into this kind of system in pursuit of your favorite character, hence Genshin Impact's newly minted nickname, Breath of the Waifus. And oh god yes, there are a zillion currencies attached to all this crap.
The thing is, you don't really have to mess with all of this. Take all your anxiety toward banner deals, drop rates, account rerolling, and tier lists and throw it into a big fire, and then maybe blast it with wind for good measure. For starters, you get plenty of Wishes through the free currency tied to quests, daily log-ins, and achievements. Genshin Impact also buries you in free Wishes at the start (while I was writing this, they gave out 10 more), and these were more than enough for me to get three cool characters, including my new favorite, Xiangling. I also hoovered up an arsenal of strong weapons to upgrade in the process, and I've yet to encounter or hear of anything that can't be tackled with free-to-play characters and gear.
Again, I'm only a few hours in, but while there's clear potential for this gacha system to become predatory, it hasn't felt at all intrusive. And let's not forget that Genshin Impact is free. You have nothing but a 10GB download to lose. I'm still trying to get over this, because if you focus on the gorgeous world and fun combat and ignore all the gacha stuff, it doesn't feel like a free-to-play game at all. So I suppose that's two more similarities to Breath of the Wild: Genshin Impact is what you make of it, and it is pretty darn fun.