I didn't have super concrete expectations when I got access to the latest beta for Zenless Zone Zero, the next game from Genshin Impact and Honkai Star Rail developer Hoyoverse. But as someone who plays Genshin every day and really enjoyed Star Rail for several months, I had high hopes. One thing I did expect, I think quite reasonably, was for this action roguelike to be about action. That is not the case. I don't know what this game is primarily about but most of it isn't very fun, even if it is astonishingly well-animated. Without enormous changes that don't seem very likely, Zenless Zone Zero is unquestionably dead on arrival for me.
It makes a good first impression, I'll give it that. I speak no hyperbole when I say this game looks like a Pixar film at times, and I'm talking all-cylinders Pixar. The way some characters move and emote reminds me specifically of The Incredibles. There's a wonderfully exaggerated elasticity to movements that gives even simple gestures a sense of energy and style rarely seen in games, or even animation. Elsewhere, the lavishly decorated hub space reminds me of the almost tactile joys of Splatoon's cities. But slick character designs – that are noticeably more mature compared to previous Hoyo games – and sterling animations don't do much for gameplay, and that's where ZZZ drops like a stone in a lake.
No game for you
I compare the gacha games that Hoyoverse specializes in to hazardous substances like alcohol. They can be enjoyed responsibly and in moderation, but they're undeniably toxic. Despite this, it's always been easy for me to play – and recommend – Genshin and Star Rail because the gacha trappings don't obstruct their core, excellent gameplay. You can totally ignore the grindy stuff and all the RNG BS and just focus on the story and soak up the world as you would a normal, premium game. And these really do look and play like premium games. But that is simply not true in ZZZ, or at least it sure wasn't in this beta.
Virtually all ZZZ activities, most damningly story and side quests, require you to spend the time-gated stamina resource that also fuels the endless grind of leveling gear and characters. Your ability to experience the world, to engage with the game at all, is chained to the passing of real-world hours. I've seen people say that this is normal for most gacha games, but consider this: most gacha games are irredeemable garbage designed not to be enjoyed but rather to absorb sunk cost. It is a hideous mechanic, and a non-negotiable deal-breaker for me. If Genshin added this, I'd uninstall it tomorrow.
This isn't doing ZZZ any favors, because I'm not certain I'd care much for its gameplay even if it wasn't doled out like some miserly allowance of fun. It's at its core a 3D brawler where you swap between three characters to chain team attacks, dodge counters, and normal combos along with each character's bespoke skill and ultimate abilities. It feels a bit like brainless button-mashing at times – or at the very least doesn't demand much more than that from you until much higher-level content – but this part of the game is fine, even fun. Screen-eating special abilities get a little too much of the limelight, but it is a satisfying spectacle overall, and my gut says there's a lot of room to push the skill ceiling higher than it first appears.
And no action, either
The thing is, combat is only one part of ZZZ, and a fairly small part at that. This is what really confounds me. The action in this action roguelike is rationed like food in a famine, and I just do not get it. It's not even just the stamina thing, though it is also the stamina thing. Combat sequences end all too quickly, and they're separated by many more minutes of an agonizingly boring navigation minigame where you, or rather a little avatar representing you, bounce around contrastingly bland 2D environments constructed from TV screens. You gather resources, solve little puzzles, and plot your path to the next fight.
This is not an inherently bad minigame. I love pathing in Slay the Spire or Monster Train, or carefully choosing rewards in Hades or Risk of Rain. Those sections add to the core experience, and importantly they are also quick. I'm down for some in-between bits, and I realize games can't and generally shouldn't be all action all the time. But ZZZ's ratio of action to set-dressing is so unbelievably skewed that the gameplay ends up being consumed by the worst part of the experience. I'm supposed to be playing an action game yet feel like a dog yanked back by a leash every single time I try to get back to a combat system that is at best good but not great.
The TV minigame is everywhere, and so dull that I quickly found myself reluctant to play ZZZ at all. Instead of looking forward to fighting more dudes, I'd be dreading the next mandatory intermission. The TV bit isn't the only problem, either. It's no coincidence that many of the streamers in the beta spent an inordinate amount of time playing yet more minigames at the in-game arcade, including – I kid you not – Snake. Like, the '90s Nokia phone game Snake. If people are playing Snake, either to avoid your combat system or because they can't even engage with your combat system due to arbitrary hurdles, you have screwed up colossally.
Imagine if Hades had dramatically worse combat, comical jiggle physics, and invasive menus. Imagine if Slay the Spire was 30% card battles and 70% pathing. That's this game. Except those games, and the zillion other better roguelikes out there, won't time-gate the process of playing them. And that's without getting to the nickel-and-diming gacha loot boxes which are their own headache, albeit one I didn't get a feel for within the limitations of this beta. It looks to be pretty Hoyo-standard monetization so far, which is to say it's so overpriced that anyone unfamiliar with the below-sea-level standards of gacha games would think you're kidding if you told them how much it costs to guarantee one character.
There are so many obstacles in front of what should by all rights be the core of this beautiful game. I'm sure this won't bother some people who are happy to play casually and just enjoy the audio-visual splendor – and on that front, it is splendid indeed. But I'm a gameplay-first person, and this is dreadful. The vast majority of my time in ZZZ was spent fiddling with things that I would never call the basis for a fun game. That's the acid test here. Take out the combat and the game truly falls apart; take out all the fluff around it and the game instantly gets better. It's the absolute definition of style over substance, and I don't see Hoyo making the changes that it would take to interest people like me. Back to Genshin it is.