Genshin Impact is better than it has any right to be. Written off as a free-to-play anime reskinning of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the fantasy role-playing game doesn’t make the best first impression. It’s got the cloying "gacha" mechanics you’d expect from a mobile RPG, although it’s also on PC and PlayStation 4. In a clear bid for otaku dollars, Genshin Impact boasts harems of playable waifus and husbandos to whet players’ thirst. (If you’re into it, you’re into it; I sure am). Yet Wednesday, Genshin Impact claimed the title of the largest international launch of any Chinese game ever. It’s deserved—and only took a few hours of playing to see why.
In the West, where gamers are used to paying $60 once for a console game, Chinese developers’ free-to-play mobile games—the most popular model there—have long raised eyebrows. Western gamers and game developers have for years criticized Chinese developer “clones” of popular games like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds or Fortnite. Some indie games have been cloned before they’re even out. There’s enough knee-jerk bias around Chinese video games, especially mobile games, that many get dismissed at face.
Genshin Impact will help dispel some of that bias. An anime Breath of the Wild knockoff or a charming, character-forward adventure that’s too fun to put down, Genshin Impact is plainly fantastic, and there is no reason you shouldn’t play it.
Genshin Impact opens with an elegantly animated cutscene in which a god captures your twin. In the ensuing battle—which takes place midair, floating near some Grecian sky columns—that god takes away your power to travel from world to world. The action picks up some time afterward, on a serene beach. You are on Teyvat, a beautiful realm where some mortals have elemental magic abilities. There, you encounter a doll-like creature-companion named Paimon—very Cardcaptor Sakura—who, of course, refers to herself in the third person in her squeaky little voice. As you go in search for your twin alongside Paimon, you learn that a dragon is besieging a nearby town, and head over there to investigate.
The world you quest in is undeniably similar to Breath of the Wild’s: rocky cliffsides, grassy plains, fruit trees, ocean vistas. You can forage poultry drumsticks by shooting live birds, stab lizards for bitter lizard tails, and collect sparkling plants. You can climb onto a precipice and ride your wing-shaped glider down into an enemy camp of Bokoblin-likes. There are treasure chests everywhere providing a near-constant stream of serotonin.
As you complete quests and dungeons, you meet (or acquire through paid gacha mechanics) dozens of charismatic characters forming your adventuring party. You can switch out your main character at almost any time, including mid-fight, and you’ll want to; your starting character’s sword and wind magic are fun enough, but dark-haired knight Amber’s fire arrows are more versatile. Charming swordsman Kaeya can freeze opponents before cutting them down. Sexy sorcerer Lisa commands lightning. Whatever fighting style you like, Genshin Impact probably has it. And because elemental abilities interact with each other and the environment, you can freeze oozes into a pond with one character before electrocuting the water with another. It is euphoric to climb a tall cliff, glide down into a valley, lure low-level mobs near an exploding barrel, then freeze and explode them. But if you’ve played Breath of the Wild, you already know that.
Here’s where the mobile game design tropes come in. And, for me, they are absolutely not unwelcome. While combat entails some dash and slash and well-timed abilities, it’s satisfyingly brainless. At least at lower levels, you’re often hitting the same “attack” button over and over, which triggers too-cool animations like shonen-style teleporting. Then, there’s the gacha: To amass more waifus or husbandos, you can purchase in-game currency that lets you make a “Wish,” which gives you a chance at summoning a new character or weapon. Even the most cynical players can appreciate Genshin Impact’s charismatic cast, whose animations include little yawns, stretches, and giggles.
And so you get tangled into its many, many currency systems: Acquaint Fates, Primogems, Genesis Crystals, gold. You level up weapons, distribute various upgrades to your most beloved characters. You feed them food you cooked made from ingredients you foraged. A soothing harp soundtrack, eerily similar to Final Fantasy’s, lulls you. While I have not spent any money and have enjoyed the game very much, I might in the future to experience the breadth of characters.
It’s possible that, for many, the mobile design tropes and similarities to Breath of the Wild will cheapen the experience. The more godless of us will appreciate Genshin Impact’s small improvements on Nintendo’s beloved blockbuster. Unlike Breath of the Wild, weapons don’t degrade over time. Early on, you receive your glider, so you’re not stuck on foot for too long. The cooking mechanic is just a light reflex game.
After Genshin Impact’s announcement, some Chinese gamers loudly protested its similarities to Breath of the Wild, with one smashing his PlayStation 4. But it’s really no use comparing the two in their entirety; they’re just not the same kind of game. “You will find the experience of Genshin Impact to be very different from that of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild,” the developer said to FreeMMOStation. “Genshin Impact features a fully original story and characters, and the core gameplay revolves around assembling a party of multiple characters and engaging in a combat system based on interactions between different elements.”
Genshin Impact thrives in the gray area between Chinese and American gamer norms, some of which are slowly melting together. In China, pay-to-win isn’t a big deal. In America, it’s often viewed as predatory or unfair. But now, with free-to-play dominating popular genres like survival shooters (Fortnite, Apex Legends), gamers are getting accustomed to microtransactions for costumes and gun skins. Also for those games, developers shamelessly riff on the same set of game mechanics first popularized by PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. Over the past couple of years, critics stopped referring to these games as “copycats” and began embracing them for their differences. China’s history of mobile game copycats has another root cause—long-time AAA game bans and different copyright conventions—but still, Western gamers have become a bit less judgmental.
All of Genshin Impact’s influences conspire to make the player feel very good, with or without microtransactions. Breath of the Waifu or a free, serotonin-packed RPG, Genshin Impact hits all the right buttons if you can get over the guilt.