Though it has been widely accused of being a Breath of the Wild clone, my second hands-on with Genshin Impact was a welcome reminder that Chinese developer miHoYo has plenty of its own ideas to set the game apart.
Sure, the similarities with Zelda are not subtle. While the character design takes a much more anime-inspired approach, the realm of Teyvat bears more than a passing resemblance to the plains of Hyrule. Mechanics such as gliding, use of stamina, an abundance of environmental puzzles, the UI for item management, cooking at fireplaces, hunting benign animals for meat, and other elements appear to have been plucked wholesale from Nintendo’s masterpiece.
But what Genshin offers is a roster of some 30 playable characters, a considerably more complex RPG system and an undeniable Chinese charm. And of course its own intriguing original story, in which a mysterious playable female character named The Traveler and her companions explore a world of magic and fantasy in search of her missing sibling. (Indeed, there is already an ongoing manga series available online.) Genshin Impact is without doubt a game that wears its influences on its sleeve, but dismissing it as a clone would be a disservice to the many new ideas it brings to the mix.
Each character has his or her own weapon type, from melee weapons such as a sword to magic spells or longer-range archery attacks – the latter can be aimed by holding L2 for an over the shoulder view. The result is an extremely diverse variety of combat styles. In addition, each character has one of seven elemental assignations, which are effective against certain types of enemies or can even help with traversal – for example, Kaeya’s Cryo ice-element attacks can also be used to make solid bridges on stretches of water.
But what really makes things interesting is the ability to switch between characters instantly on the fly with a simple button combination – build a party of four, and then switch at will during exploration or battle to utilize and even combine their abilities. For example, while Barbara’s Hydro power is not a strong attack on its own, once you have used it to make an enemy wet you can then switch to an Electro-type character such as Lisa to inflict stronger electrical damage on the soaked enemy. All of this can be done instantly, to build complex strings of elemental attacks, and it feels good when you figure out a powerful combination.
Each character also has an Elemental Burst, which is a metered special attack that deals extra damage or has an extra-strong elemental effect. Deploying these attacks in conjunction with other elemental effects can deal heavy damage. The names of each of the four characters in your party are displayed on the screen, and an icon beside them tells you when that character’s Elemental Burst is charged. It’s a lot to keep track of, but doing so will give you a strategic edge.
Exploring the newly unveiled DiHua Marsh area, I enjoyed traversing a highly interactive environment. Treasure chests containing resources are hidden everywhere, as are Geoculus collectibles – pledge enough of these at a Statue of the Seven to receive rewards such as XP and stamina boosts. I only found a handful of Geoculus during my playthrough, and claiming a reward from the statue required 10, which you can contribute as you find them; while some Geoculus seem to be well hidden, if you’re lucky, you may spot a floating fairy that vaguely leads you in the direction of secret items.
Environmental puzzles are abundant, rewarding observant play, similar to that of Breath of the Wild. Cooking is a marginally more involved affair than in Zelda, with a simple minigame whereby you must press Square at the right moment to prevent your food from being over- or undercooked.
Like in BOTW, you can reach any location you can see in Genshin’s expansive open world. The map screen showed vast areas to explore, much of which the development team is still in the process of creating.
Genshin leans into its developers’ Chinese roots, with a strikingly beautiful visual aesthetic that borrows elements from traditional Chinese design, such as the paper lanterns and intricately carved wooden screens of the peaceful Wangshu Inn. Although the location was not available in my demo, this Eastern design philosophy is even more apparent in the pavilions of the LiYue Harbor area. Meanwhile delicate, ponderous Guzheng zither melodies soundtrack your adventures; although it gives way to more typical battle music when engaging enemies, it sets an ambience that is unmistakably Asian in feel.
The realm of Teyvat feels like a place I want to explore, to enjoy spending time in – and in an open-world game, that’s a super important advantage. A fast travel system promises to make backtracking more manageable, but getting lost and found may become a large part of Genshin Impact’s appeal. The game will also include optional co-op play, so that you can take in the scenery alone or with a friend.
It remains to be seen whether Genshin Impact’s extremely deep and complex systems will continue to feel fun and engaging over the course of its vast map, or become needlessly busy and confusing. The balance of what I tried was a bit of both – there’s a lot to juggle and it sometimes felt intimidating, but ultimately it led to satisfying encounters in my limited time with the game. Above all, I was left with a desire to see more of Teyvat – a world as immersive as Hyrule, but with its own lore, its own mechanics and its own intrigue – when it eventually hits PS4, Switch, PC and even mobile sometime in 2020.
Daniel Robson is Chief Editor of IGN Japan. Follow him on Twitter at @NoMoreDaniels.