Genshin Impact is a free-to-play mobile game. For a lot of people, hearing that particular sequence of words means an instant turn-off, conjuring images of a time-wasting trifle, a menu of repetitive activities and cutesy characters laid atop a monetization scheme packed to the gills with predatory microtransactions. These days that image is somewhat unfair, but it’s also not unearned. That said, miHoYo’s latest effort might come closer than ever to breaking that stereotype completely.
That’s because playing Genshin Impact is an immediate, disarming joy. Just as in the closed beta tests, wide and inviting vistas greet you, just as you’ve crested the first hill with your buddy/emergency food Paimon. The visual splendor of the game’s colorful art style beckons you to just pick a direction and jet off. And one can do exactly that, since you can climb pretty much any surface, in fulfillment of the meme-worthy Skyrim promise of seeing a mountain off in the distance and running away to climb it.
Of course, just going in any old direction isn’t the absolute best idea. Taking off before the tutorial’s even done is a good way to miss out on key systems in Genshin Impact, including the indispensable wing gliders, and your first few party members. But after that initial guidance with your steadfast buddy/Emergency Food Paimon, the game definitely proves that miHoYo wasn’t messing around with the game’s tagline: Teyvat really is “A Vast Magical World of Adventure,” and most importantly, it’s one that you can find the magic and adventure in long before you ever feel compelled to touch a purchase screen.
It’s true: Genshin Impact is a gacha game. At the moment, you can spend various currencies on “Wishes” to toss at no less than three different summoning banners, in the hopes of snagging four and five-star characters to add to your party. Perhaps more importantly, though, is the fact that it’s really easy to not do that, and instead see what’s around the next bend. The game is unlike many gacha titles in that it spreads the typical structure and business model over a vast, bespoke map full of distractions you can engage in without spending a cent. By contrast, most mobile RPGs and gacha games, even my personal favorites, are essentially menus of activities with various layers of battle systems, character designs, and narrative beats wrapped around them. I love Fate/Grand Order as much as any game I’ve ever played, but I have to be honest: If you strip it of its of its gacha-related mechanics, you’d have a pretty decent visual novel and not much else. Do the same to Genshin Impact, and you’ve got one of the most capable efforts yet made to synthesize character action games, RPG progression, and the vast, exploration-driven environment of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Teyvat itself is the key to making it all happen. Players will gather quests and generally follow the contours of Genshin Impact‘s main story campaign, set in a world with competing states striving to fulfill the wishes of various elemental deities. Most will be familiar with the Wind-based Anemo, seeing as its home turf of Mondstadt forms your first home base, but things start to get interesting as new territories and factions show up. The more overtly Chinese-inspired environs of Liyue, with its marshlands and sheer cliffs, make for a striking contrast to the rolling hills and windswept grass of the starter locations. Each area feels huge enough to contain a whole game on its own, and those are just the first two, with up to five more areas planned for inclusion moving forward. If each new zone is as packed and unique as what we have now, the “magical world of adventure” is going to get even more vast.
At this point, comparisons to Breath of the Wild are quite well-documented. There’s climbing, stamina, cooking, windblown foliage, and the most common enemy in the starting area is a Bokoblin with the serial numbers filed off. But for my money taking into account the game’s business model and structure, Genshin Impact is actually closer to many console and PC-based “live service” titles than to the mobile-based gacha games it’s commonly lumped in with. In a word, it’s less like Fate/Grand Order than it is like Tom Clancy’s The Division 2. Rather than a menu or checklist of things to complete, Genshin Impact spreads these activities over the whole world, giving you the freedom to choose. There are still dailies in the form of commissions to guide your progress, but ultimately, the choice to play to the progression feels like a nice-to-have rather than the core of the game.
It also helps that almost anything you do in Genshin Impact short of just standing still helps feed into that character progression. You’re constantly earning Primogems, experience, crafting material, and various other materials that help your characters grow more powerful, the better to unlock more areas to visit and explore. Your adventure rank and world level serve as numerical indicators of your progress, but you never have to grind too long before gaining the ability to go somewhere or try something new.
Undergirding all of that is a set of refined character action proficiencies built up over years of running Honkai Impact 3rd, one of the prettiest traditional gacha games out there. Even the free starter characters in Genshin Impact‘s 23-strong roster are a joy to play, and the character-switching mechanic adds a level of flexibility that’s crucial to properly exploiting the game’s elemental effect systems. And of course, if you ever get bored of who you’ve got, you could turn some of those Primogems to the banner to see if you can score someone new. Personally, I’m still looking out for my very own Jean.
No single element of Genshin Impact feels well and truly original, but the sheer level of polish on display, combined with its generous foundations and refined moment-to-moment experience establish miHoYo’s magnum opus as something of a singular achievement, and not just “for a free-to-play gacha game.”
Genshin Impact is immediately available on PC, iOS, Android, and PS4. The game is cross-platform compatible, but only the PC and mobile editions can share save data. A Switch version is planned, but has no release date.