There is a free to play videogame called Genshin Impact.
This is the logo for the videogame Genshin Impact.
REVIEWING LIVE SERVICE GAMES
A moment of sympathy for those who review video games on a deadline. A standard $60 boxed game with no DLC can easily require 40 hours of playtime for just one playthrough. You might be pushing closer to 60-100 hours for some of the meatier RPGs on the market. And that's not to mention user-generated content, expansions, and repeat playthroughs. Even if you're like me and have no particular deadlines to meet, the reviewer must eventually write and submit their review, omitting at least some non-negligible amount of the potential gameplay experiences offered by the game itself.
A skilled games reviewer can usually hope to play enough of the game to develop some potential thesis statements that say something meaningful about it that won't be later overturned in a catastrophic fashion by someone else who played the game for a longer time. You don't need to have caught all of the Pokemon to give me a solid 900 word summary of the latest entry in the series. Just *how much* Pokemon the reviewer deems necessary to play is really down to their judgement. In the case of paid games journalists, deadlines also simply must factor in, especially if you're an outlet that does not benefit from access to review builds from major publishers. Part of the skill of a reviewer is judging how to best experience a potentially vast experience in a very limited time.
This is where we talk about live service games, also known as "games as a service" - or GAAS. These are often free to play games (sorry Nintendo, "free to start" doesn't seem to be catching on) but they don't have to be. They can be paid games with a free DLC roadmap, they can be paid games with additional paid content options released over time. And yes, they can be free to play games like Genshin Impact. Now imagine that it is your job to review Genshin Impact. The first question isn't even 'How?' here but 'When?'
Genshin Impact came out in September of 2020 and it has been updated on an ongoing basis ever since then. I started writing this review in May of 2021 and will probably complete it by the end of summer. I've never played it before, but I read a little about it when it came out. When I went to read reviews of the game from September of 2020 they often remarked about how much the overall look and feel of the game reminds them of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and how the sheer ungodly sum of money it seemed to be making.
I see the writers behind these reviews making the shame shrewd choices they always have to make. What are the most salient points I can talk about before I have to submit this review? They made good choices. But the thing about GAAS products is that they are only ever in a complete state once the developers behind them stop adding new content. There is no one ultimate and best time to review a GAAS product. Anyone reviewing Genshin Impact has to just take the game as they find it and comment on what they find at that point in time, adding to the overall history of things people have said about it as it evolves.
For me, that involved starting at the very beginning. The game won't let me start anywhere else.
Now I have worked on a number of GAAS games in my time and I'm glad to see that Genshin Impact has a very generous Honeymoon Phase. The Honeymoon Phase is what I like to call the time you spend with a GAAS game where you are able to forget that this game is looking to monetise some of its players, potentially very heavily.
Download a free game with in-app purchases onto your phone at random and chances are that it will be painfully obvious how they intend to monetise your experience within twenty minutes. You almost certainly won't *need* to spend any money yet to continue having fun, but already you grok the gameplay loops and systems that will eventually start placing demands on your real-life cash money.
I know in my heart that Genshin Impact *must* have something up its sleeve to make me monetise down the road. But at Adventure Rank 20 and several hours of having a mildly good time, I'm not even close to being there yet. I do not appear to be in any way stymied by economic paywalls or the feeling of being a second class player as a result of playing for free.
DEATH OF THE MILD
To say that Genshin Impact is ripping off Breath of the Wild is to say that Fall Guys is ripping off Super Mario Oddysey. Just because two games are about platforming in colourful environments doesn't mean that they are trying to do the same thing.
A better comparison might be any film that was later adapted to a TV show. Think about Snowpiercer the movie versus Snowpiercer the TV show. The two products have a lot of shared characteristics and features, but their core purposes are so different that the end products naturally diverge a great deal.
Breath of the Wild was created to take gamer's breath away and redefine how we think of both open-world adventure games and how a Legend of Zelda game works. Given the whopping commercial and critical success of the Link's first Switch outing, it's reasonably safe to conclude that the development team achieved what they set out to do.
When you explore the hauntingly empty wastes of Hyrule, very little is given to the player on a silver platter. There are very few quest markers to use as a crutch, and the player must rely chiefly on their sense of exploration and survival to gradually master the environment and piece together a network of fast travel points piece by piece.
Genshin by comparison isn't here to break new ground. It shouldn't be judged on its failure to do so. It's perfectly legitimate to criticise its lack of overall creative ambition, but not on its failure to reach new heights. It was never shooting for the moon in that way in the same way that The Big Bang Theory wasn't trying to redefine serial storytelling. Genshin Impact's core goal is to command your attention for long enough that you eventually spend money within its ecosystem, or persuade other people to play the game for longer so that they might spend money instead.
Not surprising given that Genshin Impact is free to play, but that means that Genshin is completely unable to trade in the kind of player antagonising gameplay that Breath of the Wild routinely deploys.
A FEW WORDS ON INDUSTRY-STANDARD IZEKAI ANIME STUFF
One of my games journalism pet peeves is when a western reviewer encounters a game with an anime art style and spends a lot of time ensuring their presumed western audience that they are as distanced from that culture as possible, so much so that they find the idea of Goku to be simply baffling. Oh, those weird Japanese! What will they come up with next?
I also don't care for the idea that you can't look at something like Genshin Impact and criticise it from any other point of view than a dyed in the wool lifelong enjoyer and expert of anime. As far as my own 'power level' goes as a consumer of anime, I would say that I'm far more powerful than a detached casual observer but far less powerful than the all-powerful otakus of the world who usually have a handful of different anime shows on the go at once.
Rest assured that I am not here to shit on anime, nor am I here to advocate for anime. I'm here to tell you what the hell is going on with Genshin Impact.
Simply put: there's not much going on.
"It's exactly what it looks like, what do you want from me?"
Anime isn't a monolith. It has a rich and varied history just like anything else in the art world. But just like any other genre of entertainment, there are different levels of risk that are tolerated by publishers. There's wildly experimental storytelling in anime, there's anime that pushes the technical limits of what animation can do, and there's stuff that's just absolutely baffling, even to hardcore anime fans.
Then there's stuff like Genshin Impact. I'm not going to use the phrase "lowest common denominator" in a derogatory sense here, because that's exactly what the product developers were aiming for here and they hit the nail squarely on the head.
Genshin Impact has a silent protagonist who begins the game by entering the game world due to a freak dimensional accident in another place. This protagonist also has a SPECIAL QUALITY which means that they have a SPECIAL DESTINY TO FULFILL in this world. This world is populated with every conceivable fantasy world character trope from mainstream, family-friendly anime products. Everyone may dress in conservatively racy cosplay outfits, and it may not be entirely clear how old everyone is in this world, but there's absolutely nothing in here that could cause all but the most conservative player to take offence.
Speaking as someone who has enjoyed anime for more than a decade, Genshin Impact is rammed to the gills with generic anime trash (GAT) and you already know if you're down for that or not. I end up skipping through almost all of the cutscenes, and I have no time for the entity known as 'Paimon' but it also doesn't get in the way of me having a good time with this game. I will also say that even if this is game is filled with GAT, it is a very well presented piece GAT. There's a generous amount of competent voice acting, the game is a pretty thing to look at. Nothing about this game will blow you away, but it is perfectly possible to have a chill time with it.
If you've ever re-watched old episodes of Dragonball Z for hours on end with some snacks, or mindlessly replayed Skyrim for the fourth time, that's the kind of experience you're going to get out of this. Go forth and binge!
Genshin Impact offers a very competitive value proposition to players looking to play something for free. From what I've played so far, the world is vast and dense with activities. Those activities may be simple and derivative, but there's an assload of it, it runs well on a variety of machines... and it's free. It's an all you can eat buffet that someone else has paid for so you may as well dig in.
Paid MMOs may offer richer experiences that cater for specialist tastes, and are usually the sign of a legacy game like World of Warcraft or similar. If you're looking to jump into a new epic fantasy world and either enjoy (or can stomach) the cutesy anime narrative stylings then I would strongly urge you to consider Genshin as the title to beat. By all means, pay subs for something that appeals to you more, but just make sure that you're getting a worthwhile deal!
Genshin doesn't use dirty tricks to keep me coming back. What keeps me coming back is the promise of a massive world to explore, plenty of things to do, and a reasonable guarantee that I will be able to make progress even if I don't have a lot of time on my hands. Yes, they'll eventually want to try and squeeze some money out of me, but that feels a long way off from where I'm at, and if they keep showing me a good time, I wouldn't grumble at the prospect of giving this team a little of my money down the line. In the free to play the market, you can't really ask for a better result than that.
THE EXTRA 3%
Welcome back to The Extra 3%! I hope you enjoyed my review of Genshin Impact. It's okay if you didn't, but I hope you did.
That's three reviews that I've done in this series now. If you liked this one, then you might also enjoy my reviews of Sludge Life and Loop Hero, especially since I'm currently BANNED from reviewing games published by Devolver Digital (at least for a good, good, while)
BANNED FOR ALL TIME (or at least for a good, good, while):
Published by Devolver Digital
I've reviewed games on the PC so far, so I should really strive for a console exclusive. Probably something on Switch? I don't know yet. We'll see, eh?
A console exclusive
Please consider interacting with me on Twitter @jak1oh3 and explaining to me what the hell the entity known as Paimon is and why everyone accepts its presence uncritically. I'll wait.
Otherwise, thanks again for reading, it goes a long way :)