- Game: MiHoYo's Genshin Impact
- Release Month: September.
- Quick Look: Here.
- Started: 18/12.
- Completed: ???.
I'll preface this final entry in this year's Go! Go! GOTY! with two facts that everyone who's booted up this game on a whim already knows: Genshin Impact is both a lot, and it is far from finished. That isn't to say that it's filled with bugs or is terribly unstable (though it can be a bit frame-y on a core PS4), just that the developers have big plans for the rest of the game's content that will take a long time - and many microtransactions from a dedicated fanbase - to transpire. Right now, the game has two of what appears to be seven planned landmasses: the vaguely medieval European nation of Mondstadt, which focuses on the Wind element; and the more explicitly Chinese region of Liyue, which uses the Geo (or Earth) element. The other five nations will presumably all have their own elemental focus as well, and there's been a few hints via lore references and foreign NPCs as to what may lie in store. Despite being only 2/7ths done as of writing, what currently exists in the game still presents a significant amount of content: easily 50-100 hours of exploration and tailored missions, not including the daily tasks and dungeon instances. I've spent the better part of the last week just futzing around Mondstadt and completing its storyline. (Liyue may have to wait until next year, as I've still got one more 2020 game I want to fit in before Jan 1st.)
I should first assuage those concerned about the game's F2P and "gacha" aspects, as I was (and am): the game doesn't require that you engage with any of it at all, or at least during the first "chapter" set in Mondstadt. The purpose of the game's gacha system is to earn additional characters for your party, ideally those that have elemental coverage you're currently lacking (as intimated above, there are seven types in total, and many are used for puzzles in addition to being effective against certain foes or in certain environments). However, you are given three extra characters in addition to your player-named avatar as part of the story early on, giving you a team capable of wind, ice, fire, and electricity. The introductory gacha bundle guarantees you a geo character also, and you'll be given so much premium currency for free as part of the game's progression that you'll get more than a few gachapon rolls "on the house." The five-star characters and gear will of course require more luck and investment, either gleaned from a lot of grinding or a transfusion of real money, but they aren't strictly necessary except perhaps for the truly high-level stuff. I've been able to make consistent progress without these "pay-to-win" boons, though it took some figuring out of the game's unusual systems to get there.
There's two major aspects to how Genshin Impact's progression operates that I needed to suss out before the game started to click. The first is how experience works, which is applied to character growth as well as growth of weapons and accessories (you have five types of the latter to equip, so it's an involved system). Instead of earning a lot of XP from quests and killing monsters - you earn peanuts from both, in fact - you acquire plenty of XP-boosting items as rewards. The idea here, I believe, is that it gives players full control over who and what they want to prioritize the development thereof: if you've just picked up a rare piece of equipment, or an interesting new character you're motivated to use, you can save all these XP-boosters to catch them up to your current party quickly rather than be forced to drag them into high-level areas so they can siphon the needed XP from extended grinding sessions. Weaker items can be consumed as XP too, and identical weapon drops can be used to "refine" your current gear: this improves the weapon's passive bonus, such as a boost to elemental damage. (If you get an extra version of a character from the gacha system, meanwhile, you'll earn rare items that unlock new skills for them as well as some premium currency back.) This approach to XP is not an intuitive system, but it's one that now makes a lot of sense in retrospect.
The other major aspect is the game's "Adventure Rank": this works similar to Warframe's Mastery Rank, in that it's a gauge of the player's progress themselves rather than any single character's, and that progression not only leads to rewards for every new tier reached but occasionally whole new features will open up. The game's daily challenges, its timer-based "expedition" mode, or its multiplayer co-op system, for instance, all first require a relatively high Adventure Rank to access. Adventure Rank also unlocks new items in stores, new cooking and alchemy recipes to learn, new dungeons to tackle, new story missions to pursue, and eventually improves "World Rank": a system whereby all the world's monsters and treasures level up to be more competitive to your higher level party. If the game felt a bit rudimentary from the offset, it's only because it was waiting to mete out many of its features until I was ready.
The only information I knew about Genshin Impact going in was that it had a F2P economy - being free was a major part of my decision to include it here, after all - and it cribbed a lot of its mechanics from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. To that second point, the game is flagrant in its borrowing; really the only BotW traits not to carry over are the more controversial aspects, like weapon degradation and weather effects having detrimental effects to climbing and walking around wearing metal (though it may just be a matter of time until all that's included too, since the game is being updated constantly). Your character can climb almost any surface, though not when indoors, and the overworld is filled with incidental collectibles and treasures, many of which require a little environmental puzzle to solve or judicious use of "Wind Gliders" from a higher elevation to reach. Combat is similar enough also: it's all real-time and the environment plays a role via the game's elemental system - if you hit enemies with electricity magic while they're standing in water, for instance, it does more damage and spreads around to nearby foes. It feels a bit like a combination of BotW's use of the environment and the more in-depth manner that elements and the environment combine in tactical RPGs like Divinity: Original Sin or Final Fantasy Tactics. I've had to get used to quickly switching between characters to apply combined elemental effects: they tend to do a lot more damage in tandem than individually.
I feel like I could expatiate on this game's mechanics all day, as it is surprisingly elaborate for a free action-RPG, but I should probably get around to whether or not I actually like the game. I do. I think it's fantastic, one of the most confident action-RPGs to show up in a long while (since maybe Ys VIII and Xenoblade 2 from 2017) and it's ludicrous how much of its vast content can be accessed almost immediately, without engaging with its F2P economy or a huge amount of grinding and wait times for things to be built. I can just run around the world solving puzzles to find treasure chests, or reaching floating collectibles that can be exchanged for a boost to stamina (still very important, as it was in BotW), or diving into one of the game's many dungeons each with their own battles and puzzles to overcome, or tinker around in the menus to power up my gear and customize my growing team of heroes. I eventually hit a cash-related wall in Warframe despite enjoying its faster-paced mobility and character variety, and so I'm still anxiously anticipating that other shoe to drop in Genshin Impact also, but for now I'm having a grand old time just indulging in open-world collectathon nonsense and slowly figuring out its quirks and systems. I even don't mind Paimon too much, mostly. (And for whatever it's worth, Lisa's my current favorite. Early days yet though.)
GOTY Verdict: Hard to say. It's not finished yet, and I'm not inclined to evaluate a game until it is, but it deserves some sort of special credit since it's one of the best games I've played this year.
(LAST MINUTE EDIT: Typically, they're adding the third landmass in a matter of hours, just as I put a cap on the playthrough and this review. Huh. It looks kinda snowy?)