Straight to the point: Genshin Impact has pretty much ripped our expectations to shreds. The game that many have been calling a Breath of the Wild clone is actually really, really good — and it doesn't have to cost you a penny.
Genshin Impact is a free-to-play, open world action RPG. It has a story, interesting characters, quests, exploration, combat, and puzzles. We've played a good 12 hours of it, and honestly, you could tell people that this is a full price release and they'd probably believe you. The quality on display is not what we've typically come to expect of free-to-play titles — Genshin Impact really does go above and beyond.
So what's the catch? This is a question that we've been asking ourselves throughout our entire time with the game, struggling to come to terms with the fact that this colourful and polished open world adventure is indeed free. Well, it'll come as no surprise to learn that Genshin Impact does have microtransactions. You can spend real money on crystals, which can then be used to unlock random characters or items.
In essence, this is a 'gatcha' mechanic — you're spending money to be in with a chance of obtaining rare playable characters or equipment that'll make you stronger. What's more, the big prizes — like the rare characters — are on rotation, meaning that you've only got a limited amount of time to capitalise on certain deals.
It all seems a bit insidious when you really start to examine the system as a whole, but again, Genshin Impact is free. As mentioned, we've been playing it for over 12 hours and we haven't felt the need to spend a penny. Whether pulling for rare characters and equipment becomes an ugly necessity later on, we don't know — but you could argue that we've already gotten more than enough enjoyment out of what's on offer for the sweet, sweet price of nothing but 10GB of our PS4's hard drive.
And you don't have to spend money on this gatcha business, by the way. You can earn crystals by playing the game, exchanging them for gems that you can collect throughout. Gems can be found in treasure chests, or they can be given to you as quest or challenge rewards. It can be a bit of a grind — especially since gems are also tied to daily activities in an attempt to keep you coming back — but Genshin Impact doesn't appear to be overly stingy. This is a big open world, after all, and we haven't yet run out of things to do.
So what about the game itself? Well, Genshin Impact does take cues from the aforementioned Breath of the Wild — there's just no getting away from that comparison. But to call it an outright clone would be disingenuous. Genshin Impact leans a lot harder into RPG territory, with character stats and equipment levels determining your progress. Different parts of the map are effectively level gated, featuring monsters that'll kick you to bits if your party isn't up to snuff.
As such, there's a definite grind to Genshin Impact. You're encouraged to go exploring in order to enhance your abilities, but because there's so much to see and do, the inescapable grind doesn't necessarily feel like a chore. Little secrets are scattered all across the world, with Zelda-esque environmental puzzles leading to hidden treasure chests. It's very easy to get side tracked as you make your way to the next objective marker.
When you're not jogging, sprinting, climbing, and gliding across the countryside, you're probably following the main story, which is surprisingly cinematic. It's got fully voiced cutscenes and really cool looking dragons. It's all very anime, but there's a undeniable charm to the adventure, as your clueless hero learns more about ancient gods and the raw elemental powers that they once commanded.
Speaking of the elements, they also play a major role in both exploration and combat. Within its first few hours, the game gives you four different characters to work with, each with their own elemental attack, and you can switch between them at will. Amber, for example, can shoot flaming arrows that burn away organic obstacles, while Kaeya can freeze bodies of water to create pathways. These abilities give exploration a satisfying level of interactivity, as you're always looking for ways to utilise your current party members.
And then there's the combat. Enemies in Genshin Impact tend to have elemental weaknesses, so you'll find yourself switching to different heroes in order to efficiently conquer the battlefield. But things get all the more interesting when you realise that elements can be chained together with often explosive results. For instance, you can set a foe alight with Amber's projectiles before switching to your wind-wielding hero, who can then fan the flames to deal huge damage. Likewise, icy enemies can be melted on the spot, while Lisa's electrical spells make short work of monsters that take to water. Finding new ways to exploit both your foes and the environment around you is always fun, and we imagine that the process only becomes more and more rewarding as the game goes on.
Moving on, performance was a big point of concern following the game's frankly woeful PS4 beta. Thankfully, the finished product is a dramatic improvement. The input lag that plagued the aforementioned beta test is gone, and the frame rate manages to stick to a solid 30 more often than not. There are still some noticeable dips during busy combat encounters, which is a shame considering how flashy it all looks, but hopefully they can be ironed out in the near future.
All in all, then, Genshin Impact is well worth a download. Based on our time with the release, this could easily be one of the PS4's best free-to-play titles. Yes, there are a lot of characters and items locked behind the game's gatcha system, but what's here for free is undeniably impressive.