App Reviewed on: iPad Pro
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Genshin Impact isn't a game you can just review as soon as it comes out. It's an ever-evolving game that twists and bends based on the amount of time, energy, and money you put into it. A month after release, I've reached the current endgame of Genshin Impact without spending a dime or feeling like I've had to, using almost exclusively characters that are given freely to all players, and can safely say this game's gacha mechanics and other free-to-play structures only create slight annoyances in what is otherwise the most ambitious, innovative, and satisfying gacha game there is.
Welcome to Teyvat
On its face, Genshin Impact looks an awful lot like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It's easy to draw comparisons between both games in terms of art style, open-world design, and traversal mechanics, but make no mistake: This ain't no Zelda game. Genshin Impact is a fantasy game of magic and exploration, but it evolves past that basic formula into an experience that bears more resemblance to an MMO or even loot-based rpgs like Destiny or Diablo than any adventure Link has ever been on.
The game's story centers around the appearance of a mysterious Traveler (your player character) in the land of Teyvat, a mystical realm of knights, magic, and dragons. In the game's current state, Genshin Impact's takes you through a full story arc in in the free city of Mondstadt before leading you midway through a subsequent chapter in Liyue, a mountainous region that contains a bustling trade harbor.
As an open-world game, Genshin Impact serves up its story via missions that you can take on and complete by going to waypoints and completing whatever tasks that await you there. You can just as easily brush aside missions and simply explore the world of Teyvat, which has a surprising amount of other things to do in it. Most of these other things involve colletibles, but gathering them can involve treasure chest hunting, environmental puzzle-solving, or even elemental manipulation (which is a key mechanic of Genshin Impact's combat formula).
There's certainly content in this game that isn't super satisfying or creative, but there's also an abundance of incredible things to uncover here that make every new session with Genshin Impact exciting and brimming with potential. Two standout surprises in this regard are the game's story and world design. Instead of feeling like flimsy backdrops for a storefront of virtual slot machines (as is the case with most gacha games), a lot of attention and care went into these core pillars of the experience, and they are a big part of what makes it so special.
The future of gacha
Aside from exploration, much of Genshin Impact revolves around action combat in which players construct (or combine with others via co-op) teams of adventurers who all have their own stats, elemental affinities, and special moves. Combat efficiency in the game requires that you use different element-based attacks to cause reactions that can debuff enemies, buff allies, or cause further damage to powerful enemies. Genshin Impact's free-to-play model revolves around the fact that these characters are locked behind a virtual slot machine that you dump Primogems into, which you can grind out in a drip-feed or buy in an indirect way.
Typically, gacha game developers design the majority of their content in a way that progress is only achieveable with a ton of grinding and/or some lucky gacha pulls. While kind of design is certainly present in Genshin Impact, too, it is only applied to a tiny sliver of the experience. The rest--including the main story--feeling totally accomplishable without spending any Primogems (even the ones given to you for free).
This, plus the sheer ambition of the game itself, makes Genshin Impact unlike any other game out there, mobile or otherwise. Its vast open world and deep sea of content plays smoothly on phone and tablets, and it's paced in such a way that you can feel accomplished everytime you play, even if it's just for a few minutes. It's also amazing how seamlessly you can hop in and out of the game across devices and never lose any progress.
But it's still free-to-play
All of this praise isn't to say Genshin Impact is some ideal experience that you'll never feel icky about playing. Its core business model uses psychological tricks to prey on players who may be prone to feeding it money, and there are occasional pinch points for free players that prevent the ability bulldoze through the story or race to the endgame.
For the purposes of this review, I spent no money on Genshin Impact (and was not participating in any kind of content creator's agreement to receive in-game benefits). I also have yet to pull any of the super-rare five star adventurers or weapons. With this being the case, I have been more than pleased spending time in Genshin Impact's world, whether through playing the story, performing co-op quests, or just wandering around collecting food and chests that I spot in the distance.
Under these conditions, I did feel some pangs of jealousy when I'd see other players with fancier, more capable characters, but I only feel like I don't have the right tools for the job for one world boss and the back-half of Genshin Impact's super tough endgame dungeon, The Spiral Abyss. The rest of the game I feel like I have free reign over with few restrictions.
The only specifically annoying thing about Genshin Impact is all of the management that comes along with making endgame progression in these kinds of games. Managing a renewable stamina meter to grind out materials to make my adventurers more capable is what I find myself doing most of the time in Genshin Impact now, and it can be a little repetitive. In all fairness though, I only reached this state after spending 2-3 weeks burning through an imminently more satisfying core experience, and it's a testament to Genshin Impact's quality that I want to keep pushing forward in it despite reaching this grinding state.
The bottom line
Genshin Impact is easily the most impressive free-to-play game on mobile. It offers such a rich world that rivals those of ambitious console and PC games while pacing its content such that mini play sessions using touch controls feel satisfying and worthwhile. There's nothing about Genshin Impact's business model that is new or praiseworthy, but it thankfully doesn't get in the way of enjoying what is otherwise a legitimately amazing open-world adventure.