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Just What the Heck is Genshin Impact?

by Heidi Kemps,

If you look at the list of Twitter's most talked-about games of 2020, you'll see a bunch of names you probably expect: Animal Crossing, Fate/Grand Order, Final Fantasy, Fortnite… and a new title called Genshin Impact. By now, you've probably heard that name more than a few times. Maybe you caught a glimpse of the game on a website or during the Game Awards, or saw some interesting fanart on Twitter or Tumblr, but the question's still burning in your mind: what the heck is Genshin Impact all about?

Genshin Impact is an open-world, exploration-driven action-RPG with online multiplayer and frequent updates to add new quests, features, and story. It released in late September of last year, where it quickly gained a very fiercely devoted fan following. While the anime-inspired visuals of Genshin Impact might lead you to believe it's a product of Japan, it's actually made by China-based development studio miHoYo and tailored to appeal to an international audience. (In fact, you can listen to the game's spoken dialogue in English, Chinese, Korean, or Japanese, and each language's dub has some notable voice talent behind it.) It's currently available for download for free on mobile devices, PS4, and PC, with a Switch version coming sometime in the future.

Wait – for free? Yes, Genshin Impact is a free-to-play game… sort of. We'll discuss that in a bit. Despite costing you nothing upfront – save for the time needed to download a client program – Genshin Impact offers the sort of massive world, high-quality visuals, fully orchestrated soundtrack, and character-driven story you'd expect from a full-priced product. And with versions across three different platforms, including an extremely playable mobile version, it's easy to play whenever and wherever.

You begin Genshin Impact as witness to a fierce battle, where a brother and sister battle against a mysterious goddess. The pair are easily defeated, and as the wicked goddess captures one sibling, she casts the other across dimensions into the world of Teyvat. Stranded in a strange world with only the fairy-like friend Paimon to guide you, you begin a quest to reunite with your lost sibling… and maybe save another world in the process.

Genshin Impact's Teyvat is a large, expansive land where the seven elements flow and bless its populace. Here, seven major kingdoms, each aligned with one of the elements, vie against one other for power and influence. There is a lot of lore behind this world, and as more updates, characters, and locations are revealed, players have learned more and more about Teyvat's very, very lengthy history.  Only two of the seven major territories have been made available to explore so far, so there's a lot more story and worldbuilding that lies ahead in future updates.

With the game's major story arcs still being very unfinished, you might be wondering just what Genshin Impact's playerbase is spending so much time on. But once you set foot in Teyvat's big, open environment, you'll definitely start to understand: this world was built for lots of replayability. Your main focus early in the game is exploration and completing certain quests to unlock features, locations, and abilities, but once that's done, you can start attempting higher-level challenges and quests for top-tier loot… or you can just mess around and experiment, using your repertoire of skills to interact with the environment.

There's a bit of an elephant in the room here, so let's just be upfront: It's pretty obvious that Genshin Impact takes a lot of its design cues from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. You'll notice it in things like movement, climbing, enemy AI… and, of course, the massive glider you're given to help you get around. In fact, a lot of folks were dismissing Genshin Impact as a simple Breath of the Wild knockoff before its official release after seeing screenshots and gameplay previews. But taking inspiration from Nintendo's modern classic is hardly bad thing. After all, Breath of the Wild is one of the most beloved games to release in recent years – why wouldn't a developer want to look to it for design inspiration?

Plus, there's a lot of things in Genshin Impact that BotW doesn't have: different characters with unique abilities, online multiplayer co-op, a very in-depth artifact gear system, commission quests that offer new challenges each day, and a complex elemental magic system that affects you and the environment in a variety of ways. Having a big selection of unique characters to choose from – as well as being able to freely swap between a set of party members when exploring – adds significant depth to the game, as you can figure out ways characters’ abilities can be chained together to create potentially devastating elemental combo situations.

Beyond gameplay, however, there are much bigger differences between the two games: Breath of the Wild is exclusive to Nintendo consoles and is a full-priced release. A good part of why Genshin Impact has proven to be so successful is that it offers a similar experience to BotW with no upfront cost on several platforms, making it very accessible to a wide audience. I'd say that miHoYo has done a fine job of taking ideas that BotW pioneered and putting their own spin on some of the mechanics, creating a complex world and appealing characters for players to engage with, and making the game available to the widest possible audience.

However, Genshin Impact has also seen its fair share of controversy and criticism. For starters, since the game is made by a Chinese company, it is subject to various rules and regulations from the Chinese government, including the censoring politically sensitive topics in its online communication. While that's something the development team has no control over, it still might not sit well with some folks.

The biggest source of scorn, however, is the game's gacha-based monetization. In order to recruit new characters and earn top-tier gear, you have to perform “Wishes” by converting a currency called Primogems. Every Wish you perform grants a random weapon or character, some of which are considerably rarer (and more useful) than others. Primogems can be earned in-game by questing and completing missions, but the quickest way to get them is by buying them in Genshin Impact's cash shop.

Getting the coveted five-star-rarity characters isn't easy: you only have a 0.6% chance of getting one in a regular Wish roll. There are mechanics in place to make sure that you'll obtain a five-star character after a certain number of Wishes if you haven't received one, but it takes a while (and many Wishes) to activate. Also, all characters come with Constellations: star maps that light up and grant various enhancements when you obtain more than one copy of a character through Wishes. In order to fully unlock a character's potential, you'll need to roll them several times to build their constellation. It's easy to see how some players could get addicted to spending in order to obtain a rare, powerful character, and there are many internet horror stories about people spending thousands of dollars to do just that. Of course, it's also possible to play completely for free just on the resources the game gives you, and there are plenty of players who do just that.

With downloads in the millions across all platforms and a fervent fanbase eager for more characters, story tidbits, and gameplay additions, it's unlikely that Genshin Impact is going to fade away soon. And seeing as how the game is also performing quite well in Japan, I certainly wouldn't rule out the possibility of seeing Genshin Impact's world materialize in anime form. If it sounds like it'd be something you'd enjoy, why not give it a shot? Just make sure you set limits when it comes to gacha – no virtual waifu or hazubando is worth ruining your finances for.

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