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Genshin Impact is a revolution for traditional free-to-play

More Dragon's Dogma than Breath of the Wild, MiHoYo is onto a winner.

Back when Genshin Impact was first announced last year, this lush open-world adventure bore some key similarities to Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Now, over a year on, Genshin Impact still hasn't shaken those comparisons, but since the release of 1.0 last week it's clear it's so much more than a free-to-play clone of Nintendo's finest. That's evident from the numbers alone: Genshin Impact is now the "biggest global launch of a Chinese game ever", and is currently on track to gross more than $100 Million in its first month alone.

Developer MiHoYo is no stranger to technically impressive free-to-play mobile titles, with a decent pedigree with titles like Honkai Impact 3rd, another action-focused game with gorgeous graphics, locked to mobile devices. Of course, how a company is able to put out high-budget games for free is that they rely on you spending money on in-game currency to get a lootbox for items and characters in the game. We've even seen Nintendo pull out their own "gacha" games in the form of Dragalia Lost and Fire Emblem: Heroes, but there's something different about Genshin Impact. Instead of having a lower budget game locked to mobile devices, MiHoYo has thrown a $100 Million budget at it, and come out with a fully-fledged AAA open-world RPG that's on console as well as mobile.

Cover image for YouTube videoGenshin Impact - Launch Trailer | PS4

Ostensibly, Genshin Impact is an open-world character action game where you play as "the traveller", sent to the world of Teyvat after a brief fight with a mysterious god of some kind alongside your twin of an opposite gender, which you can select. You're very slowly lulled into Teyvat with the cute but ever-so-slightly Grating Paimon, who serves as your Navi-style guide through the world. Soon after, you meet Amber, an archer for the local town who joins your party, and introduces you to the city of Montstadt, which serves as your base for the early hours of the game.

The prologue and plot in the early-hours of Genshin Impact aren't anything spectacular, but that's not really the point. Soon after you'll get access to two more characters, so you are running around the world with a full party of four. Exploration is compelling, with your characters gliding, climbing and slashing their way through the world - which is where the comparisons to Breath of the Wild come from. While the game clearly takes notes from Nintendo's smash-hit from 2017, it feels more like an evolution of the groundwork of Breath of the Wild than a simple clone.

Genshin Impact's greatest trick is how it rewards exploration. Whereas Breath of the Wild's Koroks may have not done a significant amount for you, Genshin Impact's equivalent, the Anemoculus and Geoculus give you meaningful rewards in addition to upgrading your stamina. You're able to gain important rewards for following them, which link into other systems embedded in Genshin Impact. You're able to spend your rewards back in town, where you can use them for upgrade materials, money and more. Genshin Impact forces you to engage with its myriad mechanics like this, and it's looking like you'll definitely need them if you want to advance through its later levels.

The characters are the heart of Genshin Impact - they impact the way you play, how you explore, and most importantly how much money you inevitably end up paying. There's the relatively basic Barbara, a songstress who works for the knights, who is animated in the classic "Moe Moe" fashion, to the more complex DIluc, a brooding winery owner, who has a very, very big sword. Each character comes with one of five weapon types - swords, claymores, polearms, bows and catalysts - and these define the way you play. If you're swatting enemies from a distance with an archer, and then switch over to the greatsword user when the enemies get close, that's a decent combo. Where it gets interesting is when you throw elements into the mix. If I make an enemy wet with one of my ranged catalyst-users, then use a melee-focussed electrical character, that'll deal substantially more damage.

With each character's skills thrown into the mix, Genshin Impact soon becomes a fun cocktail of hack and slash with a side-serving of creative elemental boons. With all this in play, Genshin Impact resembles less Breath of the Wild and more the skill-driven Dragon's Dogma. At its best, when faced up against tough bosses or challenges, Genshin Impact reveals itself as a game of some depth.

However, you only get a handful of basic characters in the prologue of Genshin Impact, with the game becoming more generous as you attain "Adventure Rank 7", which is essentially your level. You get given free currency to "Wish" on one of four of the promotional banners in the game. These give you the chance of getting good weapons or characters. When it comes to gacha games, this is nothing abnormal. What is abnormal about Genshin Impact is how the rates of attaining the best characters work.

For what most people regard as the best characters - those with a five-star rating - the chances of getting one on any particular banner is just 0.6%. Compare that to other gacha titles, such as Fate/Grand Order which boasts a 1% rate, and it doesn't look great. If you roll 90 times, you're guaranteed one five star item or weapon due to their "pity" system. So for those who are thinking about spending money on the game, be warned - it's incredibly unforgiving. Luckily, it doesn't smother you too much by the way of making you spend money.

Beyond that, Genshin Impact will never leave you bored for things to do. The world is crafted in such a way that there is always something new to be found, whether that be a chest guarded by enemies, a collectible to upgrade your characters, or a daily challenge to do; and that's all on top of the main story quests. It's a soothing adventure across a world that's a genuine joy to explore, and with more areas presumably due to be added, it's only going to get bigger.

It's still early days for Genshin Impact, but it feels like we've entered into a new era of "gacha"-style games with AAA quality delivered with zero cost of entry. Genshin Impact isn't a juggernaut in the making - it's already here. The ramifications of its release are still unclear for a games industry that's beginning to widely diversify how games are priced and released, but one thing's for certain. Genshin Impact is here to stay for a long time.