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Oh no, Zenless Zone Zero is good now

Street delighter.

Nicole and Anby sitting on top of a car driven by Billy in Zenless Zone Zero.
Image credit: HoYoverse

You know that giddy feeling you get when a game does something unmistakably right? I felt it using the delectable Grappleshot in Halo Infinite for the first time; when floating through a trippy music video-like sequence in Control; and when fighting the beautifully horrific Hyperion boss to ethereal organ tunes in Returnal. Perfectly preserved memories I reach for when I need a reminder on how good games can be. Imagine my surprise then when that giddy mood resurfaced during a hands-on preview for Zenless Zone Zero, Genshin Impact developer miHoYo's upcoming release. Something I already previewed during its second beta - and had a lot of issues with at the time.

It was the Twin Marionettes that did it. A boss picked at random in an area I stumbled into by chance while flicking through new maps. From what I can gather, you can challenge these 'Hunt' bosses three times a week to get either level-up materials or currency rewards, a standard way to keep you coming back and building shiny new characters. Resource farming doesn't exactly scream excitement, but that's precisely why the fight caught me so off guard. I had no idea what to do for the majority of it, but damn did it feel good swapping between my three characters at speed, watching flashy transition animations and blasting the duo with chaotic ultimate attacks.

My tiny Bangboo bunny-robot-thing even joined in on the fun to adorably slap the boss about, after I downed my dear Nicole by getting distracted by the spectacle of the Marionettes' assault. It felt like I was back in some bizarre, anime version of Returnal, sussing out how to dodge and weave in my offence, only this time the arena was coated in comic-book style dressings, reminiscent of the urban surroundings in games like Persona 5, Jet Set Radio, and Hi-Fi Rush. An ultracool design paired with super slick combat. Hello precious gaming memory, take a seat next to the Master Chief, you'll feel right at home.

A look at Zenless Zone Zero in action.Watch on YouTube

But then, this was part of my major issue with Zenless Zone Zero even back in its second beta. There wasn't much room for these Twin Marionette-type joys because the majority of your time was taken up by the Hollow Deep Dive (HDD) mode, a television-styled mini-game that had you slowly moving up, down, left and right on a repeating top-down board view to progress the story. There were some variations on what you did during these excursions, like solving puzzles, but not enough to keep the boredom away as you were pulled from the all-too-brief stints with the more enjoyable combat sections, or exploring the unusually cheery streets of the post apocalyptic cities of New Eridu. While I can't confirm if these pacing issues have been entirely fixed, as I didn't get to play through much of the story again during my preview, I'm happy to report that the HDD screen time has been drastically reduced during every other part of the game. There's also a new double-speed toggle so you can move across the board and read dialogue faster while in these HDD segments. It's almost unbelievable how much this simple fix has changed how Zenless Zone Zero feels, now that its focus is on looking and feeling ridiculously cool, not navigating this lacklustre board.

Zhu Yuan kicking an enemy in Zenless Zone Zero.
A Bangboo attacking an enemy from Zenless Zone Zero.
Image credit: HoYoverse

Regarding why the HDD TV mode is still included and laid out the way it is, Zenless Zone Zero producer Zhenyu Li told Eurogamer that, while some don't enjoy the HDD TV exploration, others actually do. So there was "a lot of consideration and thought" before "confirming the weight of the exploration". I still don't find it a thrilling experience, but this compromise has at least let the art and combat shine brighter, and for longer. Li also said that additional methods of exploration other than the TV mode are being looked into, on top of new additions already planned for launch. The already-stellar combat is also still being tinkered with, while Li mentioned the team had "actually thought about having less people in the group" than the typical three members (more than three, however, might get "a little bit chaotic or messy").

With a team of roughly 400 working on Zenless Zone Zero ("and growing"), you can see how the studio's "parallel pipelines", as Li calls them, allow for the team to freely experiment with future updates while preparing for its imminent global launch. But what about the other changes made to this launch version? For one, the Battery Charge daily stamina system is no longer required to experience story and side missions. A win - although it really shouldn't have been included in the first place. Another of my favourite additions is the introduction of an instantly available 'hard mode' while playing the main story chapters.

From my experience, this optional toggle isn't going to be the cause of any broken controllers, but paired with the ability to select trial story characters - brought up to an appropriate level so you can experience the campaign with those involved in the current plot - it actually makes Zenless Zone Zero feel like a more traditional gaming experience. It's like picking between easy or normal difficulties. Live service games often live in a land of their own, with specific character builds, update schedules, and reward systems that can muddy the story experience at times, so while this doesn't exactly seem revolutionary, it is a small step towards designing something fun for both casual story players and those looking for something deeper while playing the campaign.

Ellen Joe attacking an enemy in Zenless Zone Zero.
The Victoria House faction from Zenless Zone Zero posing, including Lycaon, Ellen Joe, Rina, and Corrin Wickes.
Sixth Street view of the street in Zenless Zone Zero.
The HDD TV mode from Zenless Zone Zero, made up of a bunch on mini TVs.
Image credit: HoYoverse

This freedom of choice is something Li emphasised in our interview. He is more personally concerned with the "battle loop" and "feedback of the action" feeling good, and so wants you to "just do whatever you think is fun and cool," whether that's grinding for better gear and exploiting enemy weaknesses, or using trial characters on the easiest mission difficulty. I think most developers like to claim that their game can be played in a variety of ways, but it genuinely feels like Zenless Zone Zero can.

Li also talked more about balancing all aspects of the game, specifically in regards to some people requesting an auto mode toggle for combat and exploration. The team are considering this, Li said, but want to investigate further whether this is a "real" request from players, if they actually want this particular kind of automatic tool. Whatever the team decides, they "want to make something that is truly fun to the gamer," rather than introducing a system that just takes their hands off the keyboard.

This mentality extends to the daily grind woes some experience with live service and gacha games in general. While daily quests don't look like they're going anywhere in the launch version, Li says the team are working on an update for casual players, to help them squeeze some daily time in even if they don't have long to play. If this all sounds a bit too much to you, don't worry, the open secret behind all these types of games is that you don't actually need to engage with all the features, rewards, and dailies to enjoy it. From my playtime it certainly seems like Zenless Zone Zero is following this trend, perhaps even more than most, as almost everything is optional. That technically also extends to pulling for characters in the game's gacha system.

When asked if limited characters only obtainable from these gacha pulls influence how the team balances combat, Li said that while there are some activities for players who are "up to date on the latest characters", they can "experience the story without a lot of difficulties… I do believe that players could finish most of the action parts with the characters they like." However, when speaking of characters affecting the ease of battles, Li tells us that "this is an action game, so what I have to emphasise is that you have to practise your action skills. No matter what kind of characters you have got so far, as long as you practise, you will get used to the combat with the characters you like." This is what it felt like playing through the most recent preview, but there's no telling how character-reliant clearing the hardest modes in Zenless Zone Zero will be until its full release.

The Cunning Hares gang from Zenless Zone Zero posing, including Billy, Nicole, Anby, and Nekomata.
A Hollow area landscape in Zenless Zone Zero.
Image credit: HoYoverse

That said, whether you plan on pulling because of the latest shuffle to the current meta's tier list, or decide to get a character because you like their playstyle or appearance, it is still annoying that this is linked to either spending a ridiculous amount of money, or farming currency in the game by consuming everything they throw at you. It's the exact type of 'balance' that's unviable for casual players. That feels particularly sore in Zenless Zone Zero, where so much effort has been made to accommodate those not willing to put up with a live service grind. The ability to play lots of characters for free, in bursts, means it's easy to tell people to just ignore the optional gacha system - but I'd be surprised if many people would listen. Zenless Zone Zero's emphasis on designing enticing characters - combat and story-wise - along with the consistent drumming of hype already happening on social media makes that easier said than done. A problem with almost all gacha games, not just Zenless Zone Zero.

General gacha issues aside, I ended my last preview of Zenless Zone Zero with the suggestion it needed to make big changes before it fully released - particularly when the game's greatest strengths, like it's combat, were buried beneath the HDD TV mode, its biggest weakness and the thing that also took up most of your time. Turns out I was wrong. Zenless Zone Zero didn't need big changes, it only required a few well-targeted tweaks. Chucking the Battery Charge cost to play the story, mercifully reducing time spent in the HHD TV mode, and adding a few options for both casual and combat-focused players is all it took to turn Zenless Zone Zero from a slog into a thrill. Hey presto! It seems miHoYo might be on to another winner.

This preview is based on a press trip to Singapore. HoYoverse paid for flights and accomodation.

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