There’s something missing from Zenless Zone Zero. Armed with a deep combat system, new urban setting, and roster of characters easy to love, it seemed like developer miHoYo was teed up for another win after recent successes Genshin Impact and Honkai: Star Rail. Having spent countless hours immersed in both of these worlds, I’m still fascinated enough to show up for each patch, so miHoYo’s newest post-apocalyptic take on their winning formula should surely be my next obsession… and yet after playing its second beta, I’m left more confused than anything else.
The most egregious reason Zenless Zone Zero feels so off is its major pacing issues, primarily caused by its insistence on throwing you into the same television-styled mini-game. While there are variations in what you do during each TV grid — like remembering colour sequences, or solving box puzzles — the majority of your playtime in Zenless Zone Zero is made up of slowly moving up, down, left and right. Main missions, side quests, and even the bonus roguelike mode all force you into this linear perspective, with little to no variation in how the grid is presented. It’s a bizarre division of your time because the grid mini-game is one of the worst parts of Zenless Zone Zero, whereas combat is absolutely one of its finest. It’s absurd that this fast-paced, incredibly stylish action is constantly pushed aside in favour of traversing boring grids, as you only get brief moments of combat before you’re forced back to the TV exploration mode.
Fighting has a focus on dashing and quick-swapping between characters, meaning you’re always on the move, thinking about your next action. It’s easy to play, offers depth for more dedicated players, and, most importantly, feels ridiculously cool. So why is it drip fed instead of the main course? The occasional longer stints spent blasting through waves of enemies serve as a wistful example of what Zenless Zone Zero could have been.
Another disappointing problem that artificially slows the pace is Zenless Zone Zero’s regression back to miHoYo’s mobile roots, gating main missions behind an in-game currency called Battery Charge. It gets worse, as this charge is also required to do just about everything else, like tackling side quests or farming for new equipment and materials, so you have to make a decision every day whether to play missions or level up characters and gear. Or, if you run out of the scarce resource required to recharge your energy for free, you can spend yet another currency called Film to recharge it. Although Film isn’t currently for sale in the beta’s shop, it’s very likely it will be in the full release if this energy system stays, because Film is also used for character pulls. Gacha has unfortunately never left miHoYo’s games, but it somehow feels even worse here because of the shared currency. You don’t have to spend your Film of course, but it’s tempting to do so when the option is there. At the very least, it’s incredibly annoying that you have to wait to simply experience the story on top of having to decide between whether to use Battery Charge for farming resources or mission progression.
It’s a baffling decision that makes Zenless Zone Zero sound like just another predatory mobile game, despite it being the most premium-looking game miHoYo has ever designed. Zenless Zone Zero introduces a fresh, beautiful art style that feels like you’ve dropped into your favourite anime. It also finally bids farewell to the boring fade-to-black moments with explanatory text so prevalent in Genshin and Honkai, replacing them with interactive comic book strips — a brilliant solution to an old problem, seamlessly aligning with the rest of Zenless Zone Zero’s charming design.
Although the Hollow areas, where most combat occurs, are pretty bland, the city hubs of New Eridu offer a stylish reprieve in between missions, reminiscent of the urban surroundings in Persona 5 and Jet Set Radio. The city’s chilled vibes are a nice change from the typical world-ending stakes tacked on to many anime video games. Zenless Zone Zero doesn’t entirely escape this cliché, as that ‘New’ part of Eridu was added after the emergence of deadly Hollow bubbles caused the planet’s downfall. New Eridu stands as the last remaining city, but its denizens have an unusually cheery outlook, developing a pop culture obsession instead of worrying about turning into monsters if a Hollow bubble should appear. The streets of New Eridu are brimming with movie, television, video game, and comic book inspirations, from small nods like the Avengers-esque Starlight Knights TV show, to bigger additions like running your very own video rental store, and having access to an actual arcade where you can play games inspired by classics like Snake and Mr. Driller.
It’s all so vibrant and slick, injecting a slice-of-life atmosphere into the typically dreary post-apocalyptic genre. Unfortunately, you don’t spend a lot of time in these delightful hub areas because of that damn TV mini-game, ready to kill any enjoyment you manage to briefly accrue when not worrying about energy needs.
What’s missing from Zenless Zone Zero is coherence. It couldn’t have been easy to create another satisfying combat system, a new world packed with personality, and yet another charming cast of characters — so why shove all of this hard work in a corner in favour of a lacklustre mini-game? Why bring a notoriously hated mobile energy currency back? I think I can take a capitalistic guess as to why the Battery Charge gates story content, but the focus on that monotonous TV grid confuses me the most. If it was included to make the game mobile-friendly, then miHoYo’s very own Honkai: Star Rail proves that there are more enjoyable ways to work around touch controls.
Hopefully there are some big changes when it fully releases, because in its current beta form, it’s hard to enjoy Zenless Zone Zero’s strengths when its biggest weakness takes up most of your time.