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HoYoverse has another Genshin-level hit on its hands with Zenless Zone Zero, if this dystopian urban fantasy can find itself a suitably nostalgic audience - hands-on preview

ZZZ is far more than just an inner-city Genshin Impact reskin, but do enough millennials care about gacha games to make it pay off?

Zenless Zone Zero art and logo with 'Hands On' underneath
Image credit: VG247

I've made the mistake of underestimating HoYoverse games before. When Honkai: Star Rail launched last year, I approached it very much with the assumption that Genshin Impact had been lightning in a bottle — a one-off banger that I was happy to make the sole exception to the rule that I had no interest in F2P RPGs aimed at a mobile-first market — and that I'd cover HSR for a few weeks around launch and then quietly drop off once the initial surge of interest died down. More fool me, then, when it ended up becoming one of my favourite games of 2023, with around 200 hours on my account to date.

I should've gone into Zenless Zone Zero with my expectations set pretty high. But, I'd also heard rumblings that ZZZ wasn't up to par with HoYo's other recent output. As a result, my expectations going in were… complicated: I was willing to be convinced, but not expecting the world.

Even if you're familiar to HoYoverse games, Zenless Zone Zero has a few surprises up its sleeve for you. Dropped into the preview build with no prior hands-on experience, I found that untold hours spent playing both Genshin Impact and Honkai: Star Rail hadn't prepared me to hit the ground running in Zenless Zone Zero quite as effortlessly as I'd assumed. Knowledge of HoYo's other games came in handy when navigating menus and calculating gacha exchange rates, for instance, but actually interacting with its world is quite a different experience.

This isn't a bad thing: many of the elements about ZZZ that were the most confusing to me at first ended up being the most charming elements of the whole package in the end. For example: maybe it's just me being weird, but one aspect of gacha games that's always bugging me is the fact that you can end up seeing very little of your canonical player character. Once you've stacked your roster with some more powerful units, you'll potentially be seeing far more of someone who made a five-minute cameo in the story than the protagonist whose journey you're meant to be compelled to follow.

But as I felt my way around ZZZ, it began to dawn on me that the in-story justification for who you are and where and when is much stronger in this game than in others of its type. When you first begin, you can choose to play as either Belle or Wise: the classic HoYo sibling protagonist duo who serve as a gender selection option for players. But here, whoever you don't choose will still be a major presence in your game, serving as your co-worker and go-to confidant in your home base, as well as your truly indispensable sibling-in-arms.

A living area in the protagonists' home base.
All this base belong to us. | Image credit: HoYoverse

Genshin Impact does a variant on this — the unchosen sibling becomes a significant supporting figure in the protagonist's story, albeit largely off-screen having their own concurrent adventure — but typically your poor gender-flipped self just disappears into the ex-canonical void after making your choice. So seeing Zenless Zone Zero's two protagonists both get to be key on-screen presences is already a pleasant surprise, and right off the bat marks ZZZ as a game that's not overly beholden to the traditions set either by its genre or its parent studio.

Its gacha trappings are basically identical, sure, but standardised monetisation seems to be an executive mandate within HoYo; conversely, on the creative side, it appears that the devs are being given a surprising amount of freedom, given that the studio could basically print money with its tried-and-tested formula at this point.

In Zenless Zone Zero's overworld, you play as your choice of Belle or Wise. That's it. When exploring the retrofuturistic dystopian cityscape of New Eridu, Belle is my sole avatar in that world, with no option to switch out her appearance to that of a random acquaintance at the push of a button. This allows you to encounter and interact with every other character on the roster as they go about their day, permitting a much more natural flow from world exploration into companion quests and side activities.

A bustling street centred around a multi-way crosswalk in New Eridu.
This is New Eridu - wonder what the old Eridu looked like? | Image credit: HoYoverse

Zenless Zone Zero's combat feels frantic. The rapid pace is both by careful design and not intended as a barrier to entry for less dexterous players: it's meant to make the game more fun. And it does! Some of ZZZ's most satisfying moments happen when you pull off a combo just right, and for a few seconds it's almost as if the game's playing itself as your characters flip in and out of the field thanks to your astute strategic input (or excellent job mashing buttons).

The contrast to Genshin Impact is especially stark here. Fighting in Genshin, particularly in the open world, can feel unresponsive at times — particularly if you're relying on an F2P roster without the latest meta-optimised team comp — leading to an experience that isn't as satisfying as it really should be. In Zenless Zone Zero, fights are restricted to designated arenas, but what could feel like a limitation instead ends up making the mix of action and strategy way more exciting.

On that note, I feel obliged to confess that Zenless Zone Zero is perhaps the first game I've ever encountered that made me actively enjoy dodge-parrying. As a notorious hater of dodge/parry/block mechanics in all their various forms who would much rather just tank the hit or else run away, ZZZ's satisfying chime and subsequent drop into a rewarding black-and-white bullet time invulnerability state after pulling off a perfect dodge has finally won me over. It's a minor thing, maybe, but any game that can turn me of all people into a starry-eyed convert on this topic deserves a special nod.

Zhu Yuan explosively kicks an enemy in the face.
Devils might cry if they were inspired by this combat. | Image credit: HoYoverse

It occurs to me, though, that this sharp divide between combat characters and exploration characters could potentially have an unintended impact on the banner sales that these games rely on to make their bank. Character builders will presumably carry on as usual, but will character collectors be as invested if they never see their faves outside of combat arenas — or else encounter them regularly in the world regardless of whether they've pulled for them or not?

As someone who falls more into the collector camp and only tends to properly build a select handful of units, I have found myself wondering if I'll bother with ZZZ's gacha as much as I do in Genshin and Star Rail. Although, to be fair, I'm also already quite invested in collecting everyone from the golden age horror-themed Victoria Housekeeping faction, so maybe I'm fretting over nothing on HoYo's behalf here (and, yes, I will be maining Rina the ghostly French maid, and no, I will not be taking further questions at this time.)

Zenless Zone Zero seems like more of a budding crowd-pleaser thanks to its extra time in the oven. The question for me now is less whether ZZZ is a good game or not, and more about who this decidedly fun game is meant to be for. After all, HoYoverse have already got a broad offering set out with their existing four live service titles: Honkai Impact 3rd for old-school waifu collectors who are well into Nier; Genshin Impact for fans of ambitious open worlds and high fantasy, à la an even more endless Zelda; Honkai: Star Rail for those who prefer turn-based JRPGs and/or space opera storytelling; Tears of Themis for the many fine folks who wish Ace Attorney was a dating sim.

We're reaching critical mass on the point where it's even possible to keep up to date with all of these games, let alone enjoyable to do so. Zenless Zone Zero feels like it'll be the one to tip a lot of players over the edge into having to pick and choose which HoYo titles truly appeal to them. Who, exactly, does ZZZ speak to who isn't already being well-served by these same developers?

Anton, one of the playable Agents in Zenless Zone Zero, raises the drill weapon strapped to his left arm.
This is Anton, standing on deck. | Image credit: HoYoverse

The answer, I think, is the nostalgia crowd. Zenless Zone Zero is quietly aiming at what seems to be a slightly older average audience than the rest of HoYo's output. The game was even originally planned to have a mature age rating, although some of the more kid-unfriendly themes have been pared back — leading to accusations of censorship from some quarters, as the jiggle physics are one thing that's been toned down (although seriously, having seen the latest build I can't imagine what they were like before — can the complainers only get off if a woman's t*ts hit her in the face when she turns around too quickly?). Still, the appeal to the children of the late '90s and early '00s remains apparent in almost every aspect.

Lead producer Zhenyu Li is an unabashed fan of Digimon, Street Fighter, and DJMax — franchises that, despite continuing into the modern day, have a distinctive whiff of millennial nostalgia for those who were there. The urban fantasy setting also reflects the distinctively early-2000s-era cartoony romanticisation of inner-city life (this millennial, for what it's worth, immediately started having flashbacks to Urbz: Sims in the City and MySims Agents while wandering around New Eridu).

The protagonists of Zenless Zone Zero work in a video rental store; stat-enhancing equippables are stylised as discs inserted into personal CD players. I can remember when retrofuturism looked like the space aged dreams of the 1960s, but it seems the early 2000s' sanitised take on cyberpunk ("high-tech lowlives", except the tech isn't much higher than in reality and the respectably-employed lives certainly aren't too low) are where it's at these days.

Zhu Yuan fights a huge enemy on a city street.
Panic on the streets. | Image credit: HoYoverse

You don't have to understand ZZZ's retro appeal to appreciate it, of course. I've heard the production team gently correct a few folks who mistakenly attributed the bulk of the inspiration to Persona 5. Despite its dystopian lore, moment-to-moment ZZZ is possessed of a distinctively bright turn-of-the-millennium hopefulness, reflecting a practically teleological belief that although things still suck a bit right now they can surely only get better — an assumption about the world that's probably quite alien to anyone whose childhood extended much past the 2008 financial crash and everything that came after.

To me, that's where ZZZ's deeper retro appeal really lies; but with Western millennials generally hesitant to engage with gacha games, this clever undercurrent could well go unnoticed by the Gen Z audience, for whom the contrast between the visually cheery metropolis and the narrative's claim that its denizens are oppressed and miserable might just end up baffling. I think you maybe had to be there, man.

Ben, one of the playable Agents in Zenless Zone Zero (and a giant anthropomorphic bear) shoulders his oversized gun.
Bear with me. | Image credit: HoYoverse

Despite being marketed as an ARPG, exploring New Eridu feels like the main activity in ZZZ, with combat as a secondary concern that's largely tucked out of the way and therefore ignorable until you're ready to engage with it. Unlike in Genshin or HSR, you'll never find yourself dragged into a combat encounter without explicitly seeking it out, and even the focus of daily log-in activities is more on simulating city life, rather than racking up damage against enemies.

If you're inclined to get a bit wistful over memories (real or imagined) of the turn of the millennium, but have accepted current trends like always-online and live-service games as the modern face of the industry — and, of course, are comfortable managing your spending limits when faced with a gacha — then my experience suggests that there's plenty in what Zenless Zone Zero's offering to intrigue you.

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