One of the most surprising games to come out last year was Honkai: Star Rail, an action game disguised as a turn-based strategy game. Its characters perform anime-style fighting moves that take up the entire screen. It’s the flashiest RPG I’ve played in years.
It’s so good that I can’t see myself ever going back to Genshin Impact, MiHoYo’s breakout action RPG. I love many of the characters in Genshin and find parts of the freeform combat fun, but as soon as the encounters get tough and you’re managing a stamina meter like Dark Souls, I’m out. Give me the illusion of playing an action game without any of the fast-paced timing.
Zenless Zone Zero, MiHoYo’s upcoming action game without an open world, caught my eye because of its bigger emphasis on combat. You still pilot a group of anime characters with unique abilities in a Genshin-like party, but the training wheels are off. ZZZ is pure action like a Devil May Cry: You pummel enemies with combos and air juggle them until they pop. There’s a move list and animation cancels to squeeze out more damage. It’s Genshin Impact at twice the speed.
Like its other games, MiHoYo is intentionally courting character action game babies like me with ZZZ. Its producer, Zhenyu Li, told PC Gamer in an email interview that “a lot of effort” went into making a game that is approachable to newcomers, a task that even took throwing out the first draft of its combo system.
“Our original combo system was complicated and had too many constraints, creating high barriers for players to execute cool combos,” Li said. “However, after long-term observation of the market and player feedback, we realized that many players found traditional ‘hardcore’ action games too complex to enjoy.”
Li said the team “lowered the barriers for certain actions (like triggering quick time events),” to give casual players a chance in ZZZ’s fast-paced encounters. After playing several hours of the current beta, I can confirm that spamming attacks more or less works until you run into tougher enemies. In fact, it almost works too well to the point of making the early missions dull. I’m blasting through enemies so easily that all the complexity is washing over me. Eventually I unlocked a training mode to practice perfect dodges and precision character swapping, but I’m not convinced it’s all that necessary until much later in the game.
Most projectiles and attacks are easily dodged, and most enemy types don’t require specific elemental attacks until later on. You can mindlessly lay into enemies and only swap characters when you’re prompted to for a combo attack until everything dies. Nicole, one of the first characters you meet, can suck enemies up into a black hole to set another character up for an easy KO. This is a gacha game, however, so many characters are locked behind a premium currency you can save up or buy with real money. I rolled and got Ben Bigger, a literal bear man who stomps around the arena to help stagger enemies and set up faster characters, like Anby, to slice them into oblivion. Or at least that was the strategy I tried to employ, but many fights were over before I pulled it off.
All of it is a joy to watch, though. You dart around the asphalt arenas like a Dragon Ball Z battle and the entire screen goes slow-mo as you land the final blow, which often captures your character cartwheeling mid-air before the score screen appears. Hits land with satisfying thuds and every ultimate has characters take over the entire screen in one powerful swoop. Like all of MiHoYo’s games, ZZZ’s combat has a rhythm to it, enhanced by electronic battle music and trap beats that go surprisingly hard.
You’d be forgiven for not realizing that ZZZ’s setting is actually similar to MiHoYo’s other games given how comic book its intro is. It’s a post-apocalyptic story set in the near-future. There are holes in the world called Hollows that are filled with monsters. Normal people can’t survive them, but “proxies”, like ZZZ’s main character, make a living leading squads into these danger zones to complete odd jobs. You browse an app full of requests like a gig worker and jack into a computer to remotely navigate your team through the Hollow.
“Our world is different from other post-apocalyptic settings where somberness and stark moral choices are rampant,” Li said. “Here, you don’t have to learn any profound lessons or save the world. Instead, you get to experience the lives of ordinary people who strive to achieve their own justice through rebellious means.”
Tonally, ZZZ veers much harder into anime tropes than Honkai: Star Rail’s tendency to satirize modern trends, like the metaverse. This is extremely clear in the first 10 minutes as a trio of Hollow mercenaries pratfall and wise-crack their way through a heist, depicted via cutscenes and comic book panels. I’m not usually a fan of stories with characters who can’t seem to take their own world seriously, but ZZZ speeds through these moments before they get too tiresome.
Outside of the cutscenes, you only have a few blocks of New Eridu to explore. There are some characters to meet and stores to shop at, but most of your time is spent staring at a maze of television screens for each of the game’s missions. A collection of block-moving puzzles and enemy encounters stand in between you and your goal as you trudge through these 2D levels that give each mission its structure. You can zip straight to the objective or tap your way through the entire, multi-layered map to clean out all the resources, which any gacha game player knows is the best way to play without spending loads of money. None of them are particularly fun or hard to solve, unfortunately. They’re busywork before your 15 minutes of allotted combat time.
I get it conceptually: Hollows are extremely dangerous pockets of warped reality that a videogame level might ruin the mystery of. But these TV levels are so far removed from the meat of the game that they feel like a distraction or filler rather than an effective preamble to the thing you’re really here for. I reached a point where I avoided side missions simply to minimize how many block puzzles I’d have to solve.
Even though the beta is still running, it’s the TV levels that have kept me from jumping back into ZZZ over spending more time in Honkai: Star Rail’s charming events instead. ZZZ has all the aesthetic magic that I’ve come to expect from a MiHoYo game at this point. Its character designs rule and the combat animations are dazzling. But right now, its depth is buried underneath a tedious loop with little challenge.
I’m optimistic that MiHoYo might find some ways to fix these issues after gathering feedback from the beta. There’s a truly satisfying action game in there that could be what Genshin players like me have been hoping MiHoYo would make for years, but it’s not quite there yet.