Genshin Impact was our March VGHVI game, and I was happy to give it a try. The game had caught my eye when it first came out: I liked the art style, and it apparently took some level of inspiration from Breath of the Wild. I’m dubious about free-to-play games but this didn’t sound like the most exploitative one of those, so maybe that’s okay. None of that pushed it over the line for me to start playing it on my own, but I was glad to have an excuse to dip into the game for a bit.

And I’m not unhappy to have dipped into it; and maybe if I had more time and less money, I might dip into it noticeably more? But, as it turns out: not the game for me. The free-to-play stuff isn’t horrible but does make the game slightly worse; the plot is aggressively generic and threadbare; and while the moment to moment gameplay and the overall world structure are both pleasant enough, they’re not particularly an active hook for me. I actually think there might be something in the way combat is put together that I would find somewhat interesting if I dug into it more, but I’m not curious enough about that for me to keep playing.


One way in which the free-to-play design makes it feel a little odd is how the leveling curves manifest themselves. If a game has a core plotline, I’m used to it being possible to follow that plotline’s missions more or less directly one after another, though it’s not a bad idea to do some amount of side quests. With Genshin Impact, though, once I made it past the first few hours (maybe a third or half the way through the intro plotline), I hit some dungeon sections that required my characters to be noticeably higher than they were.

I’d unlocked some side quests as well, so my first assumption was that the game was nudging me to do those. And I like side quests, so I was happy to be nudged. But even when I did those, I was still underleveled. (Or maybe only just barely leveled enough, I can’t quite remember the details any more, but something felt off at any rate.) At first I thought: am I really supposed to grind by fighting random overworld monsters or something? That doesn’t sound pleasant.

But it turns out that something else was going on, and that something else was more interesting. I’d been leveling up so far just by accumulating experience like in tons of other games; but also on the level up screen, there’s this option for using items to gain experience. I’d been ignoring those because they hadn’t previously been necessary, and I’d kind of assumed that was some sort of bad free-to-play pay-to-win thing; but actually I’d accumulated a lot of those items, and it didn’t feel like the sort of thing that free-to-play games sometimes do where they give you a lot of rare items / currency at the start but then dial down the frequency of those drops a ton to get you hooked.


Instead, I think what’s going on here is: the game wants you to unlock extra characters. And those unlocks are a big part of where the game wants you to spend money. But once you’ve gotten a new character, the game design problem that arises is: how do you get that character leveled up enough to play with the rest of your party? And Genshin Impact has what I think is a pretty elegant solution to that problem: it gives you experience partly in the form of plain old experience points that apply immediately and partly in the form of items that can be converted to experience points at some time in the future. And I suspect (but haven’t verified) that, once you get past the beginning, most of the experience you get actually comes in the form of the items rather than the raw experience points. So, sure enough, I had way more than enough experience point items to level up my current party to be able to go into those next set of dungeons.

The system is actually a little more complicated than that: there’s a different kind of item you need to be able to go from level 20 to 21, or from 40 to 41, etc. I think that’s also related to the same problem: they probably structure areas to have you spend a decent amount of time at level 20, a decent amount of time at level 40, etc. And, once you’ve spent some time in the level 20 area, it’s not hard to get enough of the experience point items to get new characters all the way up to level 20; so you can do that and then stop there, knowing that the game is fine with you sitting at that level for a while? I’m not completely sure, because I stopped playing before I’d done more than dip my toes into the beyond-level–20 area of things; it’s possible that those gates are also a monetization thing, I don’t have a feel yet for how hard it is to get the items that let you cross through those gates. But I’m willing to believe that it’s another part of their solution to the tension between traditional leveling curves and wanting players to be able to add new characters in their party.


Speaking of new characters: I did a couple of pulls on the new character loot box, and got a few more people to add into my party. Didn’t change things too much, though? I looked at a character tier guide; one of them is actually supposed to be a quite good character (presumably an intentional good drop by the game), but I wouldn’t have necessarily guessed that.

So I read through the guide a little bit more; my conclusion is that, when you start going deep into the game, combat turns into a completely different thing, with passive effects having a huge impact and in general with advanced effects firing off a lot. This is potentially pretty interesting; I don’t know whether or not I would find the higher level combat more enjoyable than the combat at the level that I’m playing at, but I’m curious how it morphs from one to the other.

But I wasn’t curious enough to keep on playing: I’d put in enough time to have something to say in the discussion, but I needed to get back to Baldur’s Gate 3. Happy enough to have played the game, but the plot construction and moment-to-moment gameplay weren’t something that I enjoyed enough for it to beat out a good non-free-to-play game.

Though Genshin Impact did actually catch Liesl’s eye a bit; she’s going through various Final Fantasy 7 games now, but I wouldn’t be completely shocked if she picks up Genshin Impact at some point this year. So who knows, maybe I’ll be ambiently exposed to it some more; I wouldn’t mind having that happen.

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