Genshin Impact, a free-to-play totally-not-Zelda game that came out this week for PC, PS4, and mobile, starts slow but quickly picks up the pace. If you’re just starting out and aren’t immediately gripped, that’s fair, but don’t throw in the towel just yet. Stick with it through the first, lengthy prologue quest. Yes, it’s a tedious string of small tasks, but you won’t get a look at what Genshin Impact can truly offer until you wrap it up.
In the early moments, combat in Genshin Impact might feel like anything else you’ve played in the past 20 years or so. You can use standard attacks and special attacks to take on throngs of fantasy-inspired enemies, all while dodging their telegraphed blows. You also start out with an elemental power: a gust of wind that can push enemies away. At first glance, it’s all standard stuff, but the game’s core gimmick shakes things up in some fresh ways.
When Genshin Impact’s combat system is in full bloom, you’ll have four members in your party. Each party member has a different element: ice, fire, lightning, things like that. Each element inflicts a different status effect: ice freezes, fire burns, lightning shocks, you know how it goes. These elemental effects react with each other in various ways, like a high-fantasy periodic table. If you, say, freeze someone solid and then immolate them, they’ll “melt,” and suffer serious damage. You can only have one party member on the field at any given moment, but you can cycle between characters at the push of a button.
It’s a fascinating, in my opinion enthralling, combat system that encourages you to think on the fly. Surviving battles is contingent on mastery of mixing and matching the game’s elemental attacks, but you don’t get to experience this combat in full until you’ve all but tied up the prologue quest, “The Outlander Who Caught the Wind.”
There are 11 steps in “The Outlander Who Caught the Wind,” each of which takes place in a different corner of Genshin Impact’s expansive world of Teyvat. Most of the quest-line involves taking preemptive measures to weaken a malevolent dragon named Stormterror. In classic video game fashion, that means, among other things, visiting various different temples and clearing them of enemies. At first, it’s just you. You’ll soon be joined by Amber, an irrepressibly chipper archer who can shoot fireballs from her bow. After clearing one dungeon, Kaeya, a sword-wielding cop (boo!) who knows ice magic, joins your party. Another gives you Lisa, a librarian (woo!) who can shoot lightning like an extremely well-educated Thor.
Once these three join your party, the combat system starts to sing. Forget the solo performance. You now have magical harmonies at your fingertips. All told, it took me a little less than three hours to complete, including a few snack breaks. By then, I came to think of Genshin Impact less as a competent, if banal, hack-and-slash and more as a legitimately interesting role-playing game.
The game’s mission structure, too, opens up a bit. At that point, you can take on various side- and character-specific quests. Some, I’m happy to report, are more interesting than simply “clear out dusty temples and fight a big bad dragon.” In one, you’re sent on a pirate-esque treasure hunt (complete with a narrative twist that’s genuinely surprising).
Genshin Impact takes longer than most modern games to show you what it’s all about, and there’s a case to be made that a molasses-speed start is an issue in and of itself. To really get a sense of what Genshin Impact is, you need to knock out “The Outlander Who Caught the Wind” first. If you don’t like it then, hey, that’s totally fine. At least you gave it a fair shake. But if you actually start enjoying yourself? Hey, that’s great! Your next major quest is called “For a Tomorrow Without Tears” (so dramatic) and, yes, you might have to grind a bit before unlocking it. But at least the combat, at that point, will be something to look forward to.