Zenless Zone Zero has the unenviable task of following up on HoYoverse’s last two games – the industry-changing Genshin Impact and the trend-bucking success story of Honkai Star Rail. The bar couldn’t possibly be set higher, and rather than attempting to reach it, Zenless Zone Zero feels like it’s simply walking past it. After a hands-on demo and interview with lead producer Zhenyu Li, it’s become pretty obvious that Zenless Zone Zero isn’t trying to be Genshin Impact or Honkai Star Rail. It’s chasing its own vision, and it’s way better off for it.
Playing Zenless Zone Zero feels like diving into an alternate world Persona 5, at least in terms of style. The world itself, the environment, the cast of characters and their enemies – all of these blend together to create a truly memorable aesthetic that is immediately eye-catching. Characters even move and make gestures like they’re over-the-top action heroes from a beloved manga. Zenless Zone Zero has no shortage of charisma, and where other HoYoverse games have a lot of charm, ZZZ feels like it’s closer to the “cool” end of the tone spectrum. That’s illustrated early during a story sequence featuring manga panels and some great voice acting, which helps set the tone for the game.
Character designs are also a highlight. While the Gamescom 2023 demo didn’t have anything new in that regard, it did reinforce the takeaway that Zenless Zone Zero characters are distinctively bright, well-realized, and fun to be around. It’s the latter that’s key in a game that’s trying to sell you on its vision of a neon-infused futuristic city of dreams (and nightmares), and the message isn’t lost. Of the playable characters, it seems there’s someone for any type of player: a cool samurai, a maid with some light horror elements, and even a giant bear wielding an equally huge weapon.
Those worried about gameplay shouldn’t be too anxious, as our hands-on revealed a strong base for a product that’s also set to up its game in future showcases. Zenless Zone Zero feels fluid and distinct from other HoYoverse games. It’s dodge mechanics are immensely satisfying, its general flow of combat makes it enthralling, and its swap system makes a player feel smart – even, like in our case, when they’re only accidentally stringing the right combos together. But even that is by design, as during our interview, Li expressed a desire to make sure the game was accessible and wouldn’t lock players out from enjoying it with too-difficult early stages.
Combat did feel intuitive, and as someone without a wide skillset when it comes to action-RPGs, the barrier for entry was just right, presenting a challenge but not being so difficult it made continuing a struggle. The character swap mechanics set up for some really nice combinations, like using a bruising tank to get in close and stagger an enemy before swapping to a better damage dealer – like Billy, for instance – to get in a bunch of shots from afar. We managed to try 9 of the 12 available characters, and each one felt like they had a specific role to fill and an identity outside just tank, DPS, or support unit.
If there’s one thing we’d like to see from Zenless Zone Zero – besides more on the game in general – it’s a sample of some of its more challenging combat. The boss fight we participated in wasn’t unnecessarily easy by any means, but it certainly could’ve packed a bit more of a punch. It will be interesting to see what late-game Zenless Zone Zero looks like, because its genre and mechanical decisions uniquely position it among its HoYoverse compatriots to deliver end-game content that really looks and feels the part. There’s so much we need to know still before we can comment on late-game, but at the very least, bosses do feel structurally different from mob combat, which bodes well.
It’s also worth noting that the city itself, New Eridu, might be the biggest selling point of the Zenless Zone Zero experience. We got to wander around during the demo and encounter the ecclectic assortment of characters, including a ramen-slinging robot peacefully co-existing alongside what appears to be a generic, suit-clad and glasses-wearing businessman type. There are small nooks and crannies to explore that yield a little extra insight into daily life in New Eridu, and it was a very welcoming environment, the kind that feels good to return to in between in-game missions and strategizing loadouts.
From what we’ve seen and heard at Gamescom 2023, Zenless Zone Zero looks like it isn’t wilting under the expectations set by its developer’s impressive library. Instead, it’s thriving as a game with a clear sense of what it wants to be and how it wants its players to see it – and it’s that kind of clear vision, coupled with a gameplay-first mentality that makes it accessible and fun, that could see it realize its potential as yet another HoYoverse mainstay.
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Zenless Zone Zero is in development for PC and mobile devices. An official release date has not yet been announced.