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Zenless Zone Zero isn’t quite ready to complete a HoYoverse hat trick

When I first booted up the Zenless Zone Zero‘s beta, I expected something ready to compete with the likes of HoYoverse’s biggest hits. Genshin Impact and Honkai: Star Rail boast complex combat systems that reward players for mastery, detailed worlds with lore tucked into every corner, and many more aspects that make them feel lively and worth staying with for the long run. Zenless‘ trailers made it seem like a futuristic, action-packed playground with a compelling critique of society threaded into its story.

As I progressed past the opening chapter, my expectations came back down to Earth. HoYo’s latest action RPG has all the style of its hit games, but I’m struggling to find the substance in the early going.

Action takes the spotlight with combos that click together effortlessly and buttery smooth animations. It has everything it takes to succeed in terms of aesthetic, inluding its comic-like storytelling and unique character designs. Based on my time with the beta, though, it’s currently lacking the engagement and worldbuilding that Genshin Impact and Honkai: Star Rail have at this point in production.

Zenless Zone Zero TGA 2023 Announcement Video

Into the Hollows

Zenless Zone Zero takes place in a futuristic world with pocket dimensions called Hollows. Ethreals, monsters from within the Hollows, have endangered humanity. Some people have an immunity to the corruption within the Hollows, allowing them to survive much longer than the average person while inside them. Those with special resistance sometimes become bounty hunters, risking their lives for a lucrative payout.

Players embody a Proxy, an unofficial guide to the Hollows. When I boot it up, I choose to play as either Belle or Wise, two siblings that run a video store as a front for their business. The story starts with a commission for the Cunning Hares, an odd jobs agency that needs your help directing lost teammates out of the Hollows and recovering a valuable item for their client. From there, Zenless Zone Zero slowly builds on the world around it with stories of New Eridu’s different factions.

Anby looking at her surroundings in Zenless Zone Zero Hollow
Hoyoverse

Most of the action happens inside the Hollows, where players select three agents to fight Ethreals. Agents vary based on weapon and attribute type, which can make a difference in what type of element they wield and whether or not they can attack at a distance. However, I can currently button-mash without thinking too hard about character builds or team comps.

HoYoverse rewards players for reactivity, the ability to time dodges and assists just right. The window for reacting is generous, never feeling like it’s difficult to reach within a few seconds of an attack. It feels something akin to the mechanics in an action game like Bayonetta 3 or the upcoming Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown without the punishing difficulty.

Screen time

The real sin is how the majority of the story involved traversing through TVs instead of slashing through mutants. As a Proxy, you control a doll-like, bunny-eared robot called a Bangboo to guide teams of characters (that actually do the fighting) through the Hollows. Bangboos move through roguelike mazes of TV screens, hopping from screen to screen to solve puzzles and collect loot. Players only fight Ethreals when you step on certain switches, usually colored red.

Proxy Bangboo moving through TV screens
Image used with permission by copyright holder

During my time in its beta, I never really got to explore the Hollows much. When I did get a peek into it during battle, most of the areas looked the same without much to explore. The only place that has any real personality is New Eridu. The fact that we spend so much time in the Hollows without actually seeing it causes a disconnect that grows wider with every screen that I’ve passed so far. I got to see so little of the Hollow in comparison to the board game-like maze. Players are Proxies and not actual agents, so they’re literally on the outside looking in.

It was a bit of a disappointment for me, considering how much time I spent fiddling with puzzles instead of actually fighting. This might not be such a problem for players who enjoy puzzles. Genshin Impact has its own share of puzzles in its overworld, but that’s in addition to all the other discoveries you can make because it’s an open-world game. Zenless Zone Zero only has two main areas to explore, one of which doesn’t really count because it’s inside a television-filled maze rather than being an actual location like New Eridu.

To its credit, HoYoverse does its best to liven up New Eridu with activities like accepting sidequests for rewards, eating ramen to boost stats, playing mini-games at the arcade, modifying Bangboos, and running a video store. Still, it gets boring if it’s the only place you have to explore even after hours of playing.

Zenless Zone Zero character select with maid Rina
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Combat is highly damage-focused, so most teams work so long as you can keep mashing buttons together to annihilate the enemy. Some may argue that the combat gets more complicated as it goes on, but that raises the issue of how long it takes to get to the meat of the excitement. You shouldn’t need to wait 30 hours to start enjoying a game, and it should hold your interest for more than five. I’m not feeling that hook yet, as I was dragged through a lengthy tutorial at the beginning and bounced between screen-filled commissions before continuing the story.

Moving between TVs is a main gameplay component, so it’s hard to imagine developers changing it completely. If HoYoverse created the Hollows as tangible locations with unique scenery, it coul have created a more interactive environment for the player, even if they’re limited to navigating in the body of a Bangboo. It’s not the world that’s the issue so far, but the presentation. Hopefully, we see a tweak to how it’s all laid out before its official release or else HoYoverse may have a tough time pulling off its hat trick.

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Jess Reyes
Jessica Reyes is a freelance writer who specializes in anime-centric and trending topics. Her work can be found in Looper…
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