Zenless Zone Zero Is a Rare Misstep for miHoYo

Games Reviews Zenless Zone Zero
Zenless Zone Zero Is a Rare Misstep for miHoYo

Playing Zenless Zone Zero is like looking at the youngest of three siblings, one who is eager to prove themselves in front of the world yet is struggling in the shadow of their elders. Developed by China-based studio miHoYo/HoYoverse, this free-to-play action RPG features fast-paced combat that’s a visual spectacle the likes of which kept me awestruck. Unfortunately, as someone who has spent a lot of time (and money) playing miHoYo’s other titles—Genshin Impact and Honkai: Star Rail (aka the older siblings)—Zenless Zone Zero, which I played for close to 30 hours across two accounts, leaves a lot to be desired.

Zenless Zone Zero relies on an amalgamation of quirky ideas which, while good on paper, tend to clash with its overall aims. In effect, this leads to a rather ill-timed release that’s unlikely to keep even most long-term miHoYo fans engaged.

Zenless Zone Zero

Zenless Zone Zero is set in a world reeling from the dangers posed by the Hollows, dimensional rifts that have become the domain of monsters. You take on the role of a Proxy, someone who can guide agents from various factions through lands filled with threats. Right from the start, I found the concept of having siblings Belle and Wise as the player characters quite refreshing. With Genshin Impact and Honkai: Star Rail featuring Travelers and Trailblazers suffering from amnesia and searching for their counterpart in isekai-esque romps, it was a treat to see the two Proxies just having their daily banter while they run a video store.

The main hub itself, the city of New Eridu, is vibrant with its eclectic cast of characters and creatures, including cute rabbit-like critters called Bangboo, robot vendors, stray cats, and cat mascots. The cozy urban fantasy vibe, as well as gorgeous and colorful anime-style visuals, give locales a distinct flair, too. Moreover, there’s an arcade with minigames, akin to Snake on mobile phones and a version of Dig Dug, providing a worthwhile way to pass the time.

Similarly, the character designs are top-notch, with everything from fashionista mercenaries, burly bear-men, lycan butlers, gun-toting cyborgs, and shark-tailed or demon-horned ladies. Each agent has such a unique appearance that there’s no mistaking a little president of a construction company for a punky, soldier-helmet-wearing kid who wields a spiked baseball bat. In addition to this, it’s possible to chat with or meet up with recruitable agents, befriending them and unlocking new tasks. These interactions create a lively dynamic, as opposed to rudimentary questing or hangout events.

Zenless Zone Zero

Zenless Zone Zero also offers fast-paced, frenetic, and fun combat with your squad of up to three agents. I can easily say that it blows Genshin Impact’s mechanics—which are already fast-paced, frenetic, and fun to begin with—out of the water. This is primarily through a conjunction of various basic concepts—attack sequences, instant dodges, special abilities, and ultimate techniques—along with timely assists and chain attacks.

In battle, hitting opponents builds up their daze meter. Once filled, you trigger a chain attack, letting you switch to another party member who does a unique move complete with fluid animations. This can be done repeatedly as you stun more foes, allowing you to pull off incredibly flashy sequences at an alarming rate. Some assists can even cause allies to parry enemy attacks or swap out someone at the last second, akin to tagging in a teammate in a fighting game, making for some rather thrilling moments.

The action in these encounters is downright impressive. While battles might be a little too easy early on, and you might feel as though you’re just mindlessly spamming buttons all throughout, the difficulty ramps up as you progress. Likewise, you can toggle challenge mode or choose hard mode runs to test your mettle and knowledge of team composition intricacies.

I personally enjoyed trying out various squad setups, such as a “freeze comp” consisting of ice-based characters like Ellen (the shark-tailed lady), Lycaon (the lycan butler), and Soukaku (the demon-horned teen). Both the daze effect and freeze status ensured that I was able to “stunlock” entire packs of enemies with ease. I also loved bringing other agents to the fray, such as Nicole (fashionista merc) and Ben (burly bear-man); the former can use gravity fields to cause hostiles to cluster together, and the latter can block heavy blows before doing a ferocious counterattack.

While it’s true that Zenless Zone Zero offers multiple ways to come up with an ideal team composition, certain restrictions can prove to be a hassle. This is due to characters having an additional perk, which can only become active if someone from the same faction or someone with the same elemental attribute is also in the squad. Because of this, some agents lose their value and viability, unless you wish to keep them around even though you’d miss out on their full potential.

Another important factor to consider is that this is a free-to-play (F2P) game with gacha mechanics. You might be tempted to spend real-world money to get interesting characters via the Signal Shop, which is also where you can find some high-end W-Engines or character-boosting equipment. That being said, and for the purpose of transparency, the Zenless Zone Zero review build that I had access to does have all the characters available right from the start. This allowed me to test everyone’s capabilities, while also making it harder to accurately discern how a free-to-play-only gamer would fare.

Zenless Zone Zero

I did try using only freebie agents for a period and the experience, to put it mildly, became extremely repetitive as time went on. The default trio of agents—Nicole, Anby, and Billy—were a blast to play with for the first few hours. Sadly, other freebies like Ben and Soukaku don’t get unlocked until much later; another free character, Corin, paled in comparison to her counterparts and only became viable once I obtained duplicates of her. I did acquire a 5-star agent with my first few pulls in the Signal Shop (which has a promo for newcomers), but she wasn’t a good fit for my original team.

Perhaps Zenless Zone Zero’s most glaring flaw, and one that’s sure to disappoint fans of Genshin Impact and Honkai: Star Rail, is that it completely curbs exploration and discovery in favor of a dull and uninspired grid-styled mode. Missions require you to check the Hollow Deep Drive (HDD), a system of supposedly interconnected realms presented as a board with multiple TV tiles. Your Bangboo avatar moves across these tiles to push blocks, flip switches, and obtain coins, all interspersed with a few combat encounters. Roguelike gameplay also applies, as there are other modes where you gain Resonium Cards (team buffs) or stages that you need to clear in a sequence.

The concept sounds interesting on paper, but it’s neither engaging nor entertaining in practice. With combat being the highlight of the game, it’s utterly perplexing to see a select few encounters in missions, with more time spent navigating a board. Imagine if roguelike games such as Hades 2 or Risk of Rain not only replaced immersive environments in favor of little tiles, but also restricted movement to the four cardinal directions.

Zenless Zone Zero

Likewise, I was surprised upon realizing that many battles often led to the same confined arenas and landscapes; Hollows act as rifts to otherworldly dimensions, yet very few encounters took place in distinct and memorable lands. If Zenless Zone Zero’s older siblings have vast open worlds or compact areas that still allow you to discover new things, then its own take on exploration presents a fresh but ultimately disappointing affair.

This is further exacerbated by Zenless Zone Zero’s use of an energy meter that gets depleted when farming for XP and materials in activities like the VR simulations. Since overall progression is gated by way of Inter-Knot levels (i.e. world/adventurer levels), there were instances when I lacked the necessary XP even after completing missions and side quests. I had no recourse but to do VR simulations to level up, followed by grabbing a once-per-daily-reset coffee drink just to restore some energy. True, there are battery items and currencies that help recharge energy, but these aren’t readily obtainable in vast quantities. With only a select few locations to visit, samey-looking combat arenas, and dull navigation via the HDD, hitting a brick wall when it came to progression was yet another concerning facet.

In the end, Zenless Zone Zero gives you a chance to bring down your foes in the most stylish ways imaginable, all thanks to a dynamic and exhilarating combat system. Regrettably, this is the lone highlight in a game that’s marred by questionable design choices and limited exploration. As someone who’s put in countless hours into F2P games, including Genshin Impact and Honkai: Star Rail, this youngest child in the family is unlikely to step out of the shadows of its older and more successful siblings. Indeed, if you still enjoy other F2P or live-service games out there, it’s hard to recommend investing your time into Zenless Zone Zero at this current stage.

Zenless Zone Zero was developed by miHoYo and published by Cognosphere. Our review is based on the PC version. The game is also available for the PlayStation 5, iOS, and Android devices.

Jason Rodriguez is a freelance game reviewer and guides writer from the Philippines. He has over 5,000 published articles, and he can play just about every type of game or genre imaginable… except sports that don’t exist in his country. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonR_EG.

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