Okay, so this piece is a bit of a doozy and I fully admit to that. I just want to open with some caveats:
It's Fine if You Like Genshin Impact. The following is not an attack on you as a person or the things you enjoy. I am fully aware of how I do critique and it can be abrasive, especially for things I dislike. I use hyperbole a lot, and I can get spicy, I admit to this. That same personality is why I'm able to write about media critically in the first place - it's a blessing and a curse. But I don't actually think Genshin Impact or Kingdom Hearts or Overwatch or whatever are the literal worst things on planet earth. This is impossible because paying rent is the literal worst thing on planet earth. So, you know. Be easy on this Mint. In the words of Jarvis Johnson:
~Let 'Em Know Where Your Heart is At! Before You Roast Their Faves~
All that said, it’s time to talk about how terrible Genshin Impact is!
First thing’s first: I’m not talking about the Gacha. Everyone and their momma knows that Genshin Impact’s gacha mechanics are bad, even for most gacha games that aren’t named FGO, so we don’t need to delve into that, barring one point I make later on. This critique completely revolves around all of the things I deeply dislike about Genshin Impact's game design.
When I play games the thing that matters most to me is Gameplay. As I’ve mentioned before, I have Goopy Goblin Gamer Brain syndrome, and if your game doesn’t play well in whatever genre it’s taking place in, it could have a story on par with East of Eden and I wouldn’t care. Genshin Impact actively spits at my Goopy Goblin Gamer Brain. It feels like it goes out of its way to spite me with its design, a rube goldberg machine of interlocking systems that are all done poorly.
It’s clear that Genshin Impact wanted to crib from Breath of the Wild, and that’s fine: Fenyx Rising did the same thing very well, to an extent. GI does not. This isn’t more clear in any other aspect of its design than how it handles movement and exploration.
You Are (Not) Schmoovin’ and Groovin’
Genshin Impact’s world is immensely beautiful. Its aesthetic is colorful, its landscapes meditative. Every frame could easily be a computer wallpaper. And none of that matters because navigating it is more of a chore than picking up my meds from the supermarket. And at least I can get a snake while I’m at the supermarket.
I never liked the stamina system in Breath of the Wild, so it’s subsequently wild to me that Mihoyo looked at that game’s stamina and said, “hmm, how about we do that, but worse?” With a maxed out stamina bar in Genshin Impact, obtained by finding little shards in the game world, you are allowed to sprint for thirteen seconds. That's it. You can run for a total of 13 seconds, and then you're out of breath.
On top of that, the regeneration of stamina takes an eternity. This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if your default speed was at least a little spritely, but it’s not. The scale of the game’s world does not accommodate for anything other than sprinting from one place to next, assuming you don’t have an option to glide somewhere. And at least BotW and Fenyx Rising give you mounts to mitigate some of that frustration. As far as I could tell, no such option exists in Genshin Impact, so I hope you have your arch supports on.
But hey, at least you’re going to do interesting things at interesting places, right?
I Have No Reason to Explore, and I Must Scream
Part of what makes the exploration in Breath of the Wild interesting is that there’s always something to do. As you explore, you can find Korok Seeds, solve puzzles in shrines, and do quests. You are constantly rewarded for poking around in the ruins of Hyrule, no matter what you’re choosing to do, and the structure of the game’s world makes it so that there’s always something new to discover.
I’ve seen a lot of praise given to Genshin Impact for having the same kind of exploration. I would like to ask the people who gave this praise where they found it, because I haven’t seen it. Teyvat, while beautiful, is ultimately lifeless. I constantly questioned why I was exploring it — at a snail’s pace, remember — and not coming up with an answer. Exploration in Genshin Impact mostly involves finding materials to level up your characters, which is again, a chore, not an interesting discovery. Sometimes there’d be little puzzles that would require me to light up lamps with my fire character, or blow a windmill with my wind character, but the reward for my troubles were books that level up my character’s experience and some junk loot. There are a few “shrines” in GI, but they mostly exist as resource grinds, because this is a gacha game that is pretending to be about open-world exploration.
Genshin Impact doesn't take advantage of the sandbox nature that makes Breath of the Wild interesting either. The first time I lit grass on fire in BotW to use the resulting updraft to carry me into an area I had trouble accessing, I felt like a Mint with the biggest-brain ever. Beyond freezing some water to slowly traverse a lake, I never had the same sort of epiphany in Genshin Impact. Oh but don’t worry, you can do the same updraft move: if you managed to pull the right Five-Star character. Yeesh. My time in the world did nothing but make me question why the game is open-world in the first place. If anyone has an answers, please tell me, because I'm struggling to find one.
Kick, Punch, It's all in the Mind (and one button)
I can forgive a lot in a game if it has a strong combat system. Combat tends to be the thing you do most in action games, obviously, so if that goes well, I can shrug off the things that suck: like say, the terrible pacing of a game’s exploration. I do not think Genshin Impact does combat very well.
Sure, it all looks very pretty, and you'll probably be drawn in by the flashy animations and elemental combos that you can pull off once you obtain a few characters. But the window-dressing soon gives way to combat that's as bare-bones as anything in Genshin Impact.
First of all, dodging is tied to stamina in GI, which makes combat feel choppy. This is especially true when I’ve just ran out of my grand total of 13 seconds of sprinting before finding a group of enemies, and am subsequently barred from any ability to defend myself until the bar fills up. If you’re going to do this, make stamina only exist when engaging in combat.
Combat itself is too simplistic to have any legs. Elemental combos are repetitive and rarely feel very good. The animations are beautiful, but there are no mechanics that lead to actual character action in this character action game: there are no counters (unless you pull Beidou, of course), no perfect dodges, very little in the way of enemy variety — hell, there isn’t even a difference between light and heavy attacks! You have one button to press beyond your character ability and elemental burst, and that’s it. It feels like elemental combos were chosen as the primary combat mechanic to encourage you pull for more characters to fill out your team. And maybe combat gets more interesting if you fill out your party’s Constellation grid, but guess what those require? Duplicate pulls of your characters! You get no alternative resources to fill them out. Lit.
And I get it, right? I realize that this is the most personal preference-based criticism out of everything I’ve spoken about so far. But I still think it’s boring, so there.
The UI is Just Bad
I had nowhere to effortlessly weave this in, but I need to talk about it so here’s my disjointed aside: the User Interface in Genshin Impact is truly terrible, at least on consoles. You can’t use the D-Pad to select things in menus, and the actual process of navigating through said menus is almost slower than the regeneration of your stamina bar. On top of that, the game always shows you the lore description of items first, and their mechanical importance within the game’s systems second. Why? I don’t care that Cor Lapis is “a precious crystal of condensed pure Geo element that usually grows along with other minerals and is commonly called 'Cor Petrae.'" What I need to know is that it increases the level-cap for Keqing. Obfuscating this information does not give me lore to chew on, it just irritates me.
What’s Happening? I Don’t Know (Literally)
I’m not going to harp on this for too long because it doesn’t matter as much to me as anything from the above, but Genshin Impact doesn’t do much to get me to care about its plot. It is extremely boring and banal. I am told to care about a bunch of Things with Proper Nouns within 20 minutes of starting the game, and it hurts my head. At the risk of sounding like a dumbass, characters use a whole lot of words for things that could have been explained in a sentence or two. It’s kind of cool that characters already exist in the game’s world before you show up, but everything about it just feels…off. A lot of care has been put into this game’s lore and world-building — again, to the point that it gets in the way of User Interface elements — but the game’s pacing makes it so that not much of anything has any impact (sorry). Again, not a huge deal and maybe it picks up later on, but it served as a final nail in the coffin of this game for me.
End of Salt
Genshin Impact is a beautiful game with beautiful characters and beautiful music that gives me nothing. I feel no joy playing it, and thinking about all the ways it shoots itself in the foot upsets me like a parent who’s not mad, Just Disappointed. In the end, my opinion doesn’t matter because it’s making buckets of money and artists are drawing it all the time on Twitter. But when I boot up my PlayStation 5, and see Genshin Impact on the docket next to games like Wonderful 101, and Apex Legends, and Final Fantasy XIV, I am reminded of the difference in quality, and realize that I don’t have any reason to play it when there are a multitude of games that are superior to it in terms of game design and monetization practices.