I’ve been working on this write-up on-and-off for months. I didn’t expect it to be so gargantuan, but I hope it’s still fun to read. I don’t know if I will write any more posts like this, as I want to focus on my Let’s Plays for now. But I felt this game, as big as it is, deserves its own deep dive.
Prologue: Hello, Traveler
I wasn’t expecting much with Genshin Impact. Like many self-identified “gamers”, I’ve never been into the mobile scene. Once you go hard on Civilization V, it’s hard to go back to Plants vs. Zombies, you know?
But, well, I saw that opening cutscene. Two young and beautiful travelers, brother and sister, facing off against an all-powerful goddess. One, the character you choose, gets portaled into a lush fantasy world. The other is whisked off to parts unknown. The howling winds cool to a gentle breeze, and a gorgeous composition from Yu-Peng Chen brings the world of Teyvat to life. Instantly, I was blown away. I couldn’t help but think, “wait, this is a mobile game?!”
It’s been a year since Genshin first dropped, and the game has exploded in popularity since then. Although millions of people have played it, I haven’t seen nearly as many in-depth critiques as you’d expect from such a huge game. So this is my deep dive into what is, if nothing else, one of the most remarkable works of media to come out of this tough, long year (ish).
Chapter 1: In Another World… With My Smartphone
When you, as the Traveler, wake up in Teyvat, you’re alone and powerless. But it doesn’t stay that way for long. You quickly meet your companion, a fairy named Paimon. (She’s like Navi from Ocarina of Time, only even more annoying.) And as you explore the open plains, you’ll soon meet another: an adorably genki girl named Amber. Amber takes you to the nearby city of Mondstadt, introduces you to the locals, and even gives you a glider to sail across town with ease. She’s your first real party member, your closest confidant, and the first person who makes Teyvat feel like… well, home.
Genshin Impact is an open-world action-RPG that’s all about exploration. You can run, jump, glide, and climb anywhere, with treasure and danger around every corner. The world is vast and astonishingly detailed. It’s got all the freedom you’d expect from an open-world game, without the endless tedious checklists and quest objectives.
A lot of Genshin was clearly “influenced” by The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Mondstadt looks like Hyrule at a glance, the climbing and gliding are exactly the same, and even the enemies look like the familiar Bokoblins and Wizzrobes. Personally, as a huge Zelda fan, the similarities were quite distracting at first. As Genshin goes on, though, it becomes something all its own. (Spoilers: I still think BotW is way better. It’s not even close. Sorry!)
The combat system is fast-paced and fun, skillfully streamlining the JRPG experience. Every character has unique abilities, and specializes in one of six types of elemental magic. Elements can be combined to make new effects: mixing Pyro and Electro will cause a massive explosion, while using Hydro and Cryo will freeze your foes. Unlike most action-RPGs, where your party members are controlled by AI, here you can swap who you’re playing as with the touch of a button. It’s not as strategic as Xenoblade or as combo-heavy as the Tales series, but Genshin‘s combat still feels unique and satisfying after many, many hours of play.
However, the real star of Genshin‘s gameplay is its world design. Every inch of Teyvat feels alive, brimming with history and culture. Mondstadt is loosely based on Renaissance Europe, full of wine cellars and a freewheeling spirit. But then you reach Liyue, a perpetually golden land inspired by China at its height. Developer miHoYo hails from Shanghai, and they put so much love and care into representing their culture faithfully. Even Inazuma, based on isolationist Japan, is shockingly accurate, right down to the way samurai hold their katanas. Each region has its own mythology, traditions, and unique perspectives on life.
And even if you’re not a lore geek like me, the sheer vibe of Teyvat is so serene and remarkable that you’ll never want to leave. The way the blades of grass sway in the wind, the way the sun rises over impossible stone peaks, the soundtrack that is somehow nostalgic, heartbreaking, and hopeful, all at the same time. Being in Genshin feels like waking up on a Sunday morning, when the weather is perfect, and all you want to do is lie out in the sun. It’s a simple feeling, but one I’ve sorely missed after spending so much time stuck inside doomscrolling.
The isekai (In Another World) subgenre of anime has been done to death by now, but there’s a reason for its continued success. At its core, isekai is all about escapism. Back when we were living in caves, people passed the time playing stick-and-ball games, or telling grand tales by the campfire. They did this for the same reason we play games today: to pass the time, bond with their cavemates, or forget about their troubles for a brief, fleeting moment. Isekai takes this concept to its logical extreme, transporting people into lush fantasy worlds where they don’t have to deal with crippling debt or debilitating mental illness. And of all the fantasy worlds that these stories have crafted over the years, I think Genshin‘s is the one I’d most like to live in, if I could.
Chapter 2: What’s In A Waifu?
While you journey through Liyue, you meet all sorts of fascinating characters along the way. There’s the fabulously wealthy ruler, Ningguang, the stately businessman Zhongli, the smooth-talking bad boy Childe, and a mysterious horned girl named Ganyu. Ganyu is a powerful Cryo archer with a spectacular finishing move, but she’s initially withdrawn. She’s half-human and half-Adeptus, immortal nature spirits and minor deities in this universe. Her mixed ancestry has always made her feel like an outcast, coming from two worlds but belonging to neither.
It’s not until she meets the Traveler, who also doesn’t quite belong in this world, that she finds someone she can open up to. She develops feelings; not necessarily romance, but of companionship, in a way that only makes sense in anime RPGs. As a queer person, Ganyu’s struggles to belong or express her true self were instantly relatable to me. While the Chinese government’s censorship means it’s sadly unlikely we will see any openly gay characters in Genshin, there is certainly a lot of subtext…
Unfortunately, as great as Genshin’s world design is, its story is underwhelming. The main problem is that it takes forever to get going. Every quest is filled with long, unskippable cutscenes where some random NPCs will tell you their entire life story before asking you to go find a radish. The Traveler is a silent protagonist, so the obnoxious Paimon does most of the talking for you. The main goal, finding your lost sibling, is basically irrelevant. I suppose it’s like Skyrim, where the main quest is just a backdrop to all the exploring and goblin-slaying. But like that game, I found the slow pace and lack of a central hook made the story feel directionless and shallow.
That’s not as big of a problem as it seems, though, because the heart of this game is its characters. Like a lot of anime games these days, Genshin Impact is all about the waifus. (And husbandos, although there aren’t nearly enough of them!) But what does that mean, really? What are waifus? Why are waifus? The greatest minds throughout history, from Socrates to Stephen Hawking, have failed to answer these questions. But I think there is some merit to them, and it goes beyond weebs being perpetually thirsty (although that is a big part of it).
Ever since we started telling stories by the campfire, people have been drawn to fascinating characters. We love them so much that we even treat real people, like celebrities or politicians, as the heroes and villains of our own lives. We empathize with them and imagine ourselves in their situations. Great characters don’t just make us feel less alone; they help us learn more about who we are. That remains true, whether the character is an ancient Greek hero, a chemistry teacher turned druglord, or an anime girl with big boobs. And if it is an anime girl with big boobs, well, even better, right?
Genshin‘s characters are not particularly deep, and most of them don’t develop much outside of their respective story quests. But they are all unique and relatable in their own way. Amber is the loyal best friend who always tries her best. Jean, my first 5-star, is basically Saber from Fate with a desk job. Even the goofier characters, like the adorable chuuni Fischl or the perpetually unlucky Bennett, have their own particular charms. It’s virtually impossible to unlock everyone, but you’ll still get attached to your faves.
It’s too bad, then, that Genshin exploits our natural love of characters for profit. miHoYo made over a billion dollars in the game’s first six months, because the companies that make free-to-play mobile games are some of the greediest and most shameless motherfuckers out there.
Chapter 3: There Is No God, Only Gacha
Like many mobile games, Genshin Impact is based around a gacha system. The term comes from gachapon, those little machines where kids put in a quarter and get a disappointing toy in an egg. In a gacha game, you collect premium currency (in this case, Primogems) to spend on characters and items in a virtual slot machine. Doing pretty much anything in Genshin gives you Primogems, but getting enough for a rare 5-star character takes an astronomically long time. Or, you could just buy Primogems, with real money…
This sounds like gambling, doesn’t it? It is gambling! Only it’s for anime characters instead of money, and kids can do it as young as 13. It’s shitty, and it should probably be illegal, but, you know… capitalism?
Okay, let’s dig into this. How much money/time do you need to get, say… Hu Tao, the current 5-star banner character? (Warning: this part has a lot of numbers that made my brain hurt. Thanks to the Genshin Impact Wiki for all of this info!)
First, you need 160 Primogems for 1 spin of the gacha. But 5-star characters drop just 0.6% of the time. And the standard banner only includes 5 of the 20 current 5-stars (and Hu Tao isn’t included). The only way to get her is to pull on the limited time event banners, with a whopping 1.6% drop rate.
Now, there is a pity system: after 89 unsuccessful pulls, the 90th is guaranteed to be a 5-star. But even then, there’s a 50% chance that you’ll get stuck with a “standard” 5-star like Qiqi. Sure, if you don’t get Hu Tao at first, you’re guaranteed the banner character the next time you hit pity. But you still need up to 180 wishes, or 28,000 Primogems, to 100% guarantee our little ghost girl.
If you’re F2P, the most you’ll guarantee per month is 2,460 primos. That’s if you do all daily commissions (60 primos each), and clear every floor of the ultra-hard Abyss. You can buy a $5 booster to get an extra 3,000 a month, and an extra 680 from the $10 Battle Pass. Even then, you’d still only make 6,140 a month. It could take anywhere from 4 to 11 months of playing every single day to get ONE 5-star character. By then, the one you wanted will probably be long gone.
But gachas don’t make their money off free players. The real cash cows are the whales, those unfortunate souls who spend hundreds of dollars or more gambling for their waifus. So it’s much more expensive to buy Primogems outright than it is for the 30-day drip feed, and you get more of them if you buy more expensive bundles. But even the highest possible increment, $100 for 8,080 primos, isn’t even half of what you need!
To 100% guarantee a 5-star banner character, you have to spend about $350 (or one Nintendo Switch OLED) all at once. I think. I don’t know! This shit’s way too complicated. All I can say is, spending $350 on one character in a video game is not worth it, even she is a top-tier DPS.
To be fair, you don’t need to spend that much, or any money really, to enjoy the game. I only spent $10 for a couple boosters, and even then my 4-star characters did the job just fine. Besides, not everyone can afford a pricey gaming rig, so “freemium” mobile games like Genshin are naturally more accessible than their console and PC counterparts. And really, is it that big of a deal if some jerk-off with more money than sense goes broke over some overpriced JPEGS?
Here’s my problem, though. Everything in this game revolves around gacha. If it’s not constantly trying to waste your money, it’s constantly trying to waste your time through endless, tedious grinding.
Leveling up your characters is bad enough, but you also have to level up all your weapons, abilities, and artifacts (accessories). Artifact drops are random, so you can spend days grinding and still not get the one you want. Grinding is artificially gated, so you can’t do more than half an hour a day without using valuable resources like Primogems. Oh, but don’t grind too much, or the enemies will actually get harder and you’ll have to do even more grinding to catch up! They literally made progression as confusing and frustrating as possible, just so you’d pay them to make it easier.
Honestly, the gacha system kinda ruined this game for me. It preys on people with poor impulse control to spend money they don’t have, while making the rest of the game less fun for everyone else. I’m the kind of person who likes to 100% games whenever possible – not just for the extra challenge, but because I want to see everything and make the most out of my time playing. But trying to do that with Genshin is basically impossible, and there’s no real payoff for it. Doing all that grinding and work, only to be rewarded with even more grinding… it just feels pointless after a while, you know?
Epilogue: Time, Life, the Universe, and Everything
I know that last section was kinda harsh, so I want to clarify: despite everything, I still love Genshin Impact. I don’t regret the time I spent in Teyvat, and I treasure the friends I’ve made along the way. But for now, I’m done. Maybe when they release the Sumeru expansion or a big story event, I’ll pick it up again. But I’ve had enough of daily commissions and resin grinding. I think the best way for me to still enjoy Genshin, and still have fond memories of it, is to move on.
It’s a shame. If they made a $60 console version of Genshin, without the gacha system, I’d buy it for sure. It’s that good. But I suppose I’m in the minority on this, since gacha is so profitable these days. It sucks that so many mobile games are this way, and it makes me worry for the future of the industry. But maybe I would have never played Genshin, and written 3,000 words about this beautiful, complicated work of art, if it wasn’t so accessible to begin with.
Should you play Genshin? I dunno. It’s complicated. But if you do play it, the best way is, as the wise Zhongli says, “don’t rush”. Don’t worry about grinding 28,000 Primogems for a charater with a cute hat. Make it your “wind down game”; something to do for 20-30 minutes when you’re too tired to sequence break Metroid Dread. Enjoy the cute girls and gorgeous vistas, and take a break if you stop enjoying it. Genshin Impact is a great game with a lot to offer, but life is too short to be running on a digital hamster wheel all day for digital breadcrumbs.
Also, Keqing is still best girl. Don’t @ me.