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Zenless Zone Zero solves Genshin Impact’s biggest problem

Zenless Zone Zero introduces a fresh approach to storytelling from HoYoverse, and it puts Genshin Impact and Honkai Star Rail to shame.

Anby and Billy lurk around a corner as Ethereals rampage through the Hollow they're infiltrating in Zenless Zone Zero.

So, here’s the thing. HoYoverse has a problem. A big one. You want to know what the problem is? Well, it’s really very simple. Or perhaps it isn’t. See, the dialogue structure of both Genshin Impact and Honkai Star Rail is a little bit like a loaf of bread. You’ve got the key ingredients – the characters, the plot, the harmless in-jokes – all kneaded together into a substantive yet malleable dough that’s then left to rise. And rise. And rise. You might be tempted to poke at it, right? Maybe just a little. Just to get it to hurry up and get to the point. But then there’s just so much standing around involved that you lose motivation. You might even be tempted to walk away before the proof is done. Mmm, bread.

Are you bored yet?

Paimon smiles coyly as she asks the Traveler if they get ever tired of her in Genshin Impact.

Genshin Impact fans know the pain of sitting through long, drawn-out conversations in which game mascot and ever-present emergency food Paimon paraphrases dialogue and reiterates exposition. Amid all these efforts to ensure the RPG doesn’t alienate players with confusing plot threads and callbacks, HoYoverse loses me anyway. The fact is, I don’t need Paimon to reiterate a character’s motivation, couch it in food metaphors, and then whine that she still doesn’t understand. Genshin Impact’s lore isn’t complex enough to warrant it, and the writing is strong enough to stand for itself without a running synopsis.

Honkai Star Rail is a marked improvement in that regard. While the Trailblazer often converses with the likes of March 7th and Dan Heng on their travels, their contributions typically serve to advance the dialogue rather than rehash it. However, it still suffers Genshin Impact’s same affliction, as character models stand idly by while the contents of a dialogue box unravel below them. I flagged this back in PCGamesN’s very own Honkai Star Rail review, in which I posit that “these are the points at which Star Rail is most likely to lose its audience”.

Yukong laments the loss of the Cloud Knights aboard the Luofu in Honkai Star Rail, though the emotional intensity is undercut by the presentation of characters standing idle.

Seven months later, that same ennui endures despite my ongoing investment in Star Rail’s story. This lackluster dialogue presentation also does a huge disservice to HoYoverse’s stable of highly talented voice actors, who do a sterling job at bringing these characters to life. Surprise reveals are immediately undercut by the absolute vacancy on screen, and the dissonance between character and voice actor is never greater than when a powerful one-liner emanates from a blank face. Enter, Zenless Zone Zero.

HoYoverse’s latest gacha game is, in many ways, a love letter to physical media of the nineties. Its main protagonists run a VHS rental store where cassette tapes line the walls and recommendations are delivered via word-of-mouth in a retro management game. Even the abstract nature of Hollow exploration is represented as a succession of flickering CRT screens, as characters move seamlessly between the real and digital world. The window dressing of its core mechanics is radically different from either Genshin or Honkai, so it should come as no surprise that its approach to cutscenes is quite unlike its gacha counterparts.

Billy from Zenless Zone Zero winces, an exaggerated facial expression not unlike those familiar in Deadpool comics, as a CRT television lands on his head.

Instead, Zenless Zone Zero opts for a comic book format that accommodates the exaggerated gestures and depth of expression befitting its cast. This homage to comic book storytelling befits a world so attuned to physical media, and it’s reflected in the characters themselves. Billy is a dead ringer for Marvel’s Deadpool, while the stoic Anby bears more than a passing resemblance to Major Motoko Kusanagi in Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell. It’s apt, then, that they’re depicted in the very same medium as their progenitors, in much the same style of character expression.

This format also allows for moment-to-moment plot developments to unfold dynamically across the screen. You only need observe how the Cunning Hares’ confrontation with the Red Fang Gang unfolds at the action-adventure game’s outset to see how effectively it establishes the personalities of Nicole, Billy, and Anby, as well as their team dynamic, all in the space of a few panels. Equally, Nekomata’s stand-off against the Vision Corporation feels so high-stakes largely thanks to comic composition: Nekomata, alone and overexposed by stage lighting, as a wall of armed militia creeps in from the panel’s edge.

Nekomata stands on an empty stage surrounded by armed militia in her stand-off against the Vision Corporation.

It’s by no means innovative – the best visual novels are built on these very same design principles – but it is an undeniably elegant and straightforward solution to delivering high-quality storytelling without draining the budget. It also makes room for the veritable army of artists that HoYoverse employs to exemplify their talent beyond key art and conceptual design, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a run of dedicated graphic novels as official merchandise in the future.

Of course, high-budget animated sequences do remain a prominent fixture in Zenless Zone Zero, but they’re typically reserved for the most dramatic beats in the main storyline. Equally, static conversations aren’t entirely absent, though they’re typically reserved for the preamble before accepting a new quest or speaking to a vendor. The combined brevity and value of these exchanges are appropriate – they aren’t underwhelming, because they never last long enough to outstay their welcome.

Nekomata, Nicole, and Billy all react as Anby points out that they all had a dinner reservation in Zenless Zone Zero.

Based on our experience in the beta, Zenless Zone Zero is by no means a perfect experience. Just like Honkai Star Rail, it resolves the shortcomings of its predecessor while also bringing a host of new ones to the table. However, for all the pacing problems of its gameplay loop, the proofing time for Zenless Zone Zero’s plot is carried along by a dialogue framework that keeps me engaged for every beat. It’s time to put Paimon in the oven.

If you’re ready to take a hearty bite out of HoYoverse’s latest anime game, then be sure to brush up on all the latest news surrounding the Zenless Zone Zero release date. It’s also worth keeping tabs on the ZZZ beta sign-ups for an opportunity to dip into early access. Either way, our Zenless Zone Zero tier list is indispensable for choosing which characters to invest in, and which are better left as story companions.