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Zenless Zone Zero’s city is the best character you never have to pull

Our Zenless Zone Zero preview gives us a fresh taste of urban fantasy in Lumina Square as we explore New Eridu with producer Zhenyu Li.

Zenless Zone Zero preview: Zhu Yuan, the latest character coming to ZZZ in the 1.0 update with specific combat synergies that tie into the story.

HoYoverse is no stranger to constructing cities that leave a lasting impression. From the quasi-Bavarian streets of Genshin Impact’s Mondstadt to Honkai Star Rail’s Huizhou-inspired Xianzhou Luofu, each has its own culture and real-world influence. That said, these hub areas follow the blueprint of most open-world games. They might serve as the setting for questlines to unfold, but for the most part, they are static sandboxes, with topographies and vendors that remain reliably unchanged. You might drop by periodically for the sake of a quest or an upgrade, but you aren’t meant to stay and live there. The adventure is outside their borders, in the great outdoors and the galaxies beyond. In Zenless Zone Zero, however, the city is the player’s universe.

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Ahead of the Zenless Zone Zero release date, HoYoverse invited me to Singapore to meet producer Zhenyu Li and pound the pavement of a brand-new location in New Eridu that players can explore once the upcoming PC game’s 1.0 update finally arrives. Lumina Square evokes a postcard-perfect vision of San Francisco: a bustling bay area overlooking a suspension bridge and cruise ships. The wide streets and populous plaza are a far cry from the likes of anything I’d seen in Zenless Zone Zero’s closed beta tests, and it’s a welcome sight.

As fellow beta participants will recall, Belle and Wise’s home on Sixth Street is crammed with shops vital to player progression. Whether you’re upgrading your Bangboo at the Modelling Shop or crafting new Drive Discs in Bardic Needle, everything is in service to Zenless Zone Zero’s core mechanics. By contrast, Lumina Square allows players to breathe. It also boasts surprising verticality. A flight of stairs bolted onto a cafe leads up to a verandah where a new Commission Broker awaits, and it bodes well for the studio’s approach to urban space. It also reminds me of the stairwells and alleys on the fringes of Sixth Street, presently barred by chain-link fences and invisible walls though ripe to be opened up in future updates.

Zenless Zone Zero preview: An overhead view of Sixth Street, Belle and Wise's home that includes Coff Cafe and the 24-hour convenience store.

This preview build presents me with a veritable forest of floating quest markers to parse through as I wander Lumina Square. It does prove overwhelming at first; I have no idea which NPC I should prioritize, and I’m provided little indication of what might unfold once I do. However, this surfeit of choice does mean that picking up a side quest on the street feels spontaneous and incidental rather than a stepping stone in content progression. I curb the RPG veterans’ instinct to vacuum them all up at once and instead take each one as it comes. Unlike the requests posted on the Inter-Knot, I’m not shepherded back to Sixth Street to complete Hollow commissions. Instead, I snap a few photos for a clueless tourist, help a Bangboo find a job, and then report to Officer Mewmew – PubSec’s adorable community officer mascot – who rewards my community spirit with Polychrome film, upgrades, and currency.

It’s easy to draw comparisons between Zenless Zone Zero and Persona 5, though Li is quick to emphasize that this only really extends to the shared “urban genre” setting; Zenless Zone Zero’s snappy, Street Fighter 6-inspired combat is a world away from turn-based games. Instead, he throws me for a loop with a surprise influence from my all-time favorite PS1 title: Digimon World. Of course, the similarities are obvious now I know to look for them. While we won’t be recruiting digital monsters to New Eridu, the slow transformation of File City into a metropolis of shops, restaurants, and municipal services is a clear parallel to Li’s intentions for Zenless Zone Zero’s live service model.

Zenless Zone Zero preview: An overhead shot of Lumina Square, a built-up pedestrianised bay area with towering skyscrapers in the distance.

In a revealing moment, Li says that Sixth Street and Lumina Square are currently “not adequate” enough to present the ambition or scale the team hopes to create over time. Zenless Zone Zero beta participants were frequent patrons of General Chop’s noodle bar and Tin Master’s coffee shop on Sixth Street, but it seems the straightforward buffs provided by these establishments are only the beginning. “We have a lot of strange and weird shops, including some that we haven’t really explored the gameplay and the interactions,” Li explains. He teases that a hot-pot restaurant is coming soon, and I have to laugh; it feels like I should be hearing about it in New Eridu’s local paper. Li tells me he prefers to think of Zenless Zone Zero’s urban expansion as a “living city” rather than a “real” city. While it adopts life game elements for immersion and a laidback tone, HoYoverse clearly isn’t going for the realism of a full-blown simulation game.

Li also explains that, like Digimon World, Zenless Zone Zero’s time system includes “special incidents” that only occur at certain times of the day – though hopefully none of them will evoke the pain of trying to meet Garurumon for a rematch at 4am. I already got a taste of how different quests are locked to certain times in the beta, but in this preview build, I notice different NPCs milling around Lumina Square when I return for an evening stroll. It feels less like the city is waiting for me as much as it is moving around me; I even spot shark girl Ellen in the crowd, dressed in a schoolgirl’s outfit rather than her leather maid uniform, though she gives me the same cold shoulder I’ve come to expect from her.

Zenless Zone Zero preview: Lycaon, Rina, Corin, and Ellen stand together as one united front to represent the Victoria Housekeeping Co. faction.

When I finally retreat from Lumina Square and delve into some good old-fashioned combat, it strikes me that urban dynamics extend to the characters themselves. Alliances are drawn up between them based on their employment, whether that’s a morally grey odd-job agency like the Cunning Hares or an above-board company like Belobog Heavy Industries. I also discover how the lines drawn between these factions can blur with character dynamics, as I delve into newly revealed character Zhu Yuan’s skills and discover a dedicated synergy with career criminal Nicole. Clearly, whatever cat-and-mouse game that’ll unfold between these two in Zenless Zone Zero’s story puts them on a collision course for players to pair them together in combat, and I have no doubt we’ll see more synergies come to light as we learn more about upcoming factions like Sons of Calydon and Section 6.

Li touches upon the decisions surrounding character design during our chat. “We do work closely with our planning team, but it’s not like other companies whereby the planning team instructs what we work on,” Li explains. “The planning team gives us an idea of what they hope to see, then we move on to design.” That said, I can’t imagine it’s a happy accident that Zhu Yuan, the first playable police officer, is an Ether-aligned character and can therefore inflict, er, Corruption. It’s proof positive that HoYoverse is not afraid to cut close to the bone when it comes to Zenless Zone Zero’s off-beat humor, and while I don’t expect serious social commentary in an action-adventure game replete with jiggle physics, I welcome this exploration of the real-world issues that come with urban living.

Zenless Zone Zero preview: The Hollow Deep Dive system, represented as a board of TV screens displaying different events that the player can experience as Bangboo Eous.

New Eridu’s self-contained urban spaces demand a fast travel system that could see players constantly hopping in and out of multiple loading screens just to get to wherever they want. It’s far removed from the total immersion presented by Genshin Impact’s seamless open world, and HoYoverse must be mindful of this when it comes to quest structure. After all, Starfield proves that constant fast travel can make the largest worlds feel small and tedious to navigate. It’s not an impossible task – Honkai Star Rail has a similar world structure and manages to avoid the issue – but it’s compounded when the Hollow Deep Dive system integral to Zenless Zone Zero’s loop is also independent of the game world. Li assures me that some of the features unique to gacha games and the HoYoverse ecosystem have been optimized specifically for this space. “For instance, the daily quest system. We have tried our best to incorporate it better with the urban setting, like having a coffee in the morning instead of doing other quests.”

Compared to the sweeping vistas of Genshin Impact’s open world or the infinite possibilities of Honkai Star Rail’s universe, Zenless Zone Zero’s dystopian city seems so much smaller in scope. Nevertheless, as I walk away from this hands-on preview, HoYoverse’s upcoming urban fantasy strikes me as intimate rather than claustrophobic. At the end of a hard day, the thought of an entire world or universe on my doorstep is frankly exhausting. Sometimes, I just want the ease and familiarity of city living, the echo of an old game near and dear to my heart, and a bowl of noodles to wash it all down.

To prepare for your visit to New Eridu, check out our Zenless Zone Zero tier list to discover all the best characters to watch out for on ZZZ banners. Finally, don’t forget to redeem the latest Zenless Zone Zero codes and take part in ZZZ events for even more freebies.