Zenless Zone Zero Review – IGN

Playing with nostalgia-laden imagery from the early 2000s, Zenless Zone Zero sees developer HoYoverse pivot gracefully from the fantastical settings of Genshin Impact and Honkai: Star Rail into an enticing urban dystopia. It’s a universe where you’ll duke it out in glitzy real-time fights as a trio of streetwear-clad agents, solving simple puzzles as their handler between battles to help them navigate a labyrinth of encounters – and that’s before you get to the carousel of social side activities layered on top. A mouthful of tasteful influences combine into something effortlessly stylish but also a bit inconsistent, occasionally undone by a lack of depth. Yet Zenless Zone Zero got its hooks into me regardless; its relentless charm compelled me to keep fighting, one combat puzzle or bowl of ramen at a time.

Zenless Zone Zero takes place in a world where monster-filled pocket dimensions called Hollows have devastated civilisation. While much of humanity has been wiped out, the cyberpunk bastion of New Eridu survives through a fraught codependence with the Hollows and the valuable resources found within. You play as either Belle or Wise, a brother-sister hacker duo with a knack for navigating this dangerous territory, tackling commissions from a roster of lovable rogues searching for their next big score. It’s a unique and gritty setup that, while convoluted at times, kept me engaged by testing my strategic intuition across a smorgasbord of challenges I became hungry to best.

Your brawling excursions embark from the retro tech-strewn backroom of the siblings’ video rental store, where you’ll pick from an impressive roster of unlockable agents to make up a three-person party and then dive into the perilous Hollows, trading success for XP and upgrade resources. The review build provided by HoYoverse ahead of launch gave me access to all of the currently available agents, and I soon found an affinity for the ones from a faction called Victoria Housekeeping, thanks to their charming British inflexions and battle maid outfits. My personal favourite of the bunch, the shark-tailed Ellen Joe, swipes and slashes with an icy blade, stacking elemental debuffs on enemies and dropping blase quips in the process. While the makeup of your dream team will largely be in the hands of the Gacha Gods, as characters are unlocked through the genre’s usual method of randomized pulls, it’s handy that story missions allow you to try out the cast without the need to pull them first.

Despite how intense it can seem in motion, Zenless Zone Zero’s combat is forgiving and approachable. You have a basic attack and a dodge for timely escapes from signposted attacks, as well as the ability to swap to other agents to avoid scrapes, parry, or compound their combos. Building an enemy’s daze meter leads to a persistently satisfying chain attack, a slo-mo quick-time event where your colleague swoops in to lay the smackdown. Basic and ultimate abilities round out each character’s combat options, though like any good action game, there’s plenty of variety available through the combination of timely button presses and latent passives.

Districts are full of details that make them a joy to explore.

Challenging boss encounters surfaced to test my reflexes, though I rarely felt overwhelmed as long as I could connect the dots of my combat strategy and juggle incoming attack patterns to keep different enemy types at bay. Intricate build-tinkering systems, difficulty options, and endgame content help raise the skill ceiling for challenge-hungry players, but Zenless Zone Zero seems content to stay out of your way if you just want to simply pick it up and do some flashy moves. Elegant animations footnote most of your attacks, down to the way domestic demon Van Lycaon gracefully lowers his metal heels after a kick. Ultimately, the focus is on indulging the fantasy of fighting with one of Zenless Zone Zero’s wonderfully designed and passionately voice-acted characters rather than rivaling the likes of Devil May Cry with its combat nuance – a tradeoff I’m comfortable with, even if it means less mechanical depth.

Unfortunately, the dazzling combat is undermined by an overabundance of hacker puzzles meant to signify the link between your team of agents and the proxy guiding them through the Hollow from back home. You’ll be kicked into a labyrinth of chunky CRT monitors between pockets of combat, pushing a little avatar around to trigger mechanisms that lead to your next checkpoint or encounter. The fuzzy aesthetics of this mode are delightful to look at, but the process feels arbitrary and murders the momentum. After marching through walls of screens, I started seeking out the next encounter as fast as possible to boost my morale and return to the frenetic action sequences that actually make Zenless Zone Zero compelling.

That hefty loop of taking on commissions and then venturing into the Hollow to complete them could easily be all there is and it wouldn’t feel scant, yet surprisingly, it only accounts for half of what’s here. The other half is a life simulator where you’ll roam cosy suburbs, manage your heroes’ Blockbuster-esque business, and maintain relationships with locals through dialogue-driven side stories across an atmospheric day-to-night cycle. While not strictly an open world, Zenless Zone Zero’s stunning districts are thoughtfully dressed with environmental details that make it a joy to explore. From rusty riverside kiddy rides to messy bedrooms and vandalised backstreets, there’s attention paid everywhere you look that helps centre you in this fashion-forward science fiction world.

Once the initial excitement of exploring Hollows started to settle, I became drawn to all the extracurricular activities I had at my fingertips. Stocking my video store turned into the nexus of my daily routines, as each morning, I’d start by pairing eclectic videotapes from my collection with the genre demands of the public. After that, I’d need to venture outside in search of better merchandise, completing tasks for locals like solving quirky riddles or taking editorial pictures in order to earn my VHS reward. That symbiotic process worked well to funnel my attention toward the different social activities, not to mention the money provided by running my business certainly helped fund my story mission exploits.

This side of Zenless Zone Zero isn’t quite as focused as something like the Persona series it’s so clearly inspired by, so there are some dull spots, but it offers an engaging workload for players to log in and tackle on a daily basis nonetheless. All of your activities are tied together well via a helpful submenu called the Inter-Knot, which let me find my rhythm amid all of the options I was handed. This in-game, everything app quickly became my best friend, taking on the role of job finder, social media platform, and, most importantly, scheduling tool, ensuring I wasn’t completely paralysed by the overwhelming prospect of what to do next.

I enjoyed shirking my pressing responsibilities by chasing high scores at the Godfinger Arcade, whose moreish snake and spelunking minigames stole an embarrassing amount of my time. But the funny and sometimes profound substories left the biggest mark, reminding me of the human stakes in this world. One side quest involves a homeless robot whose ghostly silhouette scares a local citizen, leading to a surprisingly moving crossed-wires situation. Easily forgotten in a sea of adorable shopkeepers and in-game currencies, the underlying frailty of Zenless Zone Zero’s post-apocalypse is always in frame. Overarching themes of displacement and corruption come through in the cinematic story and the design of its city wards, which range from dilapidated to gentrified.

Given the unusually generous nature of HoYoverse’s review build, it was difficult to get a clear picture of how Zenless Zone Zero’s progression systems will feel long-term, but nothing I’ve seen looks wildly out of line with the developer’s other gacha games. Still, it’ll be illuminating to start again on a new account at launch and get accustomed to the grind in a more organic live service setting (and we’ll be sure to update this review if things are unexpectedly out of line). Regardless, I forged a strong attachment to this rich world and its cosplay-friendly characters by the end of a main story that easily takes dozens of hours to complete, and left feeling that this ambitious pivot certainly lives up to the high standards set by Genshin Impact and Honkai: Star Rail.

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