Zenless Zone Zero review – stylish, enchanting and seductive

One of the biggest revolutions in the modern video game industry has taken place almost out of sight of your average console gamer. The rise of the free-to-play gacha game, in which you pay either real or in-game money for randomised bundles of characters and weapons, has been meteoric in the Chinese market, dominated by publishers such as miHoYo, NetEase and Yostar. The most successful such games, including Genshin Impact, Arknights and Another Eden, have tens of millions of players, mostly on smartphones, and draw vast incomes from those willing to pay to complete their collections of in-game items.

Recently, the genre has been expanding beyond mobile, and Zenless Zone Zero is the latest example. Created by HoYoverse, this is a sprawling anime-styled action role-playing adventure set in a chaotic sci-fi dystopia. Earth has been invaded by interdimensional aliens, and above the ruins of the old civilisation lives a community of human survivors in a neo-city named New Eridu. You can play as either Wise or Belle, a brother-sister duo of hackers who own a video rental store, but also work as proxy agents, sending out teams of warriors to complete missions for clients.

Everything you do earns some version of currency … Zenless Zone Zero. Photograph: HoYoverse

Like the hugely popular Persona series of RPGs, the game is part story, part beat-’em-up, part life sim. Through a bewildering array of menus, schedules and bulletin boards, players live out each day, balancing alien battles with restocking video shelves, doing odd jobs for neighbours, playing arcade games and taking photos of local cats. Everything you do earns some version of currency, which you then use to buy upgrades to your weapons and new characters for your raids. When Wise and Belle take on a contract, you play a block-pushing puzzle game on the battle arena before your agents go in and battle aliens, after which you’re rewarded with more lucrative contracts, and so on forever.

Combat is intuitive and ostensibly simple – one button to attack, and one to dodge. Characters’ personal abilities and weapons provide the variety. The Deadpool-like Billy Kid spins dual pistols and daft wisecracks, while housemaid Ellen Joe batters enemies with her shark tail, and meek Corin Wickes apologetically wields a giant buzzsaw. All have special and ultimate moves that unleash an orgy of laser beams, bullets and blades. Swapping between characters mid-battle makes all this extremely compelling, augmented by flashy graphical effects and plenty of sonic boom explosions.

An orgy of laser beams, bullets and blades … Zenless Zone Zero. Photograph: HoYoverse

Visually, it’s pure cyberpunk anime. New Eridu is a rundown ghetto of noodle bars, arcades and closed off multi-storey car parks, yet beyond the crumbling architecture there is advanced tech everywhere. Marauding gangs fight over hard disk drives and safe boxes, advanced AIs raid computer systems, and adorable sentient robots run supermarkets and accompany agents on raids. It’s Ghost in the Shell mixed with Studio Ghibli, the dystopian shade brightened by cute little moments and conversations. When not slaughtering aliens, your character roams the streets, helping the locals to find love, or jobs, or just cool videos to watch. The relationships between your expanding crew of agents can be scrutinised and guided, Persona-style, and though lightweight, this element is filled with fluffy good humour.

Because this is a gacha game, named for the Japanese vending machines that deliver toys in capsules, you are constantly being nudged towards rare and exotic goods and characters that are only available for a limited time. These can be won in a way that looks very similar to the infamous loot boxes of games such as Fifa Ultimate Team: you buy the chance to get something good. Currency can be earned in-game, rather slowly, but you can pay real money for more rolls of the dice – which is, of course, how these free-to-play games earn revenue.

How invasive this system is depends on how determined you are to get those rare characters and items. To be honest, in my 30 hours of play, there were so many systems, opportunities, quests and characters on offer that I couldn’t even think about coveting more stuff. As a casual player, it’s easy to get engrossed, fighting aliens, playing Snake in the local coin-op palace or helping citizens at your own gentle pace. At times Zenless Zone Zero reminded me of Shenmue, with its sedate urban environments and daft little side quests and, just as in Yu Suzuki’s beguiling epic, I was happy to take my time strolling through it.

The gacha genre is controversial, and it exploits human psychological quirks with unerring efficiency. Hours disappeared like minutes while I was playing, so enchanted was I with my scrawny band of low-level agents, struggling on, being weird, and getting almost nowhere spectacularly fast. Zenless Zone Zero is stylish, silly and exciting, and promises years of fresh stories and an endless conveyor belt of shiny toys to seduce you. You pay for it somehow, either with your time or your money, but for me at least, it feels like a fair exchange.


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