Zenless Zone Zero review - a concrete jungle that oozes style (2024)

Our Verdict

Zenless Zone Zero review - a concrete jungle that oozes style (1)

Zenless Zone Zero sets slick, responsive combat against a backdrop of cassette futurism and ‘90s nostalgia, but it strains against the yoke of HoYoverse’s built-in gacha system.

Zenless Zone Zero has been a long time coming. It’s been two years since we first feasted our eyes on a brand-new universe from acclaimed gacha developer HoYoverse. Anticipation took a brief back seat while the Astral Express left the station in Honkai Star Rail, but now it’s finally ready to hit the streets in all its scrappy underdog glory. However, before we delve into this metropolis of good food, robot helper bunnies, and the most light-hearted post-apocalypse you’ve ever seen, I’ve got a disclaimer for you.

HoYoverse’s staple gacha system looms large over Zenless Zone Zero. Longtime fans of the studio will find the bulk of it synonymous with Genshin Impact and Honkai Star Rail, but the introduction of even moreelements to this system verges on illegibility for players new to the genre. Master Tape, Boopons, Polychrome, Bangbucks, Dennies – the sheer number of currencies that feed into this economy is enough to make your head spin, and that’s before I get into the ever-predacious weeds of gacha games themselves, which often strangle vulnerable players with monetization systems.

I said it in my Honkai Star Rail review, and I’ll reiterate it once more with feeling: if impulse control is not your forte, these games are not for you. Turn back now; your bank balance will thank you. That said, HoYoverse properties have fostered a reputation of being slightly more generous than the average hero collector, and this holds true in Zenless Zone Zero. The banner odds boast the same woeful percentage chances of pulling an S-Rank as Genshin or Honkai but there’s enough going on in New Eriduto pull me away from counting coins for HoYoverse’s waifu Skinner box.

I’ve already delved into what the streets of New Eridu have to offer in my Zenless Zone Zero preview, but I’ll reiterate here that it has won me over. The city boasts a lot of charm, and I often stumble upon incidental quests and events by talking to its residents. While running errands between commissions, I dribble a soccer ball to help coach a Bangboo, take photos of Sixth Street’s street cats, and complete a hacking minigame to repair a faulty Bangboo. After the dramatic shifts in tone and aesthetic of Honkai Star Rail’s universe, I appreciate New Eridu’s thematic cohesion the most. While I don’t doubt that we’ll see more diverse locales as the city expands, this urban dystopia has a sense of identity that provides comfort and familiarity, rather than a great leap into the unknown. Characters casually mention districts that I can’t yet visit, leaving me to wonder what the likes of Tenth Street or the Nesting Neighborhood may have in store for me in future updates.

VHS tapes, vinyl, and the golden age of hip-hop all play a part in Zenless Zone Zero’s “urban fantasy” aesthetic. It also captures a very specific kind of ‘90s nostalgia rarely seen since the turn of the millennium: the abstract nature of the internet made manifest in a physical realm. Our heroes of the hour, Belle and Wise, are more fully realized than any other HoYoverse protagonist – they have actual names, for a start. Unlike the Traveler or the Trailblazer, who are amnesiac interlopers in their respective worlds, these siblings are entrenched in the culture and community of New Eridu. As co-owners of Sixth Street’s Random Play video store, they are bickering siblings in a regular slice-of-life urban fantasy; as famed Proxy “Phaethon,” they take on commissions deep in extradimensional Hollows, foiling the plans of corrupt corporate businessmen and corralling smart machinery for an imperiled construction company.

The bulk of exploration takes place via the Hollow Deep Dive system, a tile-based board game that has already proven divisive. HoYoverse has attempted to mitigate early complaints about slow pacing with the Accelerated Playback mode, which lets me fast-forward through text, voice, and animations with the press of a button. I’ve come to appreciate Hollow Deep Dives since my arduous experience with them in beta builds. This flickering TV wall is the stage for HoYoverse to craft complex scenarios like diverting a high-speed cargo train or dodging bombs from a military-spec carrier vehicle without breaking the budget. However, its slower pace still stands in contrast to Zenless Zone Zero’s combat. I can already identify a shift away from this system via the Shiyu Defense horde mode and the choice between Exploration and Combat Commissions. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that Hollow Deep Dives are an intrinsic part of Zenless Zone Zero’s world design and gameplay loop, and they are here to stay. I have no doubt it’ll have its fans – especially when it comes to the Hollow Zero roguelike mode, which forces me to choose my exploration path strategically or reckon with the consequences of Corruption debuffs.

Zenless Zone Zero’s time system means I’m limited by how much I can achieve each day, with certain quests only able to be completed at certain times. In theory, this should spur me on to pursue them, but there are so many side-quests that pick up as I advance through the main story that it’s easy to take on a commission here and a request there, then end up with a schedule full of disparate objectives. This isn’t helped by the quest descriptions themselves, which are often too vague to inspire motivation to complete them – after all, returning to the place where I found Dennis’s headset to retrieve his dog tags is easier said than done when I can scarcely remember who Dennis is, never mind where I found his headset. It’s even more egregious when you consider that this dislocation can occur even when playing daily; players who prefer to drop out and return to their live service games have next to no hope.

It’s even harder to invest in some commissions when I can barely tear myself away from the main story, where character development, political subterfuge, and beautifully animated cutscenes abound. I’ve already heaped buckets of praise on Zenless Zone Zero’s comic book storytelling, but it bears repeating: these dynamic panels do more to realize its world, characters, and voice actors than Genshin’s or Star Rail’s static character models and text banners ever could. Chapter intermissions occur once I’ve exhausted story developments before a hidden level gate, and I’m forced to turn my attention to side commissions before I can continue. While they come as a relief after the stamina system present in early builds, which restricted the amount of story content players could clear in a single day, there’s no doubt this will foster frustration in players who feel their freedom is being “managed” by the invisible hand of HoYoverse.

However, Zenless Zone Zero’s combat is a cut above anything that has come before it in the HoYoverse ecosystem. It takes its cue from Street Fighter 6 with design principles that champion feedback from animation frames. The ringing clang of a perfect assist or the greyscale time dilation that follows a perfect dodge are a burst of dopamine in the controlled chaos of the battlefield, which is often taken up by projectiles and elemental effects from allies and enemies alike. An outsider’s perspective might struggle to keep up with this hectic cadence, but it’s shockingly readable while I’m in the thick of it. This readability extends to the characters themselves. Koleda’s giant hammer proclaims her role as a Daze applicator, and there is no mistaking leather-clad werewolf Lycaon’s allegiance to the Victoria Housekeeping Co.

The core combat mechanics are uncomplicated and allow for hack-and-slash button-mashing if that’s your forte, but the skill ceiling is high enough to accommodate players who prefer to strain toward the upper echelons of fighting game complexity. Team comp synergies and elemental interactions are only scratching the surface. Attack rotations, reactive assists, and off-field support all provide nuance that elevates the challenge above clearing content and towards time-limit challenges and stage performance grading. However, among all this mechanical precision, the targeting system sticks out like a sore thumb. Characters often tend to glom ontothe target nearest them or refuse to disengage in favor of another. It’s most egregious when I’m trying to use crowd control abilities like Nicole’s energy field tactically: instead of unleashing it on a mob at the fringes of the battlefield, I’m often forced to expend it on a single target directly ahead of me.

Blessedly, I find it far easier to parse character kits and abilities than Genshin Impact or Honkai Star Rail, which can often descend into stat percentages and mathematical homework. There’s always the worry that we’ll see the same kind of ‘confusion creep’ as more characters are added to the roster, demanding more complex abilities to make them worth the banner pull, but this initial gamut follows the same principles of Bushnell’s Law as combat. I also appreciate that HoYoverse has eschewed the impulse to pack out the roster at launch – pulling 15 characters feels achievable right now, even though that number is set to balloon over time.

That said, there’s also a superabundance of stuffto upgrade. This is par for the course in any character-driven gacha game, but Zenless Zone Zero takes it to the extreme. Each Disc Drive, W-Engine, and Bangboo demand level-up materials and upgrades to increase their level cap; the characters themselves demand all of the above plus skill enhancement materials and a sequential skill tree to take the sting out of pulling duplicates. If this kind of granular character building is your bread and butter, then rest assured there’s more than enough here to keep you sated. However, more variables mean more to grind, and a few dud pulls here and there could force unlucky players to settle for suboptimal builds, through no fault or effort of their own.

Zenless Zone Zero’s world structure also necessitates a lotof loading screens. Whether I’m initiating a Hollow Deep Dive sequence or simply stepping out of the video store onto Sixth Street, they are endemic and a definite dealbreaker for those who prefer the total immersion of Genshin Impact’s open world. On that note, while Zenless Zone Zero has implemented the same HoYoverse quality-of-life optimization we saw from Honkai Star Rail following Genshin Impact, it’s also missing some key quality-of-life features that would benefit it as a character action game. Currently, there’s no way to create team presets, forcing me to constantly dip in and out of the character selection menu for every mission. Training Mode also lacks a record of combat statistics, so I’m forced to go off floating damage numbers when comparing the performance of one team versus another. Of course, this is easily remedied in future updates, and HoYoverse’s reputation as a live service provider that remains responsive to player feedback stands Zenless Zone Zero in good stead for the future.

I went into Zenless Zone Zero confident that it wouldn’t tear me away from Honkai Star Rail. While Genshin Impact left me cold, I’ve followed the Trailblazer’s interstellar adventure since launch, investing in its characters and world with my heart and wallet. However, I can’t deny that I feel my head begin to turn like a distracted boyfriend – though it turns out the lady in this scenario is wearing impractical, high-fashion streetwear rather than a red dress. Its story and world may be smaller than what we’ve come to expect from HoYoverse, but Zenless Zone Zero has the style, substance, and genre diversification to step outside the shadow of its predecessors. It won’t be for everyone, but I’ll admit: I can’t stop playing it.

Zenless Zone Zero review - a concrete jungle that oozes style (2024)
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