A while back, I had the urge to play a number of phone games. I wrote a pretty mediocre post about it, even. In it, two of the games I covered were Alchemy Stars and Another Eden; I think at least one of those has shut down since, but I didn't keep up with either of them. Haven't had them installed for about a year, actually. Gacha games are, if you're unaware, a form of mobile game in which a central mechanic is spending currency on a "gachapon" machine— think those little turn-crank gumball machines you'd see outside of an arcade or breakfast joint, but instead of plastic jewelry, the prizes are usually characters you can recruit to progress in the game. Of course, because most gacha are (technically) free-to-play, the obvious intent behind this system is to siphon money from people with poor judgement and a gambling habit. I sure don't have money, but I do have bad taste in characters, games, and a fascination with gambling as a passtime, especially where video games are concerned; I personally think a well designed gacha ought to allow even those who don't blow their money to make progress if they've got the skill (both in the pre-planning and the mechanical) to work with what they get. This is why I keep trying these, against all sense— luck is a skill, and I like testing it.

Of course, I've never actually stuck with one. Primarily because gacha games don't tend to have particularly engaging gameplay; a good deal of them have interesting concepts, but low production values often seem to lead to a "fuck it, whatever makes us money" mentality. As such, a lot of these end up having "auto" functions— the gameplay is such an afterthought that you're expected to turn the game on autopilot and leave your phone sitting around while the game plays itself so you can grind out resources for the character you like. This might not have been enough to put me off, but couple this utter lack of mechanical interest with the fact that I just have no interest whatsoever in the aesthetic aspects of most of these games, and I end up bouncing off of them pretty easily. Still, whenever I tried these, I'd talk to my friends about the experience, and one question kept coming up:

"Have you played Genshin Impact yet?"

I have not played Genshin Impact. I don't intend to, either, but the developer always seems to catch my eye here and there. Mihoyo's mission statement is a pretty strong one: If we want to get people playing our games, put as much effort into the presentation as possible. (Their actual slogan is "Otaku rule the world" or something like that.) Genshin is absolutely stuffed to the gills in this regard; it's a huge, open-world affair that often gets compared to Nintendo's Breath of the Wild. I can't comment on the validity of that comparison, but everything I've seen of Genshin puts into perspective why that comparison gets made; it's a pretty enough game to get a PC release, and a good looking one at that. Apparently there's dozens of little minigames and side modes. Mihoyo is running this as a live-service game simultaniously with another game: Honkai Star Rail, which seems like a more mobage-standard turned based affair, albiet with the same level of visual polish as Genshin. I haven't played it either: Mihoyo is launching another game: one that grabbed my attention much faster than the others.

Zenless Zone Zero is, uh, fuckin' overwhelming to look at. The game is just excessive in every way, at least going by the trailers: the trailer they put out to advertise the launch of the second closed beta has enough flashing lights to kill an epileptic on the spot. This is the beta I signed up for, and I'm still not entirely sure why; if I had to hazard a guess, the more urban look and the fact that one of the characters is a straight-up bear with an exploding concrete pillar was how they got me. I signed up, and did not expect to get in. None of my friends into this sort of thing did, but lo and behold, I was given an invite to the PC beta version of the game about three days before it launched. I booted it up prior to the date, just to see what might happen, and...

Let it be known: I didn't press anything to advance that warning.

...Well, I guess if anyone with epilepsy survived that trailer, they wanted to be sure and finish them off before the game starts.

First Impressions

So, the beta launch begins. ZZZ gives off an equally good and bad first impression in regards to story: you've got these really nice, incredibly well animated 3D cutscenes, some hand-drawn comic-style scenes where you advance dialog manually, it's all presented very well. It's not the most interesting plot to start on, but it's not bad— Anby and Billy are members of the 3-man-band known as the "Cunning Hares", a mercenary/oddjobs group of sorts led by obligatory pink-haired girl Nicole. They're running from a gang they stole a safe from (or maybe both them and the gang were hired to steal the same safe?) Too bad the game starts you off on the really, really weak English dub. I wanna make this clear: I am not a "subs are the only way" kind of guy; Kingdom Hearts is straight up unplayable in Japanese, for me— gotta have English. When the English is good, I will take it over subtitles almost every time. Nicole has a noticably lower quality microphone than everyone else. It's not subtle. I switched that shit off immediately, which you can thankfully do the instant it drops you into the combat tutorial.

Combat in ZZZ is pretty interesting, at least compared to my prior experience with gacha-type titles. It's closer to a "character action" game— think something like Bayonetta or Devil May Cry in terms of influence— albeit stripped down for the sake of working on a phone to the point of being a bit brainless. You have four main buttons: Dodge, Attack, Special Attack, and Ultimate. Dodge has a brief window of invulnerability, Attack is a standard 3-5 hit combo, Special Attack is a big hit that gets bigger if you've got enough energy. Ultimates are a shared meter across all 3 characters, which you can swap between with the "assist" button. Pressing assist right as an enemy starts their atttack animation will trigger an automatic, invulnerable retaliation; this is limited by a 3-charge system in theory, but in practice you can more or less do it whenever you like. This is because enemies have a stagger meter— something fairly commonplace in action games these days, though I'm not complaining— and filling the bar will trigger a "chain attack" where you quick-swap between your 3 characters for some bonus damage. Doing this refills the aforementioned limiter on the Assist system, and it happens often enough that I never found myself running out.

The combat tutorial ends, and my takeaway was that it was pretty, felt good, but ultimately lacked much depth. Of course, it's the tutorial, so things are more than capable of changing— one thing I noticed right away was that Billy and Anby's dodges felt a little different, for example, and Billy seemed less focused on combos than ranged bursts of damage. (Billy's a fun character, as an aside; part of what attracted me to this game were the more prominent "oddball" designs. Billy's a robot with expressive metal eyes who is way, way too into this universe's Sentai shows. Definitely check out his trailer, if you haven't— even if you have no interest in playing this game, the way he's animated is just kind of a joy to watch.)
There's a question left unanswered here, though: how do you actually reach combat?

So, here's where ZZZ's first impression sours, and this is a problem just about every game of this ilk tends to have. The game overloads you with far too much information, far too quickly. You have the "Inter-Knot", a fake social media with worldbuilding and the occasional post that'll grand you a side-commission. You have W-Engines, Skill Levels, Drive Discs— oh, hold on, now it's time to walk around town. There's a day-night cycle, by the way, and you get text messages— oh, did you stop by the coffee shop? What about Godfinger? You can run your video store, by the way. Did you get that side mission? No, not right now, you're in the middle of a main mission. Don't forget to check out the VR training and the Trashcan Sage. You are getting your IK level raised, right? Don't forget to try out a Rally Commission, but not too many, because otherwise you run out of stamina and—— FUCK

F2P Games and You

Originally, I was going to segway into a long infodump about the things the game doesn't explain very well, but having sat on it for a day or two, I've decided against it. That's not my job; I'm not a wiki editor, I'm not writing a 3-hour video essay, and I'm not one of the unsung heroes that maintain text-only GameFAQs walkthroughs of games nobody cares about. What I want to do here is not sell you on this game, or make it easier to get into; all I'm doing here today is getting my opinion written out, and my opinion of Zenless Zone Zero's systems is that they've been made deliberately (initially) overwhelming. This is a common tactic among these sorts of games, and while ZZZ's particular iteration of this problem is nowhere near the worst I've seen it get, the intent still feels clear: if the game can confuse you, that's an opportunity to take your money. If you don't know what you're doing, you're liable to waste resources, or invest in a character you don't like. When that happens, your choices are either to grind those materials back out or shell out the cash to get them faster. Again, this is not a problem unique to ZZZ, and though ZZZ is actually far better about it than most (God help you if you try and get into Puzzle and Dragons in this day and age) I want to say this as directly and simply as I possibly can:
Do not play this game if you are not familiar with (or do not have acquaintences familiar with) the tricks and traps of gacha shit. If you find this article long after the game has been out for a bit, there is probably a proper guide online you can read to learn how to minimize losses when playing.

I am enjoying Zenless Zone Zero. I won't deny that. My view of the game has warmed up a good deal since those first impressions said above, but a F2P game is still a F2P game. These games are here to take your money, first and foremost, and without an upfront price tag, these are the tactics they employ. I find it to be fun, in a weird way; as I said at the start of this mess, I find there to be a special kind of joy in making progress and getting characters I like without ever giving these games a single cent. ZZZ has some really neat ideas in regards to making you want characters, actually; beyond just the obvious gameplay benefits (and surprisingly varied toolkits, despite my initial impressions of the game's systems) obtaining an agent gives you access to unique "Trust Events" while roaming around the Hub area, letting you get some fun bonus interaction with characters. Is it manipulative? Yeah, 100%, but I'm human; being pandered to can feel really nice, sometimes, no matter how transparent of a tactic to get my money it may be.

Playing the Game

Now, let's step back a bit; the basic progression of the story is that you accept a main mission, which leads to plot, which leads to a mission within a Hollow. Clearing Main missions unlocks Side missions, and clearing side missions gets you a bunch of materials and some amusing dialog. There's three sides to any mission; the stuff done on the overworld, stuff done in the Hollow, and the combat within the Hollow itself. The things done on the overworld are kind of dull at best; it's usually just walking around and talking to the right characters until the mission either resolves itself or asks you to go into a Hollow. There's a bit of fun dialog and worldbuilding here and there, but if it doesn't interest you, you're going to be doing a lot of mashing through textboxes. Hollows, on the other hand, are far more interesting.

This is probably the hardest Hollow mission to look at, but it was actually pretty fun.

If there's one thing I absolutely cannot fault this game on so far, it's a lack of variety; Hollows are all grid-based, but the similarities between different missions often end there. One mission might have you solving Sokoban-style block pushing puzzles, another ask you to plan out exactly how many steps it takes to reach the end of a dungeon as optimally as possible so that you can make it there before one of the cute rabbit robot things is destroyed. Oddly enough, all of these missions have side-objectives marked by three green checkmarks; one is almost always to "obtain all the observation data". Observation data are little collectibles that grant currency for the gacha system, but the other objectives seem to have no reward or effect, beyond one particular mission granting one or two extra lines of dialog. It's a very strange, disconnected system, but I can see it going somewhere interesting if they push it into a "completing side objectives in one mission grants access to another mission" sort of deal. I've already touched upon the way combat works, here, and I think it's biggest flaw is that it's just way too easy; the only mission in the entire game that managed to pose a challenge is the "Hollow Zero: Core" expidition, a roguelite-inspired side mode that I only managed to wring some difficulty from by having my entire party collectively be ten levels below what the game recommended. It's worth mentioning that the "Main Story" ends after the second mission of "Chapter 3", which may indicate that it's just too early on in the game's lifespan for any real challenge.
Let's talk about Hollow Zero, actually.

Hollow Zero (or: the real design of Zenless)

Hollow Zero, at first glance, does just look like some one-off side mode. A gimmick to justify the odd "Resonite" system that gives you Binding of Isaac-style upgrade items while you progress towards a boss. As the game went on, though, I found that a few side-missions kept asking me to get things from Hollow Zero, or that I would do a Hollow Zero run and come out with a weird voicelog collectible containing what seems like pretty important plot details. Notably, Hollow Zero's lack of stamina cost and shockingly high weekly rewards seem to push you towards it, and that was when I realized Zenless Zone Zero's most fascinatingly bizarre secret:
Hollow Zero is the game.
The shockingly high stamina cost of the grinding missions and many of the side missions (often taking up 30 or even 100-150 of your maximum of 170-ish stamina) suddenly makes a lot more sense, in this light. You're meant to play all the side and story stuff to get resources and buff up your party for Hollow Zero, which you can play endlessly without cost. Essentially, what Mihoyo is doing with ZZZ is reframing the meta-progression systems of modern Roguelites as a gacha game— those daily seeded runs found in something like Isaac or Dead Cells fit nicely into the job-like structure of the modern phone game. (Funny enough, the survey I got when signing up for this beta actually asked me outright if I'd ever played Dead Cells.) If that sounds interesting to you, give it a shot. If you like the way the game looks, give it a shot. If it sounds or looks like the kind of thing that would leave you broke or bored, stay away; you're really not missing out on much by having never played one of these games, no matter what the Genshin/Nikke/Arknights/etc. players attempt to tell you.