In just two days, Genshin Impact has made a lot of noise. It's one of the first games in the new Chinese wave, where the mobile era of gaming has given a whole generation of developers in China the expertise and resources to now pivot to consoles and PC. Veterans of major publishers like Tencent, NetEase, Shanda, and more are striking out on their own, even as smaller developers scale upward.
Looking at preview trailers and gameplay videos, one inspiration for Genshin Impact makes itself readily clear: Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Our blonde-haired protagonist looks down upon a sweeping landscape, the grass softly flowing beneath their feet. They leap off the cliff they're standing on and glide down slowly, buoyed by the winds themselves. Even getting up those cliffs is an easy task, with our hero scaling every surface imaginable, assuming your stamina meter persists.
The inspiration is a bit deeper though. Early enemies, the Hiluchurl, carry clubs and walk in the same ungainly manner as Breath of the Wild's Bokoblins, and your encounters play out mostly the same. The first Temple in Genshin Impact has a soundtrack that's similar to "Shrine of Trials" from Breath of the Wild, which plays over the small, puzzle-like shrines that dot the peaks and valleys of Hyrule. I can't argue that Nintendo's DNA has been purloined a bit, thrown in developer Mihoyo's pot to make the stew that is Genshin Impact. Hell, the developer has said as much.
"In a post that our team circulated to players last year, we mentioned that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was one of our inspirations for creating Genshin Impact as an open-world action-RPG," said the developer in an interview with FreeMMOStation. "That said, it is important to note that once you actually pick up the game, you will find the experience of Genshin Impact to be very different from that of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild."
As the developer notes, it's not the only ingredient in its stew. Genshin Impact and its predecessors bleed a real love for Japanese entertainment. Mihoyo president Forrest Wei Liu mentioned this love as a bedrock for the entire studio in 2018. "Our mission statement has always been about the devotion of Japanese ACG (Anime, Comics, Games) culture," he told PocketGamer. "To strengthen the Honkai Impact IP, we’ve created manga and anime cutscenes to go along with the game. Our goal for Honkai Impact 3rd was to create the best anime-inspired ARPG mobile game on the market."
The character designs in Genshin Impact don't really hew strongly to the aesthetic that Nintendo established in Breath of the Wild. Instead, it feels far closer to something like Bandai Namco's Tales series: the rather generic and straightforward designs that look good, but don't really feel distinct within the marketplace. As I met Amber, Jean, Lisa, and Kaeya in the early hours, I started to wonder if I had accidentally fallen into Tales of Berseria or Tales of Zestiria. I don't hate the look of the cast of Genshin Impact—they look reasonably good and the characters themselves are distinct from one another. There's even some reasonable restraint to be found; I'd expect the design of quiet "ara ara" onee-sama Lisa to be more "robust" if she appeared in some of games from Japanese publishers like XSEED or Koei Tecmo, but the character designers have held back.
The general Japanese quality of the character designs made me wonder if the character designers for Genshin Impact were Japanese themselves, but my search led me to Chinese artists with colorful monikers like Ego and CiCi. They're just so good at the style that I actually turned the voiceover to Japanese, despite that not being the natural dub. Genshin Impact plucks the strings of the weeb within.
I also found the overall design of the world to not pull much from Breath of the Wild. That's sort of a masterpiece focused on natural exploration. The world is composed of high mountains and low valleys, alternating elevation allowing you to look up or down at a new location and puzzle out how you're supposed to get there. Breath of the Wild is all about seeing a lonely temple on a far off mountain and trying to get there.
Genshin Impact's map is far more signposted, with major points of interest having bright glowing pillars streaming from them. There are points to see what's ahead, but exploration isn't really the focus. The towns don't really have the same feeling as that post-apocalyptic rebuilding in Breath of the Wild either.
Instead, they evoke the same feelings as the towns in Dragon Quest 11 and Dragon Quest 8. The opening city of Mondstadt is this bright, colorful town of RPG NPCs who rarely move from their chosen place of work. It's like a cartoon brought to life in 3D, safe from the harsh environment you quest through thanks to huge walls. I found myself climbing and gliding across the city's walls and rooftops, looking for hidden treasures, just like I did in Dragon Quest 11. Is there a chest in this alley? What's that sparkle on top of the building over there? In fact, Mondstadt itself feels a lot like DQ 11's Helidor, the calm, pastoral city before everything goes horribly wrong thanks to your entrance.
Combat is also a far cry from Breath of the Wild's combat system. Genshin Impact pulls from its predecessor Honkai Impact, being an action-RPG at its core. That previous title "took inspiration from some classic action console games, such as Bayonetta and Devil May Cry," according to the developer. But that basic hack-and-slash is underpinned by a system of elemental weaknesses, similar to Tales of Zestiria. Like that RPG, each character you can unlock is tied to a specific element, and navigating the combat encounters is about bringing the right people along to exploit various elemental weaknesses and overcome barriers. You'll find yourself switching characters on the fly—you can only have one out at a time—in order to overcome obstacles.
Finally, the roots of Genshin Impact come from the developer itself. Despite many players in the West never hearing of the studio, it has built itself into a powerhouse over the last nine years. Moving from a founding team of six to a huge team of more than 200 as of Honkai Impact 3rd, Mihoyo knows what works for free-to-play action-RPGs. The "open-world" side is new and the scope is bigger, but Genshin carries forward that expertise. Similar to Divinity: Original Sin developer Larian Studios stepping up with that series, this just happens to be the game that put an existing team of devs on our radar.
As such, Genshin Impact carries all the hallmarks of Mihoyo's past free-to-play efforts. Each character is unlocked via gacha-style pulls called "Wishes." Characters and weapons have star ratings, urging you to roll more Wishes to get better. While so many games avoid "pay-to-win" mechanics, Genshin Impact is from a market where that's normal and expected. I haven't felt the game fighting me hard to get money from my wallet yet, but my guess is it's a matter of time. But perhaps Mihoyo will surprise me.
Genshin Impact isn't just lifting from Breath of the Wild. It's a sampling platter of various games and game mechanics, including Mihoyo's own past. The developer has a deep love of Japanese entertainment, and it shows here, with facets of Genshin Impact reflecting a number of games. But I honestly don't find that to be a problem. Inspiration is just a stepping stone to creativity through synthesis; taking those inspirations and crafting your own thing. Genshin Impact is very much its own thing, and at the moment at least, I'm enjoying it.