July 17, 2024
1 Solar System Way, Planet Earth, USA

Zenless Zone Zero review: incredibly cool animation can't save a shallow gacha

Many years ago, game designers advised their colleagues that make their prototypes “juicy”They were talking about the nebulous collection of sensations a player is exposed to when heads explode, coins jingle and balls bounce. Ground zero without zen is a game deeply influenced by the philosophy of juice. Like the loot box peddlers of yesteryear, gacha designers understand the appeal and power of a pleasantly animated contraption, quick to open and bursting with potential. This joyful visual and audio language runs throughout Hoyo’s latest game, from its cinematic moments to each character’s attacks, to the cute rabbit mascots bursting out of Gatling guns, to the barista’s coffee-making ritual and the waiter’s recipes for robotic-limbed noodles. The menu screens, the maps, the free-to-play store — everything. It’s all very juicy. It’s full of juice, but only in the same way that supermarket chicken is full of water.

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The sci-fi city of New Eridu is beset by giant domes of harmful matter that sprawl over entire districts, displacing citizens, creating monsters, and rendering parts of the city impassable. Impassable, that is, except for your team of three raiders, who venture into these harmful “holes” to perform various favors for those outside. You might save some trapped residents, find a lost legacy, or search for a missing deliveryman. What this looks like (beyond the disjointed and overly long tutorial) is a third-person character action-fighting game stitched together with a grid-based exploration minigame with some very mild sokoban puzzles, all wrapped up in a sturdy, free-to-play vending machine of characters and upgrade candies.

The character-to-character action battles are as cool as any in the genre. When my giant bear construction worker slams his massive pneumatic tool into an enemy's head, the sensation is jarring and shocking. When the cyborg gunslinger pirouettes through a trio of glowing monsters firing a series of scattered shots with the satisfying crunch of microwave popcorn, it's undeniably sick, cool, and and At special moments, you can switch characters to perform fluid, violent transition combos. Countering an enemy attack (communicated by the winking of a crosshair) triggers a moment of mega-action with a rotating camera where characters are swapped. Each fight plays out with stylishly choreographed efficiency, as you pair up new characters to see what custom combinations might look cool.

Anby and Billy exchange jokes while looking at the camera.

Belle is at her family's video rental store, watching tapes.

A bear-like construction worker battles an ethereal villain.

An enemy attacks during a fight sequence, with a flash

Image credit: Rock, Paper, Shotgun / Hoyoverse

Sadly, most of the time isn't actually spent fighting. At least, not in the early game's story mode. And even later on, when more time is spent on fights, it turns out that too much “cool” can be quite tiring. If we set aside how good it looks, combat can basically be reduced to mashing the same four or five buttons in a cycle without much demand for strategy. There's not much depth to the fighting, it's slick and shallow, and it's filled with stylish enemies that often move as arrogantly as your own characters, but aren't distinguished from each other in any mechanically meaningful way. So what is the game, if not the fighting? To steal An old questionwhere does the game reside?

Well, a lot of the game consists of going from menu to menu, clearing out the red exclamation points from the corners of tab headers. It’s a scavenging process that involves clicking “claim” everywhere you find it to collect various coins with names my brain has simply rejected upon hearing them. Part of the game consists of searching the internet or YouTube for explanations of the opaque systems that will let you tweak this trick or give that character bonuses. And even more of it consists of a carousel of TV screens revolving around a game show where the benefits of your ability to pull the gachapon lever are revealed. Skim all that fat off the top and you’re left with a sleek but simple combat arena, accessed over and over again, framed within a series of undemanding 2D mazes.

A maid character attacks a monstrous canine creature using a circular saw.
Image credit: Rock, Paper, Shotgun / Hoyoverse

It doesn't help that you're fighting in what seems like the same spaces over and over again. For all the style in the world, there's very little to explore. The nicest environment is the city block where you run errands (more on that later). But as neat as that area's visual splendor is, it doesn't make up for the boxy, uninteresting, short-lived arenas you fight in. It seems a shame that a game with such elegant character animations is limited to having characters traverse the same spaces of a deconstructed rail yard for hours.

I said in a previous article that ZZZ felt like the Memories of Persona 5 gachified, and the problem with this comparison (aside from the fact that the genres don’t overlap that much) is that even at its grindiest moments Persona 5 gave me some sense of motivation. ZZZ doesn’t go that far. This is where each player’s tolerance for the anime personality matrix will yield varying results, but I’m not particularly enthralled by any of the characters. Much of their desirability seems anchored to their appearance, with a final fraction tied to their elemental strengths or role in combat. Even those who get the most narrative screen time (crazy robot gun Billy, inept negotiator Nicole, and emotionally unavailable Anby) feel less like characters and more like fully animated figures. It’s possible I just haven’t unlocked a character I truly love yet (time to go on a quest!).

A noodle vendor with robotic arms.
Image credit: Rock, Paper, Shotgun / Hoyoverse

Maybe I'm being a bit reductionist. Zed Zed Zed (Zee Zee Zee) has its strengths, too. The city block where you can wander around collecting daily scratch cards from smiling huskies and refilling coffee is a bright, colorful cityscape. I like the recurring visual motif of the cathode-ray television, an ever-present devotion to retro aesthetics exemplified by the main menu, which shows a TV cycling through advertisements and IDs buzzing in welcome as the customer downloads necessary updates. I like that you can check the “Inter-knot” on your phone at the end of a work day, scrolling through user comments on news articles. And I like that you can get photos and artwork to organize on a memories board in your bedroom (you live above a video rental store). The first photo you get for this board, showing your gang of weird friends eating together at a restaurant, gave me a weird feeling of emotional connection to characters who would otherwise mostly make me yawn. It's these human memories that might be, for some, the game's real desirable secret — not the W-Engines or the Bangboos or any of the other fancy-named objects.

An item shop sells W Engines, a necessary part for upgrading characters.

A TV screen displays in-universe advertisements while the game loads.

The protagonist of Zenless Zone Zero runs through the city streets passing by a supermarket.

A dog sells scratch cards at a stand in Zenless Zone Zero.

Image credit: Rock, Paper, Shotgun / Hoyoverse

Ultimately, though, my time in the Zen-Free Zone (Zero) has left me uninspired. The tutorial grind is long and everything in the plot is ten times more convoluted than it really needs to be. There are plenty of easy-to-miss details and dead ends in the menu where even more loot can be claimed. In a game that isn’t free-to-play, the design solution to this might be to consolidate all the claimable loot into one place. But for some reason that’s not psychologically compatible with gacha. So the result is dozens of little tutorials that interrupt to show you which series of tabs and icons to click on to find the little puddle of claimable gachagoo in the corner — an overwhelming barrage of “learn this, open that menu, press that button, okay, now this one.” It’s a bit like getting step-by-step unboxing instructions from a really fussy drug dealer.

It also comes with everything you need. Common linguistic obfuscation of meaningthe sheer number of coins, items and trinkets needed to upgrade characters and equipment. For those who understand the grammar of gacha gameplay, it’s just a matter of learning new vocabulary. For anyone simply drawn to the bright characters and cutscenes of a carefree cyberpunk world, perhaps looking for satisfying third-person combat, it’s less welcoming. Simply exploring and understanding the wild maze of menu screens takes longer than learning the basics of action. This isn’t necessarily the death knell for a video game. Plenty of great games are all menu, all the time. But it is, to me, the telltale sign of an uninteresting third-person action game, no matter how visually or aurally stylish it may be.

Billy, Nicole and Nekomata have a conversation while looking at the camera.
Image credit: Rock, Paper, Shotgun / Hoyoverse

When the term “juice” (or “game feel,” as it’s often called today) was coined, it was offered as a reminder to make games pleasing to players’ eyes, ears, and hands, so that they can be more present, more grounded, even in an unreal space. Ground Zero without Zen uses these same principles to encourage the player to too often live in a menu screen. To me, it feels like a deeply shallow world. A really cool pair of shoes lying around your house, looking cool but not being worn because they’re uncomfortable and impractical to wear.

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