It’s not normally a good look when, within three minutes of starting an action RPG, a foe murders you with the merest flick of their finger. But in the case of Genshin Impact, while it tried to set me as an absolute newbie on the right path, it still gave me the freedom to mess up that badly.
Shielding new players from high-level enemies is a sticking point for any open- or semi-open-world game. Games need to familiarize their would-be players with their mechanics to the point where they can handle themselves competently. But denying those same players access to the meat of a game until they’ve dispatched an arbitrary number of low-level enemies can be irritating at best, or an absolute deal-breaker at worst.
Conversely, dumping players in at the deep end, where everything and anything will turn them into a small red smear, can be just as much of a problem. And when a game’s free to play like Genshin Impact, there’s even more at stake. If you’ve spent your own money on a game there’s at least some incentive to stick with it, but when you’ve paid zero nickels or dimes for the experience, the uninstall button is only a couple of clicks away.
So what do you do? How do you prepare new players without smacking them in the face with a “NO ENTRY” sign every time they try climbing out of the toddlers’ play area? Auto-leveling is one option, ensuring that foes faced are only so far above or below the player’s level for the bulk of the game. But as anyone who’s run into common bandits wearing elven armor and glass gauntlets in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion will know, that can wrench you right out of the game.
So I’m grateful to Genshin Impact for sporting a system that not only gives a beginner like me the knowledge to succeed, but also lets me throw common sense to the wind and plunge into certain danger. And it does so in a manner that is, for the most part, pleasingly unobtrusive.
Genshin Impact takes a leaf out of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s book and lets you scale cliffs, sapping your stamina as you go. That in itself is a huge boon compared to other games that make it ridiculously difficult to determine which mountains you can actually ascend unless you fling yourself against them like an inebriated Brian Blessed. Instead, Genshin Impact uses hills and cliffs to separate you from enemies who, given half the chance, will divorce your head from your shoulders. Climb up any of those first few cliffs and you’ll find yourself face to face with foes who are (literally) much higher than you.
On paper, it’s a relatively minor distinction, but in practice, it really pays off. Genshin Impact’s geography still suggests a path through the opening valley, but you never feel penned in. There’s no resentment; you’re not seeing those slopes as prison bars, grumbling that your former demigod has the climbing skills of a decaying sloth.
Instead, you know you can climb any number of those cliffs, reaching the top with a reasonable amount of care. But after the first few fatal attempts at exploring those plateaus, you choose not to, because of the beasts that lurk up there. Despite the brief one-time-only warning, it took me a few goes before I recognized that pitching my level 1 fighter against a level 16 Where the Wild Things Are character or a Puyo Puyo escapee was a bad idea.
So why did I bother? You could write it off as bad decision-making, but the truth is I was taken by the way that Genshin Impact let me make those terrible, terrible choices. It didn’t slap me on the wrist and teleport me back the moment I began climbing or when I reached the top and beheld all those angry red level numbers. Did my stupid decisions get me anywhere, apart from six feet under? No, but it was so gratifying to have that option, and it’s given me faith in the future freedoms Genshin Impact will grant me.
I can’t guarantee I’ll see Genshin Impact through to its conclusion, though getting to dispatch Maurice Sendak’s monstrous mindspawn is another incentive to keep playing. But thanks to the judicious use of geography and a deceptively simple (if not entirely original) mechanic, Genshin Impact has proven to be one of the most welcoming games out there.