Image of characters on a car in Zenless Zone Zero artwork.

Zenless Zone Zero’s Gacha System Dampens What Otherwise Could Have Been a Great Premium Experience

While the majority of Americans took time off this past week to blow things up, chow down on beef and grilled meats, loudly gather in celebration, I indolently huddled down indoors to sink my teeth into HoYoverse’s latest waifu-fulled offering, Zenless Zone Zero.

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ZZZ is a feastful affair full of pop, color, and awe—a free-to-play mobile game with a buffet platter of complexity for you to chew on that puts most other mobile games on the market to shame. And as I slid my way through the game’s first chapter, I increasingly kept thinking, “Wow, I’d happily pay tens of dollars for this, actually.” Unfortunately, at the same time, it also became abundantly clear to me that if I wanted to play the game the way it seemingly is meant to be enjoyed, then I’d have to play developer MiHoYo’s game of slots—a dangerous, money-siphoning game that rarely ends with little more than a brain full of frustration and an empty pocket.

Don’t get me wrong, the money-grubbing aspect doesn’t put me off. Zenless Zone Zero is free-to-play, after all, and it’s not really doing anything different than other gacha games. In fact, it’s downright standard. But it feels as if ZZZ’s gacha mechanics rub against the game’s finely-tuned, character-driven gameplay with a friction that can spark a dumpster fire. Simply put, the game’s too well made for its primary feature (team building and monster smacking) to be driven by random-chance collection, which essentially amounts to a dull time at the casino.

ZZZ screenshot of Koleda Belobog on stage after being contracted
Screenshot by The Escapist

Now, I’m no stranger to gacha games. I wouldn’t say I’m the most ardent player, but I’ve dedicated years of my dumb little life to dumb little mobile games like Fire Emblem Heroes, Dissidia Final Fantasy Opera Omnia, and Pokemon Masters EX. None of their gacha mechanics disappoint me the way ZZZ’s does. And that’s largely because most other gacha games I’ve played have shallow, bite-sized gameplay that mostly serves as a playground to place all your collectible characters and admire their cutesy glory. They’re one-or-two button-tapping near-auto-battlers that you can futz around with for a few minutes before getting on with your life. You can happily pull new characters endlessly because, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what you get. They’re all ultimately the same anyway, and you’re just trying to amass a collection.

In contrast, ZZZ’s sharp gameplay, which feels closer to a tag-team fighter, is far from brainless button tapping. Characters all have their own unique fighting style, all hitting with satisfying impact; they all synergize with one another differently; they’re each attributed with elemental aspects that may be better or less suited for particular enemies. The game begs for you to build well-synergized teams while rotating out characters to adapt to fluctuating situations. But that’s hampered when you have little to no control over the characters you unlock and your ability to level them up is limited by various stylings of far-too-many premium currencies with hard-to-conceive names.

And that’s nothing to say of its impact on the narrative. ZZZ’s meaty combat is intercut by flashy, comic book-styled visual novel segments (fun!). However, the fact that it’s a never-ending gacha game means that the full narrative will likely never come to a satisfying conclusion, and most characters will inevitably have little story relevance. As such, you probably won’t really get to know most characters in a meaningful way (not fun!). For a character-driven game, that’s a huge flaw.

ZZZ screenshot of Nekomiya embarrassed while watching herself act cute on a screen.
Screenshot by The Escapist

The most frustrating part is that the fixes for many of Zenless Zone Zero’s problems would be clear as day if it were an average premium experience. You need only to make all characters unlockable through the story and/or through optional side quests, slap a traditional leveling system in there, and call it a day. When fleshed out, you’d have a fun, addictive game that fully comes together as a cohesive whole, with lovable characters every fan could get to know and want to die for. There doesn’t have to be much more to it than that.

I keep thinking back to Fire Emblem: Awakening, a game that featured nearly 50 unlockable characters throughout its main story and side content. And most of its characters, including the optional ones, are all memorable and quite lovable, helped along by the game’s support mechanic, which saw characters get closer to each other and progress in unique dialogue the more they’re paired together. If Zenless Zone Zero were to adopt such a system, it would surely be something special.

Perhaps I’m just being nostalgic for the days before rampant microtransactions when video games had a plethora of unlockable content. But I don’t think so. Character-driven games need you to be able to access and interact with their characters, especially when the primary gameplay revolves around team building.

 Unfortunately, I don’t think MiHoYo will ever stray from the HoYoverse gacha games they’ve become known for. Not implementing a gacha mechanic into their games would probably feel like money left lying on the table. And for Zenless Zone Zero, it’s too late. The game’s already out, and it is what it is. But who knows — maybe one day we’ll get a proper, premium HoYoverse game that I can feel good about slamming some money down for. One can only hope.

Zenless Zone Zero is available now.

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Seth Lowe
Seth is the weekend editor at the Escapist and joined the site in February 2024. An avid Nintendo lover and a true Pokemon master, surely you'll find him glued to a Game Boy no matter where he is. You can also find contributions of his on other gaming sites, such as Prima Games, Gamepur, and TheGamer. He covers Pokemon, Final Fantasy, and more for The Escapist.