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Zenless Zone Zero Review: Anime Cyberpunk Made Fun & Simple

Platform(s): PC (version reviewed), PlayStation 5, iOS, Android
Genre: Action, RPG, Cyberpunk, Anime, F2P

For the past few years, HoYoverse (then MiHoyo) has been on a roll with its two role-playing games: Genshin Impact and Honkai Star Rail. Both have their shared audience, are different enough stylistically and mechanically to not be interchangeable with each other, and still rely on monthly updates and character gacha banners to keep players enticed (and broke). After all, the drive of games like these is its ever-expanding storylines, levels, and character collection. In a very flooded and saturated market of F2P games with anime aesthetics and simplistic gameplay, these two titles have stood out due to their production quality and tight gameplay. True, some may tire of them over time, but you cannot fault HoYoverse for their consistent output in keeping these games active and (mostly) fresh.

Will the company deviate from its tried-and-true F2P formula and make a standalone “pay X amount one-time” gaming product? Probably not anytime soon, which is a shame because the adherence to the model may be what is keeping its new action title Zenless Zone Zero from possibly achieving true greatness. But we’ll dive into that aspect later.


Zone Of The Enders

At first impression, Zenless Zone Zero is an action game with interchangeable party members during combat. After the initial combat tutorial, you’ll then be introduced to its other mechanic. See, ZZZ is split into two types of gameplay: the aforementioned character action and a turn-based roguelite exploration.

First, the action bits: you go from section to section eliminating creatures called Ethereals while trying to explore a post-apocalyptic realm called The Hollow. Your playable characters, called Agents, have their own fighting style and mechanics, ranging from the ever-reliable swordfighting melee to ranged attacks and “spellcasting” via rabbit bots called Bangboos (i.e the game’s obligatory mascots). You have your light and heavy attacks, and a super meter that lets you unleash your character trademark move. You can also switch between characters to for combo purposes or to tag them out if they’re about to bite it.

You start with three characters: sword-user and Lightning element Anbi, the gun-brandishing Dante-esque-but-goofier Billy Kid, and the well-endowed suitcase-weapon-packing Ether user Nicole who is clearly the frontrunner for the game’s early marketing. You’ll eventually meet more, and may even get some free currency to gacha them throughout the course of the game. ZZZ’s combat segments not only let you go on the offensive, but also gives you the option to dodge and tag in your partners. Every time you’re out in the Hollow’s combat parts, you go into them in a team of three; you can tag your partners in at any time either for buffs, for follow-ups, or even for extra damage to keep the combo points on the left part of the screen going. Tagging in partners at the right time, usually before an enemy attack lands, can also trigger beneficial effects like parries and “witch time” where the action momentarily slows down for you to pull off additional attacks without retribution.

And you’ll have fun nailing these and getting these down pat because the effects and results are spectacular to watch. There is nothing more cathartic than to stylishly pull off a quick attack as the jiggly Nicole, then tag in your recently-gacha’ed sexy cop lady to follow up with a dodge, a slowdown effect, and a super attack involving a giant taser(?) gun. And then tagging in your sexy wolf guy for damaging ice-blade kicks.

And then we have the second part of the game: the turn-based-and-tile-based exploration portions. See, your Agents aren’t that adept at navigating the Hollows, so you need the help of a Proxy who has the equipment to lead them to the exit and to treasure in different dungeons with layouts like mazes. Enter your main characters in the game’s plot: the siblings Wise and Belle, who use a TV screens-filled board for navigation. Represented by a custom-made Bangboo, you guide your Agents through deathtraps, puzzle rooms, and eventually to the exit to complete missions. Sometimes you’ll get ad-hoc objectives like opening doors, clearing a path full of ghosts with your high-tech flashlight/camera thingamajig, and planting bombs to clear obstacles. ZZZ doesn’t forget that it’s an action game with some RPG aspects, so the game plants in the tail end of the dungeons with either a mob clear session or a boss fight.

Throughout my 10+ hours of playing through the game’s existing chapters (with some caveats I’ll get to later), these sections do not wear out their welcome. You’re given enough variety to explore and solve the conundrums on display, and also jive with a nifty soundtrack to boot. They last long enough to make you head into the enjoyable combat.

Then you have the in-between missions moments: both Wise and Belle run a video rental store which is a rarity in the future they’re in. Your store is in a small town where you can interact with the locals, play arcade games, take on sidequests, and just get extra income from managing your store.

On their own, these segments may not stand and last long to keep you invested. But altogether, they make for a fun and satisfying cyberpunk-bright-anime experience. I do love just getting in the groove of the game’s day-to-day routine with the siblings while they juggle between their mundane job and dangerous life-threatening gigs. The game’s aesthetics do help; it’s not completely full of thirst material (thanks to the previously-mentioned Nicole and tech-head Grace) and does have a lot of style and pizzaz with its world, its look, and the motion of the combat. Some may argue that it’s style over substance, but there’s enough game to warrant its combination of genres and mechanics, all in one tasty cyber-pie.

With all the positive bits brought up, there is that caveat I mentioned. This all begs the question…


Does This Game Need To Be Free-To-Play?

Maybe it’s just the traditionalist in me, but I do feel that ZZZ could benefit from being a fully packaged game with additional DLC you can pay for, rather than it being a free-to-play title where you need to put in money to max out a favourite character or two, with a few game design choices to cater to a larger gacha-savvy gaming market.

While HoYoverse’s games have been okay with its gacha practices -moreso than other companies- it does feel that it can get limiting when you are stuck with a set of characters you don’t want to play as. And the grind that’s prevalent in F2P games; it’s definitely thereSee, ZZZ requires you to level up your Inter-Knot (heh) level to a specific amount to access the fun missions and combat segments. That means doing a lot of VR training work, sorting out your F2P game dailies, and a lot of busywork and repeated missions. This gets especially restrictive with the gatekeeping energy meter (Battery Charge) that prevents you from spending all week farming your characters non-stop.

While not as bad as other titles, you can start feeling the repetition and boredom as you keep doing the work; this would be completely gone were ZZZ became a normal full-priced title. Compare this to an action RPG game like the recently-out Granblue Fantasy Relink, which lets you get all the characters you want if you spend more time on it and once you’ve paid the upfront price tag, and you get to see where I’m coming from.

Then again, the current 1.0 version of ZZZ isn’t a full game since there is more story in the works given how it all ends; the developers have left it as such so that more content and storylines are expected from a live service game like this. There’s still a lot that should be told in this fun world with the bright cyberpunk anime aesthetics.


Pure Zen?

We’re stuck with the cards that are dealt, so I’ll have to deal with the good and bad. Is Zenless Zone Zero too flashy for its own good, sacrificing depth for style? Maybe, but I do feel good playing through the majority of the game, its action bits, and its roguelite turn-based movement system through the Hollow.

While hardcore action gamers may not find the game too deep, ZZZ’s combat is meaty enough to warrant repeated playthroughs and try out different character combinations. I love uncovering the storylines of each group and their motivations from Nekomata’s drive to Grace’s love for machines. If anything, ZZZ is not lacking in soul and “drip” as the young ones call it. It may need to break away from its F2P chains, but that’s less of the game’s issue and more of the company’s and its way of doing business. Like it or not, business is sinfully good, so for now, we’ll have to accept the fact that ZZZ will wear its F2P sleeves comfortably even with its current “limited” roster of playable action heroes. Despite its platinum shackles, there’s much fun to be had in following the cyberpunk anime adventures of Wise and Belle: video renters by day, rogue navigators by night.


Final Score: 80/100

Early 1.0 copy & review accounts provided by publisher. 

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  1. Zenless Zone Zero Made Bank In Just A Few Days After Debut | Kakuchopurei

    July 9, 2024 at 3:21 pm

    […] ZZZ is praised for its art style, animation, and gameplay flow as you get deeper into the title and its story chapters. The game has quite a slow start, with many tuning out in the first few hours over how boring it can get. For more on ZZZ, check out our critic’s review of the game. […]

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