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Zenless Zone Zero review: painfully cool animation can't save a superficial gacha

Zoning out

Nicole, Belle, and Billy stand facing the camera during a conversation.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun / Hoyoverse

Many years ago game designers advised their peers to make their prototypes "juicy". They were talking about the nebulous collection of sensations a player is exposed to when heads explode, coins jangle, and balls bounce. Zenless Zone Zero is a game deeply informed by the philosophy of juice. Like the lootbox hawkers of yesteryear, gacha designers understand the appeal and power of a pleasingly animated gizmo, ker-chunking open and fizzing with potential. This poppy visual and sonic language stretches across Hoyo's latest game, from its cinematic moments, to each character's attacks, to the cute bunny mascots that erupt into gatling guns, to the barista's coffee-making ritual and the recipes of the robo-limbed noodle server. The menu screens, the maps, the free-to-play storefront, everything. It is all very juicy. It is pumped with juice, but only in the same way supermarket chicken is pumped with water.

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The sci-fi city of New Eridu is beset by giant domes of harmful matter that swell out over whole districts, displacing citizens, creating monsters, and making parts of the city impassable. Impassable, that is, except for your crew of three raiders, who dip into these harmful "Hollows" to perform various favours for those on the outside. You might save some trapped residents, find a lost hierloom, or search for a missing delivery driver. What this looks like (beyond the disjointed and overlong tutorial) is a third-person character action brawler attached to a grid-based exploration minigame with some very mild sokoban puzzles, all wrapped up in a chunky free-to-play vending machine of characters and upgrade candy.

The character action battles are as cool-looking as anything in the genre. When my giant bear construction worker slams down his huge pneumatic tool on an enemy's head, it feels impactful, ground-shaking. When the cyborg gunslinger pirouettes through a trio of glowing monsters firing off a scattering of shots with the satisfying crackle of popcorn in a microwave, it is undeniably sick, rad, and gnarly. At special moments you can switch characters to perform smoothly violent transitional combos. Countering an incoming enemy attack (communicated by the flashing wink of a cross) erupts into a character-swapping moment of camera-twirling mega-action. Every fight unfolds with stylishly choreographed efficacy, as you pair new characters to see what custom combinations might look sweet as heck.

Anby and Billy exchange jibes while facing the camera.
Belle stands in her family video rental store, looking at the tapes.
A bear construction worker fights an Ethereal baddie.
An enemy attacks during a fight sequence, with a glittering "counter" visual effect.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun / Hoyoverse

Unfortunately, most of your time is not really spent fighting. At least, not in the story mode of the early game. And even later, when more time becomes devoted to brawls, it turns out that too much "cool" can actually be pretty exhausting. When you put aside how good it looks, combat can basically be reduced to hammering the same four or five buttons in a cycle without a huge demand for strategy. There isn't much depth to the fights, it is slick and superficial, and full of suave enemies that often move as swaggerfully as your own characters, yet don't distinguish themselves from one another in any mechanically meaningful way. So what is the game, if it isn't the fighting? To steal an old question, where does the game reside?

Well, much of it resides in going from menu to menu, clearing red exclams from the corners of tab headings. This is a kind of sweeping up process that involves clicking "claim" everywhere you can find it to hoover up various currencies with names my brain has simply rejected upon hearing. Some of the game resides in searching the internet or YouTube for explanations to the opaque systems that will let you modify this do-hickey, or bonusify that character. Still more resides in a rotating gameshow carousel of TV screens where the spoils of your gachapon lever-pulling are revealed. Spoon all that grease off the top and you're left with a stylish but straightforward combat arena, entered on repeat, framed within a series of undemanding 2D mazes.

A maid character attacks a monstrous dog creature using a buzzsaw.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun / Hoyoverse

It doesn't help that you're fighting in what feels like the same few spaces over and over again. For all the stylishness of the world, there is remarkably little of it to explore. The most enjoyable environment is the city block where you do errands (more on that later). But as neat as the visual splendour of that zone is, it doesn't make up for the boxy, uninteresting, and short-lived arenas in which you fight. It seems a pity that a game with such graceful character animations is confined to having the characters traverse the same few spaces of a de-constructed railway yard for hours.

I said in a previous article that ZZZ felt like the Mementos of Persona 5 gachified, and the problem with this comparison (apart from the fact that the genres don't overlap that much) is that even in its grindiest moments Persona 5 gave me some sense of motivation. ZZZ doesn't get that far. This is where each player's tolerance for the anime personality matrix will produce varying results, but I'm not particularly captivated by any of the characters. Much of their desirability seems anchored to their looks, with a final fraction attached to their elemental strengths, or their role in combat. Even those that get the most narrative screen time (zany gunbot Billy, inept negotiator Nicole, and emotionally unavailable Anby) feel less like characters and more like fully animated figurines. It's possible I simply haven't unlocked a character I truly love yet (time to go on the pull!).

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

Maybe I'm being a little reductive. Zed Zed Zed (Zee Zee Zee) has its strengths too. The city block where you can wander around collecting daily scratchcards from smiling huskies and top-up on coffee is a bright and colourful urban landscape. I like the recurring visual motif of the cathode-ray TV, an ever-present devotion to retro aesthetics exemplified by the main menu, which shows a TV with a looping cycle of adverts and idents bzzrping in welcome as the client downloads its necessary updates. I enjoy that you can check the "Inter-knot" on your phone at the end of a working day, scrolling through user comments on news articles. And I like that you can get photos and artwork to arrange on a board of memories in your bedroom (you live above a video rental store). The first photo you get for this board - showing your gang of weirdo pals eating at a restaurant together - gave me a rare tickle of emotional connection to characters who mostly otherwise make me yawn. It's these human souvenirs that might be, for some, the real secret desirable of the game, not W-Engines or Bangboos or any of the other wildly named items.

An item shop sells W-Engines, a necessary part for upgrading characters.
A TV screen shows in-universe adverts while the game loads.
The protagonist of Zenless Zone Zero jogs through the city streets past a supermarket.
A dog sells scratchcards at a stall in Zenless Zone Zero.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun / Hoyoverse

Yet ultimately, my time in the Zenless Zone (Zero) has left me feeling uninspired. The tutorial treadmill is long and everything in the plot is ten times more convoluted than it really needs to be. There are a lot of easy-to-miss details and menu cul-de-sacs where yet more loot can be claimed. In a non-free-to-play game the design solution to this might be to consolidate all the claimable loot into one place. But for whatever reason that is not psychologically compatible with the gacha. So the result is dozens of small tutorials that interrupt to show you which series of tabs and icons to click to find the tiny claimable puddle of gachagoo in the corner, an overbearing 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 all the usual linguistic obfuscation of meaning, the myriad currencies, the bits, bobs, and baubles required to upgrade characters and equipment. For those who understand the grammar of the gacha game, it's only a matter of learning a new vocabulary. For anyone simply lured in by bright characters and scenes of a happy-go-lucky cyberpunk world, perhaps looking for satisfying third-person combat, it's less welcoming. Simply exploring and comprehending the wild maze of menu screens takes more time than learning the basics of the action. This is not necessarily the death knell for a video game. Plenty of great games are all menu, all the time. But it is, for me, the tell-tale sign of an uninteresting third-person action game, no matter how visually or audibly stylish it might be.

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

When the term "juice" (or "game feel" as it's more ofen called today) was casually coined, it was offered as a reminder to make games pleasing in the hands and eyes and ears of players, so that the player might become more present, more grounded, even in an unreal space. Zenless Zone Zero uses these same principles to encourage the player to live too often in a menu screen. To me it feels like a deeply superficial world. A really cool pair of shoes that sit around in your home, looking great yet going unused because they are uncomfortable and impractical to actually wear.

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