Zenless Zone Zero Review – Hacker’s Delight


Zenless Zone Zero (ZZZ) is HoYoverse’s third game launch in four years. You’d think that HoYo’s formula would get stale with yet another free-to-play gacha RPG dropping just 15 months after the release of Honkai: Star Rail, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The developer has managed to create another familiar but distinct gameplay experience by once again learning from past missteps to deliver a game that is both iterative and innovative at the same time. The downside here, however, is that ZZZ puts several new and interesting elements together but forces you to spend the most time with the least interesting of the bunch.

Zenless Zone Zero has more style and aesthetic excellence than both Genshin Impact and Honkai: Star Rail, all in a much smaller package in terms of world size and scale of locations. At this point, Genshin Impact’s open-world has become almost too large and sprawling to facilitate a comfortable or compact mobile gaming experience, meaning it’s best experienced on PC or console. Meanwhile, Star Rail is the exact opposite because its turn-based combat and auto-battle features are a perfect fit for mobile devices. Zenless Zone Zero sits squarely in the middle of those two experiences by combining roguelike puzzle dungeons, fast-paced action combat, and chill life-sim activities into one varied gameplay loop.

The story also deviates from what we’ve come to expect from HoYoverse. The world-building is still strong, but it’s scaled back considerably. Instead of high-stakes conflicts with gods and higher powers, so far, Zenless Zone Zero has you follow the daily lives of two tech-genius siblings–Wise and Belle–as they find ways to make money legally and illegally. You get to pick which sibling you play as, but no matter who you go with, both remain in the story as characters who get regular dialogue. The main difference is that you choose what your protagonist says and control them while exploring the city of New Eridu.

Wise and Belle work as Proxies–individuals who can share their consciousness and sync with small electronic creatures named Bangboos. Syncing with a Bangboo allows the duo to use the Hollow Deep Dive (HDD) system to guide scavengers known as Hollow Raiders as they explore and navigate dangerous, shifting dimensions called Hollows. A lot of these terms get thrown at you from the jump, but they’ll become relatively easy to piece together and remember by the end of the prologue chapter. The siblings use and share the alias Phaethon when working as Proxies since scavenging Hollows for treasure and loot is an illegal line of work. They’re the most well-known Proxies in New Eridu though, so Hollow Raiders often pay them top dollar for their services. And outside of their Phaethon persona, they manage an old-school video rental store, Random Play, to earn money on the right side of the law as a cover for their shadier ventures.

Although the stakes are low as of Version 1.0, Zenless Zone Zero does an amazing job of addressing common pacing problems that have plagued past HoYo games by telling its story with stellar presentation. Comic-book paneling and character portraits keep nearly all major dialogue from becoming stale. The comics keep you engaged as they slide from scene to scene with the option to return to previous panels if you miss any information. Meanwhile, character portrait conversations are fully animated to convey realistic emotions through mannerisms that help you understand the demeanor of the characters who are speaking. And both the comics and portraits are fully voice-acted–including all dialogue from Wise and Belle.

Anby, Billy, and Nicole are the first Hollow Raiders you meet, and they’re the perfect trio to demonstrate how dynamic these conversations can be. Anby’s monotone voice and calm demeanor next to Billy’s over-the-top expressions are felt even through the comic-panel stills thanks to some great voice acting. In fact, many of the vocal performances and character personalities make even the longer chats feel like they’re worth listening to.

The biggest part of the gameplay loop has you accepting commissions for the citizens of New Eridu by exploring Hollows while completing different objectives. You control a Bangboo as it moves through TV sets like a tiled board, and similar to a board game, certain TVs trigger special events that lead to combat, extra dialogue, rewards, and more. These Hollow board sections are intriguing initially, but it soon feels like you spend far too much time inside TVs when those gameplay hours should be spread more evenly with combat.

There are three main types of commissions: Story, Combat, and Exploration. Story commissions are usually the most interesting, as they relate to the main plot and use more of the storytelling elements mentioned above, mixed with the TV boards and combat sections. These commissions become available as you progress but are sometimes gated by level requirements that force you to do other commission types and complete side activities in the city. This is par for the course in a lot of gacha games, but it can be frustrating to grind through less engaging content to get back to the good stuff. That said, the early level grind in Zenless Zone Zero at least feels much quicker than in previous HoYo games because of how little time it takes to finish commissions.

Combat commissions are strictly about fighting different enemy types found inside Hollows, giving you a chance to take control of your favorite Agents (characters you can pull for with the gacha features). Exploration commissions are the weakest of the bunch, as they mostly involve solving extremely simple puzzles on the Hollow TV boards with little to no combat opportunities whatsoever. Exploration commissions wouldn’t feel as tedious if the puzzles offered more of a challenge, but as it stands, they feel like a chore. They come in stark contrast with Combat commissions, which can be completed on more than one difficulty with timed objectives to test your skills and squad building.

But that’s not to say combat isn’t also relatively easy–because it is. It’s just that combat is, by far, the most engaging aspect of Zenless Zone Zero gameplay-wise thanks to HoYoverse making it look as beautiful as possible. The smooth movements and flashy effects had me hooked instantly.

There are two main offense buttons: one for basic attacks and the other for special attacks. A meter fills as you perform basic attacks, and once it’s full, you can use special attacks and EX special attacks for more damaging combo chains. There’s also a dodge that you can use to evade enemy moves at the last second when an indicator flashes. Perfect evades slow down time to create more offensive openings, and as you attack, enemies’ Daze meters will increase, eventually stunning them.

The real star feature in combat, however, is the Assist mechanic, which allows you to instantly swap between your three party members. Swapping characters right before an enemy attacks leads to Perfect Assist parries, evades, and special interrupt moves that trigger some of the most visually exciting moments in the game. Perfect Assists consume Assist Points, and you need to stun enemies and perform chain attacks with your party to regain these points. Otherwise, you can only use regular evades to dodge enemy attacks. You’re rewarded for your reaction time whether you have Assist Points to use or not though. The Assist switches, along with the beautiful animations and presentation, are what make the combat so engaging.

But as noted earlier, the combat is too easy, especially early on before hard mode and the endgame are unlocked. You can button-mash all you want as long as you get your defensive timing down. Defensive timing matters because there are no healers on the roster. Instead, you can pick up and use healing items while moving through the TVs in Hollows. There are Agents who create shields and specialize in tanking or support as alternatives, but realistically, you should be avoiding most damage with well-timed evades.

Your choice of attacks rarely feels like it matters, though, as long as you can keep up a combo to gain Decibels–the energy that fuels Ultimate attacks. There are so many well-crafted animations and awesome abilities, yet they don’t matter as much as they should. For example, Lucy plays baseball with her Guard Boars to attack, while Nicole shoots bullets and bombs out of a small briefcase. But I don’t need to worry about each character’s unique move set because enemy encounters consistently feel trivial. Unless you’re going up against a boss–which are often fun, cool battles–mobs just stand around, waiting to be killed while throwing out attacks that would barely hurt even if they did land. Maybe this will change as we move forward from Version 1.0, but as of right now, even the higher-difficulty fights could stand to be harder. On the flip side, this allows you to build whichever characters you like most without worrying about any sort of meta, for the most part.

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Your choice of party members is almost more important than what you actually do with them in combat, as having a mixture of weapon ranges and elemental abilities to target enemy weaknesses makes fights easier. So, you should build at least a couple of characters for each element, but it doesn’t feel like their role (Attacker, Support, or Stun) makes a noticeable difference as you breeze through the main storyline. Agents with the same faction or elemental attribute also gain extra combat abilities. It’s a nice touch that characters who know each other and work together in the story have added meaningful synergy in combat.

The ZZZ endgame dungeon crawler mode, Hollow Zero, is one of the only parts of the game where you see a challenge in combat, but it would be nice if the game taught you better habits or strategies with tougher enemies before reaching that point.

When you’re not exploring Hollows, your perfectly legal day job involves managing the Random Play video rental store. Your managerial tasks include retrieving overdue video tapes from neighbors in New Eridu, choosing which tapes to display in the store, and answering customers’ questions about movie recommendations. Random Play is an oddly nostalgic and charming store that brings me back to the days before Netflix and other digital streaming services pushed physical rental spots out.

This old-school vibe extends to certain menus and features as well. The video archive for rewatching old cutscenes is laid out like a shelf of old VCR tapes, each with unique cover art. The archive makes it possible to replay chapters in case you missed anything or want to see previous scenes again, unlike in Genshin Impact and Honkai: Star Rail. Zenless Zone Zero goes a step further, giving you the freedom to experience entire story missions as many times as you’d like.

The Random Play store is located in the first main hub, Sixth Street. And besides your managerial duties, you can also go buy and eat food for temporary combat buffs, and play mini-games at the local arcade, among other activities. These activities are nothing special, but they introduce you to several other stores and NPCs in the neighborhood that make the world feel lived in. You’ll find a surprising number of unique-looking NPCs to interact with for side commissions if you take the time to walk around Sixth Street and the other small hubs, and you can even chat with Agents across the city who are just living their regular lives.

The character designs are fun and fitting for the world. There are several factions that each house two or more unique Agents. You can tell which Agents belong to the same faction almost immediately thanks to their clothing or uniform, but the characters often still feel distinct in both style and personality. This 17-character launch roster contains a wolfman butler, a blue oni, an android, and even a giant talking bear wearing a gold chain (we love Ben Bigger in this house), just to list a few standout Agents. There’s also a day/night cycle and Persona-style Social Link system that allows you to spend time with individual Agents and complete character-specific side quests to raise their Trust Level for rewards as time passes. It’s nice to have another meaningful way to interact with your favorite characters outside of Story commissions, but the day/night cycle adds almost nothing to the experience other than an artificial timer that encourages you to open the Random Play store every morning and forces you to rest at the end of each day.

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On the character building side of things, you can grind for nearly all currency and level up materials in two places: the Hollow Investigative Association (HIA) and Hollow Zero. These materials are used to raise levels, level caps, skill power, and upgrade W-Engines and Disc Drives. W-Engines and Disc Drives are the main equipment in ZZZ. Both provide extra stat boosts, but the former also provides a single main buff effect, while the latter has two-piece and four-piece set buffs depending on how many you have equipped.

The VR challenges in the HIA allow you to customize each scenario as you grind, giving you the option to pick enemy types, difficulty, and main rewards. This effectively limits the amount of RNG you have to deal with when looking to upgrade specific Agents on your roster.

Eventually, you also gain access to Hollow Zero, the repeatable roguelike mode. Hollow Zero is similar to Star Rail’s Simulated Universe, except instead of regular movement outside combat, you’re stuck in TVs again. You collect buffs, strengthen your team, and make your way to the end of the Hollow to complete it. This is also where combat finally gets a bit more challenging because you can fight stronger bosses and customize your experience, just like in the HIA. And after Hollow Zero comes Shiyu Defense–a fully combat-focused mode with timed encounters that increase in difficulty like Genshin Impact’s Spiral Abyss. This is everything you’d want from the combat, but it does take a while to reach this point.

For gacha games that aren’t based on established properties, I usually find one or two features or moments early on that really suck me in, whether it’s appealing gameplay, amazing character designs, a forgiving pity system, or something else entirely. Genshin Impact has its vast open world complemented by deep lore, and Star Rail has its simple yet challenging turn-based combat mixed with sci-fi fantasy. Zenless Zone Zero’s aesthetic is what grabs me, but I don’t know if I’ve found the thing that persuades me to become a daily player who may even spend a little money. It feels like it should be the combat system, but the enemy encounters feel too basic and few in number as you progress naturally through the main storyline before unlocking Hollow Zero and Shiyu Defense. For the majority of the experience, I just enjoyed the retro-futuristic vibe while seeing the numbers get higher, as with any RPG.

Despite that gripe, Zenless Zone Zero is yet another solid entry in the HoYoverse portfolio as of Version 1.0, and it’s easy to see the potential as new Agents get added alongside Story commissions. It’s a shame that the bright spots are dimmed by a complete lack of meaningful challenges when it comes to nearly all commissions–for both puzzles and combat–in the early chapters of the game. But the current experience still shines thanks to how fun and vibrant the direction is in all facets of the game.



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