Developer HoYoverse shows no signs of slowing down after Genshin Impact and Honkai: Star Rail, with its next title, Zenless Zone Zero (humorously, ZZZ for short) making steady waves throughout its community. First announced in May 2022, November 2023 marked the game’s second closed beta test for PC and iOS.
What is the game like, how it compares to the rest of the Hoyo slate of anime games, and how ‘gotcha’ is the gacha, are just some of the questions we geared ourselves to find out as we dove in.
(Please note that all impressions, screenshots and opinions are based solely on this beta test, and may not represent the final game.)
Life of a Proxy
ZZZ is an action RPG with rogue-lite mechanics. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, you’ll begin your journey in New Eridu, the last urban civilization to survive the supernatural disaster known as the “Hollows”. These are distorted dimensions filled with “Ethereal” monsters and resources that humanity is now relying on for commercial purposes – of course.
To get in and survive the Hollows, however, requires the help of Proxies, partners who guide people through their explorations. In the game, you’ll play as either Wise or Belle, the sibling team behind “Phaethon”, a famous Proxy known for their high commission success rate. As part of the closed beta, you’ll mostly be supporting the Hollow expeditions of the Cunning Hares, a dispatch agency made up of Anby, Billy and Nicole.
Traversing and Tackling on TV Screens
The gameplay of ZZZ is largely split into exploring the Hollows and action combat. The former takes place on the Hollow Visualisation TV Wall, which looks like a wall of TV screens where each screen represents one location.
There’s a main objective riddled with puzzles, whether that involves moving objects around, picking up resources or saving fellow Hollow raiders. Your icon will move through these screens to complete the objective, occasionally picking up buffs, debuffs and sometimes falling into combat.
This concept, while novel, can feel low effort at times. Rather than living these experiences out in actualised worlds, it’s more akin to playing a board game. After hearing so much about the Hollows, it’s a shame that you’ll just have to imagine the scenarios you’re going through via the blinking icons and Wise or Belle’s commentary.
Combat mode features a three-person team with a “bangboo” in tow – a type of intelligent robot that can support you on the field. You’ll have each character’s basic and special attacks, plus a heavy attack when your energy has filled up.
The value of having party members kicks into play when you initiate chain attacks, or call for assists, which invite other members of your party to step in and continue a combo. Dodging plays a small role, as a perfectly timed dodge triggers a slow-down effect on the enemy, allowing you to deal a heavy attack.
Getting into fights feels fluid and intuitive at first, and most of the techniques can be easily picked up through your own trial and error, and perfected with time. Because of the simplicity, the action can quickly devolve into button mashing, however, with generally low stakes since enemies didn’t tend to attack much during this test. Tougher opponents and boss fights brought more of the same to the table, acting as HP sponges with similar movement patterns, rather than being a more interesting challenge.
Entering New Eridu
Where galavanting in the Hollows can be lacking, the setting of New Eridu more than makes up for it. More gentrified neighbourhood than metropolitan city, this is exactly the kind of place I would die to move to – I can feel it in my millennial bones.
Think tastefully graffiti-ed walls, exposed brick buildings and a lo-fi hip-hop background track that sounds a lot like Nujabes. Then there’s the newsstand manned by a dog, the fact that the only two eateries are a ramen restaurant and a specialty coffee shop, plus the classic arcade that actually has a playable version of Snake. It’s a shame that, so far, not a whole lot of the gameplay happens in the overworld, but here’s hoping we’ll see more in the full version of ZZZ.
In typical HoYoverse fashion, the characters are stylishly designed. From spunky pink-haired Nicole to comic relief Billy, each character introduced so far has their own unique presence that’s bolstered by strong voice acting – though cast details are still under wraps. There are quality-of-life upgrades unseen in other HoYoverse titles, such as a way to replay old cutscenes, the ability to skip them altogether, and a training dummy to test character builds. Playing on both PC and my old iPhone 11 Pro felt great, with no noticeable drawback on mobile.
When it comes to gacha, the closed beta test offers two banners, which act as the limited character banner and weapon banner. Due to my unlucky pulls, I’ve been unable to pull the five-star banner character and have mostly ended up with copies of the starting characters. The way that it works so far seems to indicate a similar format of gacha to Genshin Impact and Honkai: Star Rail, but one can only hope for better drop rates.
There’s a lot to love about the vibe of Zenless Zone Zero, like the thumping chill beats, the hip neighbourhood and characters dressed solely in cool tech wear. But beneath this cool kid facade lies gameplay that doesn’t feel all that deep, at least not yet.
With any luck the full game will feature less tedious TV screen traversal mode, and more combat mechanics will be introduced for that aspect to be a little less mindless. At the time of writing, the closed beta test has not yet announced an end date, which means a full game release date could be much further away than we think.
It’s still too early to say whether Zenless Zone Zero is a game I’d get out of bed for, or if it will only put me to sleep. For now, I’m awake enough to see where this train is going.