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I don’t love Breath of the Wild, but I can’t stop playing Genshin Impact

Genshin Impact’s RPG systems make a huge difference

Ryan Gilliam (he/him) has worked at Polygon for nearly seven years. He primarily spends his time writing guides for massively popular games like Diablo 4 & Destiny 2.

Breath of the Wild’s lack of RPG systems, weapon degradation, and very mild progression never clicked in my brain. And no matter how many times I’ve tried to go back, I simply cannot get over how tiny the rush is each time I upgrade my Link. I expected any games that followed in its footsteps wouldn’t be for me either.

Then I downloaded Genshin Impact, a gachapon with Breath of the Wild-like mechanics. And I haven’t stopped playing it. So what changed?

Isn’t this just anime Breath of the Wild?

Genshin Impact Venti shoots monsters
Venti fights a group of monsters in a field
Image: Mihoyo via YouTube

At first glance, Genshin Impact looks like a Breath of the Wild clone. It’s cartoony (though much more anime-inspired than Zelda), it’s open-world, and you can climb everything. It also has a stamina system, which you upgrade by collecting objects from environmental puzzles. It has fantasy monsters that drop parts of themselves when they die. It has open fires to cook food that heals you and grants buffs. Hell, it even has a glider.

But Genshin Impact differentiates itself in a few key ways. It’s free-to-play with a gacha business model and multiple playable characters. Where Zelda focuses on a basic progression path — with tiny improvements to your health and stamina — Genshin is loot-based, RPG soup, with more progression mechanics than I can count.

Genshin Impact has clicked hard for me because I’m always working to improve my characters, whereas Breath of the Wild lost me after I took down Calamity Ganon.

Genshin Impact is RPG vomit, and it rules

Diluc character screen Genshin Impact
Look at all those stats and sub-menus. That’s what I love to see.
Image: Mihoyo via Polygon

In Genshin Impact, I have so many systems to deal with.

Every item I pick up is a potential currency that I can use to improve one of my dozen characters, or use to upgrade their weapons, or unlock new abilities. It’s a game about managing currencies, and there are dozens. Genshin has a story, but I complete every mission not to see what happens next, but to incrementally improve my favorite characters.

In Breath of the Wild, I can improve my armor, but my weapons never get any better, and I never get new gadgets after the initial Sheikah Slate upgrades. Instead, I can just find better weapons or a Master Sword that still breaks, while picking up four static abilities from the game’s Divine Beasts.

Genshin operates on a gacha model, meaning that I can spend in-game or paid currency to open a horde of loot boxes. Most of the time, I’ll get some garbage weapon, which I’ll dismantle to improve my characters. But sometimes I’ll get an epic weapon, or even a new character to play as. As someone who doesn’t play gacha games, and doesn’t gamble, it’s a rush. I get so excited to pull that lever a few times a day.

Every new character is a new project for me to work on. It’s another body to equip gear on and level up, versus that small increase to my stamina or health every few Shrines in Breath of the Wild.

As I run various dungeons and fight big bosses in Genshin — switching between my four chosen party members mid-combat — I can really feel the difference that every piece of gear makes.

Revisiting 2017’s most beloved game

Diluc talks to the blacksmith Genshin Impact
Diluc chats with a blacksmith
Image: Mihoyo via YouTube

My time with Genshin Impact has actually changed how I feel about Breath of the Wild, and made me examine what does and doesn’t work for me. For years, I’ve believed that I didn’t like the open world, directionless nature of Breath of the Wild. But as I play Genshin, I’ve realized it has more to do with Zelda’s lack of RPG systems. In Genshin, I feel like I’m building toward something, whereas every time Zelda gave me a cool weapon that once belonged to a great Zora, it broke within an hour. That feels like negative progress.

But I’ve also spent time reflecting on Breath of the Wild and just how good its open world is — largely in comparison to Genshin Impact. Breath of the Wild is outstandingly polished, and that extends to every aspect of its map and enemies.

You can throw a rusty sword at an Octorok and it will spit it back good as new, or drop some food for some very good dogs. Genshin is a free-to-play game, and while there’s tons of stuff to do in the open world, it doesn’t feel alive the way Breath of the Wild does. But it doesn’t matter how incredible the gameplay systems are if I don’t feel like I’ve made any progress when I log off.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a “better” game than Genshin Impact, but Genshin Impact is better for me.