Geek Preview: ‘Zenless Zone Zero’ Engages With Stylish Retro Vibes, But Roguelike Gameplay Slashes Away Excitement

It’s impressive enough for a mobile gacha game to enjoy continued popularity and success, and HoYoverse has delivered time and time again and going for a hat trick, with its upcoming fantasy role-playing game (RPG), Zenless Zone Zero (ZZZ), which looks to complete the trifecta of mobile miracles shaped by Honkai: Star Rail and Genshin Impact

A free-to-play action, semi-roguelike title, it catches the eye with its striking visuals and fast-paced combat mechanics that feel similar to Honkai Impact 3rd, another HoYoverse darling, and its larger-than-life mechanics. Despite the influence, it still holds many distinctions of its own – its core gameplay lies in its puzzle-solving 2D platformer board constructed from TV sets, stylish real-time combat and game progression influenced by both in-game stamina, named Battery Charge, and an in-game day/night cycle. 

For starters, the world of ZZZ is set in the post-apocalyptic city of New Eridu, which exists alongside “Hollows”, abnormal “portals” that lead to dimensions infested with monsters called Ethereals. The game follows sibling duo Belle and Wise as they undertake Proxy jobs that guide people through Hollows using rabbit-like creatures called Bangboo. After you pick one sibling as your chosen protagonist, the other sibling becomes an unplayable character that assists in story quests. 

Having spent some time in the funky world of Zenless Zone Zero with its second closed beta, here are some impressions.

Game Exploration

There are three currently known areas that players can explore, one of which is the main area where the Proxies mainly conduct their business, Sixth Street. Players are able to fast travel to stores or areas under the Travel function and accompanying the visuals are funky soundtracks that change according to which store players visit.

Sixth Street mainly holds essential shops related to upgrading combat-related items and attaining buffs for commissions. For example, the Music Store exchanges materials for Tune Drive Discs, the equivalent of artifacts in Genshin Impact. The Coff Cafe and the Waterfall Soup noodle stall also give you Battery Charge and buffs for quests respectively. NPCs of the stalls also have some stunning animations when performing an action to boot!

Similar to Persona 5, the map has a limited range that can be explored and has different levels of interactivity depending on the time of day. Players are limited to their chosen Proxy when walking around, unable to use their summoned agents to walk around, or jump. Despite the limitation, a lot of commissions and hidden things can be found by talking to the agents and NPCs around the city. Of course, there’s a suspicious trash can to be found in this world too…

The heart of the core gameplay lies in the Proxies’ store, Random Play, a videotape rental store and the secret base for their Proxy activities. Players access many functions here, including the Hollow Deep Dive System (HDD) where all Hollow exploration happens, a VR Testing Machine to grind for materials, game archives, and a trusty sofa to rest on and change the time of day in-game. Stay on the HDD interface for too long, and the Proxies’ trusty AI assistant Fairy will start showing off their sense of humour.

Players aren’t able to freely explore the Hollows, but instead navigate them through a Bangboo visual on a 2D platformer board made of TV sets. Most commissions involving the Hollow are conducted on this board, each consisting of different brain teasers and mechanics. Players can obtain materials, in-game currencies called Dennies, and more by interacting with different TV screens, but can also run into unavoidable battles, marked in red.

In terms of presentation, ZZZ has pulled off an extremely stylish retro look with its streets and elements filled with striking colours, while still managing to add that apocalyptic flair through hints of destruction even outside of combat. If you look even in nooks and crannies, you’ll find intricate details that really highlights the polished quality of the game. Each area stands out with their own distinct elements like Brant Street filled with construction items, but everything comes together as a cohesive whole through that slightly dusty-grey filter, reminiscent of a dystopian film.

Game Combat

In ZZZ, combat can only be encountered within the Hollows or VR Testing Machine, reminiscent of Honkai Impact 3rd’s fighting mechanics. Players select three agents to face off against enemies that freely roam around an area, defeating them using Basic, Special and Chain Attacks, as well as Dodges and Ultimates.

Basic Attacks build up energy for Special Attacks and Ultimates, and some characters have charged Basic Attacks for stronger power. Special Attacks are more potent attacks that can be activated at any time, but the stronger EX Special Attacks can only be activated once a character has enough energy.

Combo Attacks are triggered when agents stun an enemy after hitting it with enough heavy attacks, usually Charged or EX Special Attacks. The game will prompt players and give two seconds to choose another agent to swap with, who will then perform a special combo attack.

Dodges give agents invulnerability when activated, and players can trigger Perfect Dodgewhen dodging just as enemies attack, prompted by an orange glint. A counter attack can then be performed through a Basic Attack. Through all the above attacks, players can increase their Decibel Rating to 3000, which allows agents to perform their Ultimates. Note that Decibel Rating is shared amongst the team.

We say three agents in a team, but there’s actually a fourth member – Bangboos. They can’t be controlled by players however, serving more of a support role by having special skills during combat or giving agents a boost in stats.

Players familiar with Honkai: Star Rail or Genshin Impact will be able to immediately grasp the concept of elements, known as Attributes in ZZZ, and categorised into Physical, Electric, Ice, Fire, and Ether. Unlike its sibling games however, ZZZ favours attacking an enemy with one type of Attribute damage to encourage Attribute Buildup in enemies, which results in various debuffs and hence, mono-Attribute team compositions are currently favoured.

Three types of enemies also exist in the game – Ethereals, Mechanical, and Humanoids, and each have its own countering Attributes, where Ether counters Ethereal enemies, Electric counters Mechanical enemies, and Fire counters Humanoid enemies.

Additionally, agents are categorised into three different attack types as well – Pierce, which are fast and usually involve guns or drill attacks; Slash, commonly knife or sword attacks with relatively fast speeds; and Strike, heavy attacks involving punches, hammers and more, that are slower than the other two types.

While the above is a list of core combat mechanics, playable agents themselves have many other aspects to their kits, offering a large variation of gameplay. Players can continually test to see which attack type or attributes best matches their own playstyle. With how attractive and polished the character animations are, we won’t be surprised if you pick a team based on how stylish they look on screen.

Most levels of combat early to mid game don’t actually need much thinking, and rely more on reaction time to keep agents’ health from going down. End-game content, however, provides staggering levels of difficulty that will urge players to memorise enemy attack rotations, and fully strategise agent team compositions.

In the closed beta, it’s clear that ZZZ has catered from the beginners to the theory crafters when it comes to combat. Even without all the details, just mashing attacks and pressing skills when prompted is satisfying to watch, as combat animations and tag-team combos are fun to watch and come in smoothly.

For those who find it complicated to translate text to combat, just using the agents in combat will be enough to grasp the feel of how they work. At the same time, each character’s skill set ties in with various combat-related stats or certain attack sequences, which opens up multiple layers for players to plan and maximise each character’s effectiveness. 

While it will take awhile to get used to the controls and dodge timings, ZZZ proves to be beginner-friendly, providing quite a generous dodge window and sufficient time to execute combos and tag-team combos. As for players used to Hoyoverse’s non-real-time combat games like Honkai: Star Rail, ZZZ will be a new experience, but equally fun to get into. With most of their titles holding real-time combat, HoYoverse has years of experience behind crafting enjoyable and heart-racing combat gameplay.

Game Characters

ZZZ currently has 14 playable agents, evenly split between S-Rank and A-Rank. A handful of A-Rank agents can be obtained by playing through the story and hitting certain in-game goals. As one of HoYoverse’s games outside of the Honkai franchise, all characters in ZZZ are original, but it might not be surprising to see some familiar faces from other HoYoverse games like Genshin Impact.

After clearing the starting commissions, players are provided with starter characters, namely the Cunning Hare trio introduced in the first story: Anby (Electric-Slash), Billy (Physical-Pierce), and Nicole (Ether-Strike). Just like HoYoverse’s other RPGs, players can level and upgrade agents with various EXP materials, and promote them to the next level cap every 10 levels. Skill levels can also be raised with the appropriate skill materials, which currently can be bought from Convenience Stall 141.

Of course, there’s no escaping the gacha system in a HoYoverse game, and  agents are obtainable through pulling on the standard and event-exclusive Signal Search banners using Films. For first-timers, an S-Rank is guaranteed after 50 pulls on the standard banner, after which the pity – a mechanic that promises a high-rarity item after a certain number of unsuccessful attempts – is increased to 90 pulls. Players can exchange Residual Signals gathered from pulls to exchange for more Films or agents in the 24-Hour Signal Shop.

Currently, it’s relatively easy for players to gather enough standard banner pulls to hit S-Rank pity through progressing the story, so players who do not wish to spend can still obtain agents rather easily.

Players can also pull W-Engines, a wearable core that gives agents additional stats and passives, and Bangboos from the gacha. For players of Genshin Impact and Honkai: Star Rail, W-Engines function similarly to weapons and Light Cones respectively. Duplicates of W-Engines and Bangboos will be converted into cores that can be used to ”update” a W-Engine or Bangboo of the same type, increasing their basic stats up to four times.

As a whole, the character designs are different enough to stand on their own, with each reflecting their distinct personalities. For example, Billy pulls off a loud red and black look that accompanies his energetic and simple-minded lines, while Corin has a cutesy but dangerous looking maid outfit, contrasting her shyness with her big timber saw weapon. ZZZ crafts both the individual personalities and found family dynamics of each faction so well too, it’s difficult not to get attracted to the characters through the story.

Their personalities also translate well into their skillset, like simple Billy who rapidly and wildly fires his gun flashily or scared Corin who uses her giant chainsaw-like weapon to slowly, but strongly slash and grind through enemies. As mentioned earlier, each attack type has different strengths, and lends its own unique feel to the combat experience.

At least in the current beta, Pierce-type attack characters feel more dynamic and fun when it comes to attacking enemies, as the auto-targeting feature generally allows for every attack to hit. While A and S-ranked agents all have their share of fun, the S-ranked characters give more flexibility in teams and higher damage output. This comes especially for Ellen, the limited banner character, who is fast paced, has a good damage output and brings a few different ways of attacking, offering a lot of fun playing. ZZZ has once again proven Hoyoverse’s ability to create extremely well-built and fun to play characters. 

Other Gameplay Features

Completing commissions in the Hollows or gathering materials in the VR Testing Machine always requires the usage of Battery Charge. One Battery Charge regenerates once every six minutes, and players can hold up to 180. 

Commissions in Hollows and combat takes up most of ZZZ’s gameplay, but there are various other aspects for players to uncover and have fun with. Side commissions range from light-hearted to heavier stories, unveiling additional layers of the game’s narrative landscape. 

Just as Honkai: Star Rail has integrated various game modes such as the Simulated Universe and Forgotten Hall, ZZZ introduces Rally Commissions and Hollow Zero, rewarding players as they conquer stages of different difficulties. Rally Commissions are combat-only modes that can also serve as gameplay tutorials. As players’ Inter-Knot Level increases, more difficulties will be unlocked, and more rewards will be given. Mini Cargo Trucks can also be found within which can be opened for bonus rewards.

Hollow Zero strikes some similarities to Honkai: Star Rail’s Simulated Universe, where players explore multiple floors to a Hollow through the 2D platformer board and gain multiple buffs named Resonias along the way. Only one agent can enter the Hollow at the start, and more agents can enter the team as you progress. There are currently four increasing levels of difficulty: Edge, Interior, Heartland, and Core, each with more floors to explore than the last. 

After gathering four or eight Resonias, there will be an extra advanced Resonium generated that grants extra buffs. Clearing Hollow Zero stages rewards players with various items, including upgrade materials and Films.

If you need something fresh from Hollow explorations or combat, you can head to arcade stall Godfinger to play retro minigames. Currently there are only two: Snake Duel, battling to be the longest snake, and Soul Hounds III, which involves clearing blocks as a mini dog while avoiding collapsing blocks above. Here’s a quick tip – complete the achievements, and you’ll get Films. 

As a fun daily tidbit, players can also test their luck in a lucky draw scratch ticket at Howl’s News Stand, which gives players Dennies or Films.

Final Verdict

Zenless Zone Zero puts forward polished visuals, combat animations, cutscenes and music that are unquestionably a cut above the rest. However, at least in the beta test, the first few hours of gameplay had more 2D grid minigames than combat, which despite the interesting variety of puzzles, made the experience a bit flat at the start due to its predictability. 

Yet as more content is unlocked as players level up, ZZZ starts to delve into deeper, multifaceted gameplay. The game’s addictive combat becomes more prominent, and strategy and observation will become key in challenging end-game content. Even its later-stage 2D grid minigames are more thought-provoking and fun, which changed our initial perspective of that puzzle concept being dull.

As the upcoming game is currently still in a closed beta testing phase, there’s much to anticipate in seeing how HoYoverse goes forward for the official release of the game, which is currently set for this year across PC, mobile and consoles.