Chinese mobile game maker miHoYo's action role-playing game Genshin Impact has spurred much lamentation and gnashing of teeth on the part of gamers who think it looks like a ripoff of Nintendo's lauded Breath of the Wild. Now that the game is out, it's safe to say that while it does look a lot like Link's latest adventure, it packs enough diverse influences under the hood to make it feel distinct and satisfying.
But there is one more similarity between Genshin Impact and Breath of the Wild that helps explain the former's appeal and shows its ambition: It plays near-flawlessly on mobile (I tested on iOS), seamlessly transitioning from the TV to the phone for a pick-up-where-you-left-off experience that mimics a Nintendo Switch without having to pay a dime up front for the hardware or the game.
It's just one more way that Genshin Impact feels like playing the future of games as the industry leans more into the games-as-a-service business model, monetizing big budget free-to-play games with battle passes and loot boxes. To put it another way: Genshin Impact is what happens when a company goes, "What if Breath of the Wild was Destiny?" It's disorienting at first and then quickly starts to make all the sense in the world. It's too soon to say what Genshin Impact's lasting impact on the industry will be, but given its immediate success, it's not hard to imagine a near future where many games look a lot like it.
Back to the mobile experience for a moment: I didn't think of Genshin Impact as a viable mobile game at first, as I picked it up on PC. It runs well and in 4K, delivering a visual experience that Breath of the Wild can't by virtue of running on the Switch. It lacked some polish, with the menus in particular, but I was impressed. Crucially, it does not seem at all like something you would even attempt to play on mobile; it is the complete package for console or PC. The graphics are great, the combat is smooth and punchy, and the world map is big.
Curious to see what miHoYo had done for the mobile version, I downloaded it for iOS and fired it up. To my surprise, I logged in and it dropped me right where I had left off on PC. And it was the full game; a full, feature-complete, open-world action RPG running on my phone.
This alone was pretty different, but what really stood out was how much more sense some of the game's design elements made on mobile, in particular those annoying menus. The game's interface is nearly the same on mobile versus desktop, but it becomes interactive. This means that to access the world map or quest log, instead of wheeling through a pop-up menu, you simply press the correct icon in the top left corner that was always there but now has a function. It feels holistically designed for desktop, console, and mobile; even the game's frenetic, character-switching combat works well on a touch screen, after an initial period of acclimation.
Genshin Impact makes me wonder where crossplay and free-to-play, relatively newly-cemented trends, will go from here. The free-to-play Call of Duty: Warzone has all but eclipsed the base game, which costs $60. Fortnite (which Genshin Impact briefly overtook on Twitch on launch day) has become so big that it's a cudgel in a fight between Epic and Apple, two world-eating corporations. I wonder what new and terrifying vistas of capitalism Genshin Impact's approach will unlock if incumbent mega-gaming-corporations like Ubisoft or Electronic Arts try to emulate its style and business model. I suspect we won't have to wait long to find out.