Genshin Impact’s First Full Year: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

Genshin Impact’s First Full Year: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly
Image: miHoYo

It’s been a little over a year since miHoYo launched Genshin Impact, and in that time the game proved that it wasn’t a one-off fluke (or a Breath of the Wild clone). The developers continued to add new characters, features, seasonal events, and regional updates. Many of the new updates centered around the Japan-inspired Inazuma region, while seasonal events helped to keep the game fresh for players who stuck around for the long haul. Fan creators and community members were also an integral part of keeping Genshin relevant, though not always for the better.

While the pandemic slowed development on other games, Genshin was releasing steady updates every three to four weeks. Unlike other AAA studios, miHoYo had previous experience developing other live-service games, like Honkai Impact. Seasonal events launched with no major delay despite the massive addition of the Inazuma region. And neither did miHoYo neglect the older regions that helped popularise the game, with the city-states of Mondstadt and Liyue receiving periodic events and new playable characters such as Rosaria, Eula, Shenhe, and Yun Jin.

The content in the Inazuma region is solid, but the stakes for miHoYo are no longer about simply producing a good game; they’re about living up to a massive fanbase’s expectations. I spent less than a hundred dollars on Genshin this year. Some players spent significantly more, others spent nothing. The storytelling keeps a significant number of players coming back. Sometimes players are brought back by changes in the meta, or new interesting characters to play. And miHoYo has to satisfy all of these playerbases at once. Did it work?

The answer is complicated. I myself was satisfied with most of the changes and additions, but I could feel the tension between “keeping fun challenges seasonal to ensure that players have a reason to return to the game” and “improving the quality of life for the entire playerbase.” And neither are players merely passive consumers. They had a lot of opinions this year about how Genshin should be run, and certainly weren’t quiet about it.

Here’s my roundup of everything you need to know about the year that was in Genshin Impact:

The Good

A whole new explorable region

The defining Genshin update of 2021 came in July, when patch 2.0 added the sprawling new Inazuma region Aalong with tons of new characters, quests, puzzles, furniture, foods, and a banging soundtrack. The Japanese aesthetics and themes were well-received, with even Japanese players praising Inazuma for its accuracy. In addition to some truly tear-jerking side-quests, the islands are filled with fascinating puzzles that are meant for a bigger brain than mine.

Screenshot: miHoYo / Kotaku Screenshot: miHoYo / Kotaku

A housing system

You’ll never have to queue up to get a house in Genshin Impact (I’m so sorry, FFXIV players). Under the Serenitea housing system introduced in late April, every player has their own little pocket dimension to decorate as they see fit.

Of course, this also meant that players had to learn a whole new crafting system. While I initially found the resource hunt a little bit annoying, I started to appreciate older regions more because of it. Some furniture pieces required different types of wood, which meant that I had to keep an eye out for specific trees if I wanted to complete my IKEA collection. I started to feel a sense of anticipation when I realised that I could farm Cuihua wood from fruit trees that I previously ignored, breathing new life into old areas.

And with every update the developers continued to make new additions to Serenitea. Players can now garden, create obstacle courses, and collect new furniture with every major update. Some crafty players even figured out how to use a special glitch to create massive constructs like these dinosaurs.

Events became less grindy

This fall’s Moonchase Festival was just ok, but I appreciated that I wasn’t grinding the event constantly like in most gacha games. I just finished a couple of quests every few days, then logged off. The subsequent Shadows Amidst Snowstorms and Bantan Sango Case Files events followed a similar pattern. In contrast, I didn’t finish some older quests because of their grindiness, and I’m still annoyed about it.

Gacha-style games are designed to maximise the amount of time that you spend in-game. Login streak rewards are common, and players can be very particular about not missing a single day. In contrast, newer Genshin events no longer demand consecutive logins or endless event shop grinding. Rather than trying to monopolize our time, miHoYo diverged from conventional gacha design wisdom to prevent player burnout. I’m hoping that other gacha games (and live-service titles in general) will take note of Genshin’s success and follow suit.

The meta expanded to accommodate defence and healing

Until relatively recently, the Genshin meta was dominated by high-attack and high-critical DPS characters. Some players did build their characters around elemental reactions other than the powerful vape effect, but the general strategy for endgame content was still “frequently hitting with big numbers.” The developers attempted to mitigate that by introducing Sangonomiya Kokomi. Despite the controversy of her no-crit playstyle, her addition marked the beginning of a new healing meta. An increasing prevalence of shield-ignoring enemies made healers a much more desirable addition to DPS-heavy rosters.

The DPS Barbara meta is here. (Image: miHoYo / Kotaku) The DPS Barbara meta is here. (Image: miHoYo / Kotaku)

New Inazuma characters such as Arataki Itto and Gorou scale off of defence, and a free Albedo-themed sword helped make that character’s defensive playstyle viable. Inazuma also introduced new defence and healing items that boosted DPS numbers. All of these small tweaks revitalized support characters who were becoming powercrept over time.

The community is vibrant with fan-made content

While miHoYo has always conducted fanart contests and other creation-based events, the announcement of its official fan merchandising policy in May was a watershed moment for Genshin fan artists. According to the policy, creators would be able to create commercial fan merchandise without worrying about copyright infringement or lawsuits, which isn’t the situation with most other licensed properties. This led to the creation of even more elaborate fan merchandise, such as cardigans, jewellery, and even condoms. Genshin got free marketing off its large community, and artists could legally receive compensation for their work. As of this fall, these protections extended to fanfiction writers, too. After years of watching fan creators tiptoe around corporate lawyers, it’s been really neat to see the owner of a major IP proactively extend legal protections to its creator community.

The Bad

Artefact farming still sucks

After miHoYo took so many steps to reduce event grinding, I was hoping that it would also put out some kind of system to alleviate our equipment drop-rate pain. Alas, the grind to improve our characters’ stats is still as brutal as ever. It’s just not right that I can spend a week grinding and not obtain a single decent equipment piece for my main DPS.

I see you, Xiao and Venti mains. (Screenshot: miHoYo / Kotaku) I see you, Xiao and Venti mains. (Screenshot: miHoYo / Kotaku)

Frustratingly enough, there aren’t any mechanics for ensuring certain artifacts appear, like you can with certain character and weapon pulls. There’s an artefact exchange system, but it’s only available for four artefact sets out of 20. Oh, and you’re still at the RNG’s mercy for which specific piece you get. Whether you’re purely free-to-play or someone who spends hundreds of dollars in Genshin, we’re all bound by the same terrible drop rates. At least I have one thing in common with the whales and content creators who can afford to guarantee every character.

The Inazuma storyline didn’t live up to the hype

I still mourn the terrifying villain that the Raiden Shogun could have been, or the brilliant general that Sangonomiya Kokomi never was. The side-quests teased a larger guerrilla war that played out offscreen, but the drama of the main quest felt too safe. The quality of the animated cutscenes was better than ever, but they didn’t stay with me the way that the final battle against the resurrected sea god Osial did. Narrative stakes were established in the first half, and then carelessly discarded in the second. The electro archon should have been held accountable for her actions in some way. Instead of foreshadowing underlying tensions or resolving the antagonist’s mistakes, the plot seems to have swept an entire war under the rug.

Seasonal story quests and side content prove that Genshin is capable of hard-hitting emotional stakes. It just needs to commit to its own ideas.

There’s still no permanent endgame for players who don’t want to play Spiral Abyss

The Spiral Abyss is a challenge mode in which players clear rooms within a set amount of time, which just makes it a hard DPS check. Clearing levels was partially about strategy, but it was mostly about how much time you’ve invested in building up your characters, which is sort of boring for those of us who are more interested in skill-based challenges. Genshin needs a sweet spot between “casual enjoyer” and “minmaxing masochist.”

Image: miHoYo Image: miHoYo

Labyrinth Warriors could have been it, if only it weren’t a seasonal event. This a roguelike challenge mode, introduced in the fall, presented the player with procedurally generated rooms in which they sought randomised power-ups and avoided environmental hazards. Food items weren’t permitted, so you had to manage health carefully or bring your own healers. These challenge rooms presented more difficulty than the main storyline while being less punishing than the endgame Spiral Abyss mode. As someone who has a lot of half-built characters, I was happy to have a challenge that tested gameplay ability more than grind dedication.

Unfortunately, it was only available for a short period of time. And so I continue to build my characters in hopes that my teams will be buff enough for the latest Spiral Abyss floors.

The Ugly

Genshin is like any other gaming community. Most of the players are casual fans who don’t spend time arguing about characters online (thank god for that). But for the dedicated gamers who do, there was plenty of drama that would send Genshin topics trending for hours, if not days. A few of the most high-profile controversies included…

Anniversary rewards

Egged on by content creators and general malaise, the Genshin community was upset when it realised that the free rewards for the game’s anniversary were much less than anticipated. Complaints flooded the official forums and subreddit, leading to platform-wide bans on any complaints about the anniversary rewards. The discontent was so bad that the players started review-bombing other games to complain about the percieved stinginess of Genshin’s anniversary rewards. Not even Google Classroom was spared. A set of premium wings and additional primogem currency was distributed to players in an effort to stem the anger, and they seem to be sated…for now.

The Elon Musk collaboration that never was

In a bizarre twist that I can confidently say nobody saw coming, the English Genshin Impact Twitter account attempted to gain more followers for a fan content account by claiming to collaborate with Elon Musk. The community outcry was so negative that miHoYo deleted the tweet a few hours later. Many fans felt that the supposed Musk collaboration demonstrated that miHoYo didn’t truly understand its community, as plenty of fans hate Musk for justifiable reasons.

The leaker’s hunt decree

The crackdown on Genshin leakers continued throughout 2021, with miHoYo continuing to enforce legal crackdowns on dataminers and beta test leakers. Despite all of its efforts, unreleased game content continued to proliferate throughout social media up to several weeks before its official release. Possibly as a response to the leaks, miHoYo started to tease its new characters weeks in advance, starting with the highly-anticipated Arataki Itto.

Looking to the future of Genshin Impact

Despite everything that’s happened over the past year, I’m optimistic about the developers’ willingness to support older content while creating new worlds. There’ve been tons of tiny, barely noticeable tweaks that didn’t make it into the official patch notes, and I expect more to follow in the future.

We got housing, y’all. We got a whole fishing system. We got minigames that might not have looked like a fit for an open-world game at first glance. Yeah, I’m excited to try pulling for Shenhe. I’m psyched that the Theatre Mechanicus minigame will probably be returning for the second year of Lantern Rite. But what I’m the most excited about are the future additions that I didn’t know I wanted. Genshin is a game that can trend over a single leaked image or an offscreen voiceline (looking at you, Kamisato Ayato). Anticipation is half of the experience of being a Genshin player, and we’ve got plenty of crumbs to follow.

Screenshot: miHoYo / YouTube / Kotaku Screenshot: miHoYo / YouTube / Kotaku

Anyone who’s played to the end of the Inazuma chapter knows that we’ll be exploring the new Sumeru region soon, and I’m a little nervous about the fact that a nation based on Southwest Asia, South Asia, and North Africa has only shown us light-skinned NPCs so far. I hope that’s something that they’ll end up addressing in future updates, especially since colorism is a problem that has already been widely discussed in the Genshin community. But I’ve seen what happens when a community gets heated over unreleased content. Sumeru could be really good. It could also be devastatingly bad. But none of us will know until version 3.0 arrives, likely sometime next year.

While most AAA studios are struggling with developing games during the pandemic, miHoYo has already got the live-service schedules figured out. And so far, all the questions presented in the launch preview have been answered in the main questline. The community can anticipate teased content for months because of miHoYo’s consistency in delivering content that meets or exceeds its expectations.

While miHoYo committed a few missteps in Inazuma’s execution, it continued to set the bar higher for Genshin with every major update. The game’s had a tremendously successful first full year, so the Genshin excitement isn’t likely to subside anytime soon.

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