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Zenless Zone Zero review – ultracool action at a smaller scale brings miHoYo’s characters into focus

Zenless Zone Zero can’t decide if it wants to wow you with chaotic action, or let you kick back and explore its comic-book-styled urban streets. One mission could be packed with frantic dodges and chain attacks as you mow down monsters in dangerous ‘Hollow’ areas, whereas the next might be just grabbing coffee with a bud, or teaching a cute bunny-robot-thing Bangboo to play football. So instead of committing to one atmosphere, Zenless Zone Zero has doubled down on both. Spending time in its slick streets is a blast, no matter if it’s throwing combat challenges or coffee dates your way.

If Zenless Zone Zero’s fun and stylish gameplay wasn’t so distracting, its smaller scale might initially come across as a bit of a downgrade when compared to developer miHoYo’s open world in Genshin Impact, and the universe of possibilities found in Honkai: Star Rail. But it only takes one walk down the post-apocalyptic streets of New Eridu to see that a smaller area doesn’t equal a lesser experience, as the city’s subtleties have room to breathe, bringing the whole game to life. Its beautiful art style may be reminiscent of games like Persona 5, Jet Set Radio, and Hi-Fi Rush, but something relatively small that makes a notable difference are the NPCs. As far as I can tell, they all have custom designs on top of unique personalities, and they’re sometimes more lovingly crafted than the characters in your own squad. (Sorry, Grace, but your goggles just don’t compare to Enzo’s mechanical arm and fancy sunhat.)

Even the simple act of exploring feels personal, as you can only do so with your main character – Belle or Wise, depending on who you pick at the beginning. The pair are siblings who run a video rental store called Random Play, but their main gig is moonlighting as illegal Proxies – techy individuals who take on commissions from New Eridu’s denizens in need of guidance, as they traverse corrupted Hollow bubbles that could turn them into Ethereal monsters if they linger. It may sound a grim premise, but New Eridu actually has quite the cheery attitude in the face of danger. Who cares about being turned into a monster anyway when you can play Snake and Mr. Driller clones at the local arcade? Not these pop culture obsessed folks. It’s a pleasant change from the typical world-ending stakes tacked on to many anime video games, and actually being able to play these arcade games only adds to the chilled vibes of taking in the city.


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A look at Zenless Zone Zero in action.Watch on YouTube

When not exploring the graffitied alleys of Sixth Street, or checking out harbour views in Lumina Square, a typical day for you and the Random Play siblings involves raising their Inter-Knot level. This allows Belle and Wise to accept increasingly lucrative commissions in order to build their reputation back, after some bad early story decisions resulted in the loss of their previously legendary hacker account. This means there’s a lot of side commissions to sample between main story beats, broken down into three main types: city, exploration, and combat. City commissions help you to get to know New Eridu’s citizens better, tasking you with low-stakes objectives like assisting a clumsy Bangboo with its new job search, or rescuing stray cats in the back of a parking lot as you watch a teen romance unfold between two fellow rescuers. A lot of Zenless Zone Zero’s dorkiness comes from these commission types, making them a personal favourite of mine.

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Exploration commissions are where the bulk of the Hollow Deep Dive (HDD) TV mode takes place. This mode switches from the game’s usual third-person perspective to a top-down view as you take control of Eous – your Bangboo avatar – to navigate through a board made up of mini TV squares. You’re essentially slowly moving up, down, left, and right during every exploration commission, which can sometimes be just as boring as it sounds – especially during the early stages of the game where they lack much variety. Thankfully, exploration is the least common commission type, so you’re not pulled from rescuing kitties or annihilating Ethereals for long.

That said, some of my favourite missions ended up taking place in the usually sluggish HDD TV board. One standout example is a secret area I unlocked by prodding an NPC enough, which led to a lengthy TV mode maze. Here, I had to work out the most lucrative route to take in order to get enough gears to pay off a poor construction worker’s massive debts. Changing the exploration to one big puzzle, instead of another bland board where you’re essentially just moving to a target, then finding the exit, was an unexpected treat – and a tiny change in design that made a huge difference. Don’t worry, these HDD shake-ups aren’t limited to bonus modes, but they unfortunately only come more prevalent in the later stages of the game.


Billy selected on the character menu in Zenless Zone Zero.


Stylised video tape box artwork of Belle, Rina, and Corin for the Midnight Pursuit storyline.


The Bangboo selection menu in Zenless Zone Zero, highlighting Sharkboo.


Wide angle view of Lumina Square in Zenless Zone Zero.

Image credit: Eurogamer/HoYoverse

Then we have Combat and Rally commissions, where any variation of chill is thrown out the window in favour of the non-stop, over-the-top spectacle of fighting in small Hollow arenas. While the repeating dilapidated look of these glorified corridors gets old very quickly, the sublime feel of fighting Ethereals sure doesn’t. Rally commissions are basically extended combat missions, where you select a squad of up to three characters before starting. Each character has their own unique playstyle and Attribute, like Fire or Ice, but they’re also handily categorised into five archetypes to help with planning party lineups: Attack, Support, Stun, Anomaly, and Defense. All have their benefits, and mixing types will generally make fighting easier, but unless you’re challenging the highest levels of Shiyu Defense time trials or the Hollow Zero roguelike mode, you’re free to build teams however you like.

No matter who you pick, the consistently stellar feel of combat is mostly thanks to Zenless Zone Zero’s focus on timing perfect dodges, and linking chain attacks with fellow squad members – in between blasting enemies with speedy attack combos and extravagant ultimates, of course. This might sound hard to achieve on paper, but in practice, brief flashes and audio cues help dodging feel just as seamless as it looks, while a slow motion effect briefly activates to give you a moment to consider who to switch to next during a chain attack. While there’s not much of a challenge to these combat commissions initially, you do unlock a hard mode soon after clearing one for the first time, allowing those who want a deeper dive into combat to revisit and explore the secretly vast mechanics that make up each character’s kit. It’s a nice bonus for those who don’t want to wait until the endgame for challenging content, but not a necessity for casual players who just want to kick Ethereal ass and look good doing it. No matter the difficulty, it’s still satisfying to see points tick up on the corner of the screen, arcade-style, to get an S-Rank. This scoring and rank system only helps add to the already retro design present throughout the rest of Zenless Zone Zero.

Even the main story feels like it could be played in an arcade, as it’s made up of vignettes covering the adventures of one faction at a time, practically told by combining all three main commission types, with plenty of gorgeous animated cutscenes and interactive comic book strips dotted throughout too. There is an overarching plot involving Belle, Wise, and a sassy AI that teams up with them, but it doesn’t really amount to much until the end of the launch version’s story. Even then, it’s slim pickings for what it all means now, as it’s really all about the factions. You could probably play each chapter out of order and not notice a difference, but I like this anime-arc style of storytelling. It’s nice to get to know the Cunning Hares – a group of haphazard Hollow raiders – and Victoria Housekeeping – a cleaning group with suspiciously good combat skills – in equal measure. The story isn’t over yet, so maybe it will blossom into something more significant soon, but as a live service game, Zenless Zone Zero’s focus will surely be on adding more of these mini faction storylines next – which I’m looking forward to.


The Soul Hackers arcade game in Zenless Zone Zero.


The HDD TV mode in Zenless Zone Zero.


Rina using her ultimate in Zenless Zone Zero.


A comic book strip in Zenless Zone Zero showing Nicle and Anby talking.

Image credit: Eurogamer/HoYoverse

However, after an initial long run of silly antics with the Cunning Hares, future storylines are annoyingly locked behind reaching certain Inter-Knot level milestones. This requirement can even pop up when you’re in the middle of a faction’s story, forcing you to go back and complete unrelated commissions until you reach some seemingly arbitrary Inter-Knot level. The big time investment involved in these irrelevant side missions placed between each level milestone is poorly positioned in relation to the story. As Zenless Zone Zero is a live-service game with years of updates yet to come, this will eventually stop being a problem – you’ll be the required Inter-Knot level for future story updates soon enough. But at launch, and for latecomers arriving to New Eridu, it slows the beginning of Zenless Zone Zero to an unbearable pace at times. So if you’re just dipping your toes in to check out the main story – sorry, better get used to mashing that skip button during commissions.

One bonus mission type you won’t want to skip, however, are Trust events. Very similar to Social Links in Persona, Trust events and activities let you simply hang out with your friends. Bummed out that Anby hasn’t appeared in the story for a while? Well, she’s just one text away from sharing a burger and spilling secrets about the Cunning Hares’ lack of funds. Or, you could go to that popular hotpot restaurant with officer Zhu Yuan and impress her with your ability to stand in line for two hours, or maybe you want to call the overexcitable android Billy over to school at the arcade. There’s a huge focus on individual characters in all of miHoYo’s games, but the developer has never gone this far with letting you get involved with their everyday lives. These Trust events aren’t revolutionary additions, but along with spectacular voice acting, unique character looks, and faction-specific tales, characters are yet another thing Zenless Zone Zero has had the time to really hone in on, thanks to its smaller scale.

Characters are so charming, you might even be tempted to pay for them… because yes, Zenless Zone Zero is another gacha game from miHoYo. If this has been a deterrent to trying their previous games, you’re not going to find any significant alterations to the system that change your mind here. You can still earn the currency needed to pull on Banners from just playing the game, but the option to throw ridiculous sums of money in lieu of your time to get characters instantly is also still available.


Clearing a stage in Zenless Zone Zero as Ellen, with 'Wipeout' displayed in stylised yellow writing.


Nicole fighting in Zenless Zone Zero with time slowed down and a switch bar showing Lycaon and Ellen character options.

Image credit: Eurogamer/HoYoverse

Another miHoYo holdover that my sanity refuses to seriously engage with is the developer’s signature gear system, called Disk Drives in Zenless Zone Zero. These Diablo-like pieces form set bonuses when enough of the same type are equipped on a character, and the time sink everybody dreads from them is the process of spending daily energy (Battery Charge) to try and roll good stats on them. My advice, as always, is to get a good main stat if you care about clearing endgame combat content, then blissfully ignore farming Disk Drives until the next shiny new character takes your fancy. Thankfully, from my experience, gacha and gear farming can almost be ignored in Zenless Zone Zero if you don’t want to engage with the mid-to-high levels of endgame challenges, thanks in part to trial characters and a casual difficulty toggle available in the story. You’re free to enjoy the Cunning Hares’ shenanigans, hang out with your pals, and feel ridiculously cool slicing through waves of enemies – no matter how crummy your loadout is.

There’s a deceptive depth to Zenless Zone Zero, even with its smaller scale, thanks to this dual focus on pleasing both casual players and those looking for a deeper challenge, mirroring its dedication to both chilled exploration and fast-paced combat. Instead of feeling like a game warring with itself, however, these wildly different vibes weave together to make Zenless Zone Zero what it really is: a successful fusion of ultracool action with slice-of-life goofiness.

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