The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

Zhongli, Venti, Nahida, and Raiden sit together on the grass.

Image: HoYoverse / Kotaku

2022 was the year that Genshin Impact’s developer rebranded to HoYoverse to convey its ambitions for expanding its offerings to global audiences. It was also the year when players left the Japan-inspired region behind in order to explore Sumeru—a nation based on Southwest Asia, South Asia, and North Africa (SWANA).

Not all changes were warmly received. The Sumeru leaks received significant backlash for colorism, orientalism, and fetishization, but mechanical changes to exploration and resource gathering were welcome. And the new Dendro element made the combat feel exciting and new again. Which makes it an even bigger shame that not everyone can enjoy playing Genshin without reservations. I know that light-skinned folks from the SWANA region exist, but it even feels awkward to me that every city-dwelling NPC with an Arabic name is light-skinned. For a game that sells the idea of an immersive world, Sumeru kept taking me out of it.

It also sucks that we’re not getting a new endgame mode. But I find the new card game so much fun that I don’t really care. I can’t wait for more people to learn the rules so that I can squash them in Genius Invokation matches.

Here are the fun additions to the game, the grievances both new and old, and controversies that tore its community apart.

The Good

The Sumeru landscape.

Screenshot: HoYoverse / Kotaku

Sumeru transforms open world exploration

After months of burnout, the addition of a new North Africa/Southwest Asia/South Asia inspired region helped Genshin feel like a fresh open world game. I absolutely adored zipping around the forest canopies and waterfalls, which allowed me to explore more of the map than I otherwise would have. I just wish that the designers kept it up for the more recently introduced desert area, which still demands that I leg boringly plain distances.

The Dendro element revives disfavored characters

Remember how bummed the community would get whenever it was revealed that a cool new character would have thunder powers? Electro was once widely considered the worst element, and for good reason. Its reactions with other elements weren’t as powerful unless a character was built as a rare physical attacker. Its main role was to provide energy particles—but there are other ways to gain energy. Using an electro character was almost considered a waste of a party slot.

Sumeru Preview Teaser 01: The Fascinating Dendro Element | Genshin Impact

Not anymore. The new “quicken” reaction allows Electro characters to cause additional damage that scales with their “Elemental Mastery” stat. This means that Fischl is now one of the most valuable characters in the game (Yes, yes, I know about taser comp), Yae Miko becomes an absolute DPS monster, and Lisa becomes viable for the first time since Genshin launched.

I’ve always hated how certain gacha characters are more “meta” than others, and that rarely changed without some kind of numbers buff. Genshin is constantly reinventing its meta by adding new ways that powers can interact with each other, and I’m absolutely living for it.

The Japan-inspired region finally earns its tragic gravitas

Last year, I wrote that the Inazuma storyline was kinda mid, and the best stories were found in the mundane sidequests. The writing felt weak, and I worried that the developers couldn’t sustain the previous narrative quality while releasing live service updates for a new region. My concerns were quickly dispelled with the new year.

HoYoverse released an underwater sub-region with some of the creepiest lore in the game so far. The quests of Enkanomiya are full-throated about how the current rulers of Teyvat are genocidal conquerors from another world. This was heavily implied if you bothered to read the 139,847,934 tomes of in-game lore. Most people (understandably) didn’t. This subregion is technically “optional,” but I don’t think it should be.

Version 2.4 “Fleeting Colors in Flight” Trailer | Genshin Impact

None of the Enkanomiya quests are mandatory. But Genshin trusts a significant portion of its players to care about these injustices, and the rewards for following the breadcrumb trails are sublime. When I ran a dozen fetch quests for faceless NPCs, I wasn’t thinking about the premium currency that I could earn. I was thinking of the Sunchildren, ancient puppet rulers who were burned alive before adulthood. How did their story end? For all the jokes that the Genshin community is primarily motivated by primogems, we’re even more obsessive about good stories.

For those who don’t have the patience to explore all of Enkanomiya, the second part of Raiden Shogun’s storyline is much easier to digest. I liked that this arc relied more heavily on emotional beats and well-paced writing rather than flashy animations. Earlier quests had fancy special effects, but they couldn’t save the main scenario from feeling rushed and poorly constructed.

The storytelling becomes more mature

2022 is when Genshin started making NPCs more important to its central storyline than ever before. We met compelling side characters in Inazuma last year, but some of the rawest lines I’ve ever heard were from random soldiers and explorers in the spring Chasm update. And the sickly heiress we meet in the main quest scenario was the real star who outshone our overpowered heroes. Genshin isn’t the first video game to say that ordinary people are the protagonists of their own lives, but HoYoverse is committed to actually showing it.

I also wanted to give a quick shoutout to the animated cutscenes, which have been improving drastically over the past year. I’m not talking about the technical improvements, but how Genshin uses more varied camera shots to create scenes that feel like movies (rather than talking heads).

Genius Invokation TCG

Genshin’s take on Gwent has become my new favorite reason to log into the game. I love this card minigame because it never feels like I’m truly backed into a corner. The mechanics are forgiving, and the rules allow me to convert useless resources into more helpful ones. So if one of my characters falls, it feels like I actually earned that L.

Best of all, there’s no gacha component in Genius Invokation. I was worried that I would have to grind matches endlessly for booster packs, but I just have to buy individual cards straight from the shop. It’s such a welcome reprieve from yelling at my screen because I flubbed my artifact rolls again.

Genshin is getting an anime

HoYoverse is partnering with the anime studio Ufotable to produce an animated series, which is the best news to come out all fall. Ufotable has produced crowd pleaser hits such as Demon Slayer and Fate, and hey also produce animation for video games such as the Tales series. Their work is sheer wizardry, and now they’ll be animating the biggest weeb game in the world.

Genshin Impact Long-Term Project Launch: Concept Trailer | Genshin Impact

The Genshin fandom rarely agrees on anything. So it’s nice that we can get such a massive collective W like this.

The Chinese opera revival

Chinese opera is widely considered to be a dying art, yet HoYoverse chose to include it in the main quest scenario that happened around Chinese New Year. The character Yun Jun is an opera singer, her design is based on the performers’ outfits, and she has a real opera singer as her second voice actress. After the update was released, millions of people got to experience a cultural artform that they had never seen before.

Story Teaser: The Divine Damsel of Devastation | Genshin Impact

This wasn’t just an important moment for the Chinese diaspora who have had less palatable aspects of their culture maligned. It was meaningful to all the YouTube and Twitter commenters who never knew that Chinese opera could convey such profound emotion. Yun Jin’s performance didn’t just move her own audience, but people of different nationalities around the world.

The Bad

Paimon apologizes for her crimes.

Image: HoYoverse / Kotaku

Farming mats in Sumeru is awful

Everything is spaced so far apart, and the only multi-node resources are cooking ingredients. And good luck if you need any scarabs—the little bastards are almost impossible to see in the desert sand unless they’re scurrying away as you approach. Worst of all, none of the useful flowers can be grown in the housing system right now. So good luck—especially if you don’t have the premium 5 star Nahida to help you gather flowers from the cliffsides.

The conflicting quest backlog situation is getting ridiculous

It used to be that new players couldn’t access newer content until they finished enough of the main quest. Now older players are being hit by the unwieldy quest log too. If you accept certain sidequests too early, then you can be locked out of the main quest scenario.

I’d understand if there was some kind of chronology requirement, but the game is doing this solely to prevent an NPC from being in two places at once. This is incredibly silly, and I hope that the developers will get rid of it soon.

Game delays due to the coronavirus lockdowns

While other gaming companies had to push their release dates because of the pandemic, HoYoverse seemed to be the only studio that seemed delay-proof. That ended when Shanghai underwent severe lockdowns and food crises. Genshin experienced its first delay since its 2020 release at the end of April. The housing system was locked in maintenance mode, and Ayaka Kamisato had the longest gacha banner in the game’s history… but only by a period of two weeks. It seems that not even coronavirus lockdowns can stop HoYoverse’s developers for long.

HoYoverse announces that Genshin will not have endgame content

Oh boy. There’s never been any doubt that Genshin is a game catered towards casual players. But the combat is so well-designed that many meta-centric players latched on early, so they felt like they were being slapped in the face when the developers confirmed that the Spiral Abyss would be the only endgame for the foreseeable future.

The Spiral Abyss is a challenge dungeon in which players can clear four new levels every six weeks. It’s a DPS check where players try to kill all the enemies within a certain amount of time. Every time the Spiral Abyss refreshes, the fights also come with new conditions. But it’s still stuff that you can clear in a single evening, rather than an endless endgame mode.

Here’s why this is such a big deal: Some of the most competitive players have been spending large amounts of money to get extra abilities and weapons from the gacha. So there’s the feeling that HoYoverse owes them more challenge modes in which they can test their gameplay prowess. Right now, most of the studio’s development muscle has been focused on story-centric events and challenges that are catered towards players who don’t have a lot of characters. HoYoverse understands that appeasing the casual players is what gives F2P games their longevity. But it still sucks to see that a passionate section of the community is being thoroughly neglected.

The Ugly

Genshin Impact's entire light skinned cast.

Image: HoYoverse / Kotaku

Sumeru is too white

As usual, Genshin’s upcoming gacha characters leaked far ahead of their official announcements. Many people were disappointed that the Chinese RPG continued its tradition of populating the world with mostly light-skinned characters. Previous nations were based on Germany, China, and Japan, so fans expected more melanin variation from a fictional country based on North Africa, Southwest Asia, and South Asia. People also pointed out that Liyue and Inazuma were based on specific East Asian countries. It sucked that Sumeru seems to be a hodgepodge of multiple cultures and nations.

While there are dark-skinned NPCs with sympathetic backstories, the gacha characters are the “protagonists” of the game. The majority of those originating from Sumeru are light-skinned, and no canonically Black characters currently exist in the game at all. Gacha is a video game genre that sells personal attachment and sex appeal. Whether or not HoYoverse includes darker characters isn’t a matter of “wokeness” as some delightful commenters say—it’s a question of whether or not HoYoverse considers melanated skin to be desirable. So far, the answer seems to be “Sometimes, but not past a certain point.”

We knew this was coming. HoYoverse did not have a good reputation with how they portrayed darker-skinned characters even before Sumeru had been released. But a lot of players had hoped that the studio would be listening to feedback and taking the community’s feelings into account. There’s still time to fill the roster with more diverse characters, but the period of goodwill seems to have passed.

HoYoverse accused of bribing fans for votes at The Game Awards

Seasoned gacha players know that they’ll give out premium currency for almost anything. Anniversary? Here’s some gacha money. Maintenance went on too long? We have apology money. HoYoverse usually distributes some currency every time that Genshin wins an award, and the internet wasn’t happy about it. Specifically, the Sonic Frontiers fandom started to accuse HoYoverse of buying votes with in-game currency. Some even suspected the fandom of using bots to cheat in a popularity contest.

There were several reasons for this. First, Sonic Frontiers was neck-and-neck with Genshin in the polls, but it’s a single-player game that can’t use premium currency for marketing. Second, there’s the perception that the studio had already cheated by entering a game from 2020 into the running. Thirdly, it’s a common perception that most Genshin players are gambling addicts. It wasn’t just the unsubstantiated botting accusations that were ugly, but the casual ableism that gamers threw out in order to justify their hatred of Genshin. There are valid reasons to criticize companies, it’s what we do here all the time. But something has gone horribly wrong when gamers will use mental health as ammunition against a community that they know little about.

Genshin did go on to win the Player’s Vote award, and every player received enough currency for five rolls—or around $12.

A high schooler is accused of “satanism” for painting a Genshin character

Satanic panic in 2022? You read that correctly. Michigan parents bullied a teenager at a school board meeting after she painted a queer-positive mural as part of an official school contest. One of the contested images was the mask worn by the Genshin character Xiao. He’s an evil spirit hunter, so it’s more accurate to say that Xiao is the anti-Satan.

I’m not invested in defending his honor to some Republican parents, but I do think homophobia and xenophobia is shitty. Maybe worry a little more about how your kids will feel while living in a bigoted community rather than if a video game character’s mask is promoting Satanism.

Looking to the future of Genshin Impact

Sumeru’s story arc hasn’t concluded, and there are still so many remaining questions about capital Genshin nouns such as the Scarlet King, Irminsul, and the Descenders, or where Istaroth went after saving Enkanomiya from the Dragonheirs. Every year of lore updates seems to bring up far more questions than answers, so I’ll likely be trapped in this gacha hell with the rest of the community for the entire ride.

HoYoverse usually releases a major nation every year, and our next destination is the France-based region of Fontaine. This is where the god of justice resides, but I find this a little ironic. It says in the lore that she’s not willing to challenge the divine—the rulers in Celestia who have colonized this world and caused multiple genocides against its inhabitants. How could she be just if she won’t challenge the rulers who demand the world’s fealty by force? By now, I know that HoYoverse has a good answer planned. We just need to wait an entire year to find out what it is.

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