With its gacha behemoths ticking away in the background, Hoyoverse is throwing focus on a bold new experiment. Zenless Zone Zero is an action-RPG with life simulator elements and an urban fantasy setting. Instead of gliding through lush biomes or riding intergalactic space trains, its characters eat konbini food in front of billboards and pose on top of street racing cars.
Set in a post-apocalyptic metropolis drenched in concrete and graffiti, genres collide in a similar manner to the Persona series. You play as a video store proprietor who lives in a city surrounded by randomly occurring disasters called Hollows, which generate pocket dimensions full of mutant creatures called Ethereals. Through a terminal in the video store (which looks like an anime Blockbuster), you act as a proxy for teams of character-action heroes that embark on graded roguelike combat challenges, called “commissions,” inside the aforementioned Hollows.
During commissions, Zenless Zone Zero is a snappy spectacle fighter with slo-mo dodges and stagger mechanics. The combat is not nearly as deep as something like Devil May Cry 5, but it felt super satisfying when I eventually got into a rhythm. Flipping between the basic attack and a generous dodge, I danced with enemies, accumulating decibels toward a noise meter that allowed me to unleash more powerful maneuvers. The most compelling part of this combat system is ZZZ’s Switch Attack: Upon staggering an enemy, you’re prompted to tag in another fighter from your team to extend the combo, refreshing the animations and available abilities in the process. The handover is unintrusive, and pulling it off consistently made me feel like a badass.
The battle environments are colorful and detailed, too. The story mission I got to play took me through a train graveyard full of decommissioned mechs and rippling tarpaulin. ZZZ’s visual novel and sometimes animatic cutscenes split up the brawling. They’re frantic and verbose, with spats of aloof comedy offsetting exposition about the curious factions that volunteer to chart the Hollows, including a housekeeping duo and a construction company.
Outside of the combat missions, you can explore the streets surrounding your video store, chatting to the quirky locals and engaging with a slew of vendors. There’s an arcade where you can play cute minigames, a record store where you buy vinyls that tune your abilities, and a stat-buffing ramen shop run by a noodle maestro with robot arms named General Chop.
ZZZ is certainly riffing on Persona, and fans will spot the similarities quickly, but I think it’s stylish enough in its own regard to beat any rip-off allegations. New Eridu is a place with a lot of personality, and even though the demo I played had just a quick taste of the downtime exploration, I was compelled by all the whimsical little details. At one point I found a cool wooden bench made of skateboards; another time, I hovered to watch a panda in a beret calmly enjoying a coffee break. A catchy Meguro-esque score provided a comforting jazz-bass soundtrack to my escapades. I found that I could talk to almost everyone in the vicinity of the VCR rental, and I appreciated the numerous dialogue choices offered. A takeout booth scolded me regarding my advocacy for pineapple on pizza. So it goes.
ZZZ’s futuristic streetwear stood out to me as an impressive study of contemporary trends, furthering them to fit this anime future in a manner evocative of Tetsuya Nomura’s work on Kingdom Hearts. Across the roster of playable characters, there’s the option to wear plenty of different layered, functional, military-inspired ensembles with an air of Acronym or Sacai about them. You can also see the long shadow cast by the Balenciaga Triple S silhouette with ZZZ’s penchant for chunky statement shoes.
It all comes together with memorable characters like Anby Demara, who whips around the battlefield with a gas-powered electric blade. The weapon designs are distinctive across the board; one character lugs a fascinating shotgun briefcase, while my favorite, a jacketed bear accountant, wields a giant girder augmented with shock absorbers.
I thoroughly enjoyed forging different trios from ZZZ’s roster in the demo’s challenge arena and exploring how unique medleys of weapons and abilities would summon satisfying nuggets of combo interplay. I started to get a feel for how blending nimble characters with heavy bruisers could provide safety nets when I found myself getting crushed by a vicious boss. Genshin Impact and Honkai: Star Rail have never appealed to me, but ZZZ has my interest piqued, and if it can stick the landing, it will likely be my first meaningful entry into the Hoyoverse when it launches.
But now I must turn to the elephant in the room, I suppose. Historically, Hoyoverse is known for making free-to-play gacha games, and in addition to not knowing the release date, I’m also not sure how ZZZ will be monetized in the long run. Given the compelling base this project is working with, I’m praying that monetization won’t be too hostile. Zenless Zone Zero’s tight combat and killer art direction demand an audience. I’m just hoping those elements will be respected come launch, and that the intricacy I enjoyed in my short time with the game won’t be diluted by the typical free-to-play life cycle.