Sunday, May 9, 2021

Who's Running The Show?

Last October I stopped playing Genshin Impact. It happened very suddenly. One day I was logging in each evening to knock out a set of commissions for the Adventurers' Guild and the next night I wasn't. I didn't have any intention to stop but it wasn't entirely unexpected. 

There's a great deal about Genshin Impact I like. Of all the mmorpgs I've ever played it may be the one most suited to the explorer archetype. Anything you can see you can climb, from the rooftops in the cities to the highest peaks in the far-off mountain ranges. When you do, there's almost always something interesting waiting to be discovered.

Visually, it's stunning, filled with exotic, picturesque scenery, populated by curious and intriguing creatures. The sense of a working world is magnificently present. There are people everywhere, most of them doing likely things. When you talk to them, which you usually can, they have stories you want to hear. The dialog is well-written, perfectly translated, a pleasure to read.

In many ways it would just about be my perfect game if it wasn't for a few technicalities... like the entire combat system, the complete lack of anything recogniseable as a player character and the near-total absence of any kind of any customization options. 

All of these issues are connected. Combat consists of the player controlling a team of four NPCs. Strategy comes from choosing which four, from a pool of however many you've managed to collect. The idea is to build a team with synergies, switching members in and out for specific battles. Tactics come from rapidly cycling between the four team members as you fight, allowing the abilities of one to affect those of another, creating powerful, destructive effects.

In other words, it requires studying a lot of technical information before you make your selection, committing the relevant details to memory and having sufficient dexterity to manipulate the controls efficiently in real time. I can barely do it at all and even when I can I don't enjoy it.

It's interesting. A few years back I would have put it down to a general dislike of "action" rpg combat but that would have been before I had much experience of such systems. Now, I can genuinely say I've played a lot of them and put in plenty of hours. They're by no means all the same and I can tell the difference between them. By no means do I hate them all. Some I actually enjoy.

The best I've encountered so far is probably Valheim. Combat there feels completely natural, fluid and intuitive. Constant movement is essential but also instinctive. I never have to think about moving - I just move. Fights are short, visceral, frequently exhillarating. Everything feels right.

Dragon Nest has the fastest, most explosive action combat I've tried. It's a sugar rush of a game and my affection for it comes in no small part from the sheer fun I have, blowing up goblins with my big gun and whacking trolls with my oversized wrench. It can feel intense, even overwhelming, but always in a good way.

Black Desert Online is excellent, too. Again it's very fast and fluid, the main difference being your character tends to feel very powerful while the opponents feel much weaker. The risk comes from attrition. You may be stronger but you seem to have an infinite number of enemies. Fights can go on for a long, long time and you will be worn down.

So, it's not action combat per se that I don't get on with. Not any more. It's GI's implementation. It's too abstract. Impersonal, even. I don't like playing four characters to begin with and constantly swapping between them makes it worse. I don't like treating them as if they were weapons or spells or attacks. It feels wrong.

It would almost certainly feel better if one of the characters was definitely me and the other three were NPCs supporting my character, the way a smilar set-up worked in Guild Wars. That would still leave the technical challenge (I am not good at hitting the right keys at the pace the game requires) but psychologically it would make an enormous difference.

The problem is compounded by the way the game is set up at the start. There's a very traditional opening with lengthy cut-scenes and exposition, during which it's firmly established that the character you control is the center of a storyline that's going to form the backbone of the narrative. That continues at least as far as I've played but the character in question long ago ceased to be a first choice for any of the four slots in the mission team. The plot is all about her but she isn't even on the team.

Except she is. One of the reasons I struggle with the fighting more and more is because I still feel the Traveler character is my character. She has to be in the team and what's more she really needs to be the center of it, the lead character, the one who is active and visible most of the time. And that's a big problem.

When I say combat consists of a team of four, it's actually a team of one plus three. Only one of the team can ever be on screen at a time. The buffs and conditions they create persist for the next character to take advantage of but once each has done their part they vanish, back to the bench until called on again. 

My main DPS is Diloc. He does a shedload more damage than the Traveler. He does more damage than anyone I've collected so far. He should get the maximum uptime. There are several problems with that. One is I play him badly and he dies a lot. Another is he's not my character. The third is I just don't like him.

All of these issues come together to make combat in Genshin Impact a lot less fun than it should be. It's also the combat system that means there's no character customization. When both the mechanics and the monetization rely heavily on selling people new characters (or, more accurately, selling them very small percentage chances of getting the characters they want) there's no incentive to get players attached to any of them.

Actually, that's bollocks, isn't it? If there were dozens of different costumes for each and every character, don't you think people would be throwing money at the developers? Even if the costumes used the same low percentage lootbox system as the characters? Even if each set of clothes only fit one character and that character was inevitably going to be superceded by another in due course and everyone knew it? Of course they would. They missed a trick there.

All of that contributed to my slipping away from the game but not really as much as you'd think. Most of it I was able to put to one side, then. It's only at the front of my thoughts now because of what I learned when I came back. 

I've been meaning to come back for a while. I see images from the game every day because I have the screenshot folder set as the source of my desktop backgrounds. It's a constant reminder that I never intended to stop playing for good.

The reason I finally did something about it was the addition of housing to the game. I thought it would be great fun to come back, get a house (a teapot), see how it worked, get a few blog posts out of it. It was a good plan It still is, only there's one problem.

You have to be Adventure Level 35 to access the housing system. I'm Adventure Level 22. 

When I was playing last year, I was deliberately avoiding most content that raised my adventure level. I had two reasons for that. Fistly, to advance beyond AR25 you have to defeat a boss in an instance. It's a challenging fight and for the reasons outlined above I had no great enthusiasm for doing it. 

Secondly, when your Adventure Level goes up, as it reaches certain markers, the World Level goes up too. When the WL increments, all combat becomes harder. Since I already find at-level fights challenging the idea of making them more difficult does not appeal.

And that was fine. I was quite happy pottering around, exploring and fighting lower-level mobs. There was still a huge amount left to discover when I stopped playing and my plan was to come back and see it all at my own leisurely pace. 

The AR35 housing gate makes that choice problematic. If I want a teapot of my own I'll have to level up. Which I can do. I just won't enjoy it much.

It will mean having to read up on how teams should be built. I'll have to work out what my best options are with the characters I have, then I'll have to go through the lengthy process of upgrading their weapons and accessories and also of leveling them up, because all characters have Character Levels that use an entirely separate system from the player's Adventure Level.

Once I have a balanced team of appropriate level with decent gear, then I have to learn how to play them. That's the hard part. 

It's all very doable. It just means playing a good deal more Genshin Impact than I imagined I was going to and taking it a lot more seriously. That seems like a lot of effort just so I can find out for myself if the housing is any good. Especially if it turns out it's not.

I'm going to have to think about it. One good thing is that Adventure Level is raised by doing a lot of non-combat stuff. Particularly exploring. I can work on that part without having to bother too much about fighting. Except for the big bump in the road at twenty-five, when I won't be able to gain any more Adventure xp without winning that boss fight.

My adventure level is currently twenty-two so I have a little while to think about it. Adventure xp seems to come quite slowly, the way I'm playing. It might be a couple of weeks. By then I'll most likely have made up my mind. 

Maybe I'll even have learned how to fight by then. That might make the decision a bit easier.


  1. My post about the teapot is in the making, maybe that'll help you decide whether it's worth the hassle. In short, I like it quite a lot, but it isn't without its downsides.

    Tbh, I didn't really think about it when I read the patchnotes, but that AR 35 restriction is really stupid indeed. I think I know why they did it though: the currency you get by interacting with the housing system can also be used to buy gameplay stuff like resin, artifact XP and so on, and they probably don't want "low" level players to have access to those. I think they should not have done that at all, but that's how it is.

    I'm afraid the adventure rank stepping stone domains are solo-only, but in case I'm wrong and you're on EU I'd be happy to help you with those (or anything else).

    1. I look forward to your teapot report. Thanks for the offer but unfortunately the instances are solo - I remember that from the first time I was playing and I'm on the NA servers, anyway. It's a strange design choice for an mmo, I always think, when progression is tied to solo instances. It put a halt to my progress in The Secret World, a long time ago. It seems to run counter to the entire reason for making a game an mmo in the first place but it's not uncommon.

  2. Combat is easy in this game. Problem is that you need to level character talents and artifacts and weapons at some point to do decent damage. This game punishes random experimentation because resources are throttled hard in order to encourage spending. So you need to research the right items etc so that you do not waste your meagre xp items and resin. It feels like a game version of budgeting my monthly expenses and it is extremely tedious. I dropped it because of this months ago.

    Also, you can manually choose to scale your world difficulty back down. You also do not need to do the ascension quest at level 25 to keep earning xp. It gets stored and whenever you do the quest, your level gets boosted up to where it should be. So you can ignore these until you feel you are ready.

    Glamours are apparently coming so they will be making even more money than they are now. Apparently this game is top 3 on spend globally.

    1. Thanks! Some very helpful info there. That's great news about the adventure xp being banked not lost.

      I'd already figured out the way to handle this is overgearing and overlevelling, just as it is in many mmorpgs so my plan was to pick a team and then level and gear them up well above the recommended level. I wasn't aware the choice of talents and gear was so specific, though, nor that the flow of items to feed progression was so restricted. I'm going to have to read up on that.

      I was reading about the option to drop world level. It doesn't start until you hit WL5 and then you can only reduce it by 1 which doesn't sound like all that big a deal. At AR35, though, which is as far as I need to go, I'll only be at WL4 so the option won't even be available.

      The real question isn't what to do, though, but whether it's going to be worth the effort. If it wasn't for the addition of housing I'd very much have been happy to wander about in the lower level content indefinitely. Housing is a big draw for me, though, so I'm minded to put in the work for it.

      The glamors news makes perfect sense. I assume housing also comes with options to spend money. I'm happy with all of that provided there's a subset of both features available in-game as well.

    2. Unfortunately overlevelling and overgearing isn't really an option at the point you're at because your current AR also sets hard caps for your character, talent and weapon levels.

      If it's any solace though, the increase in monster levels diminishes with every new world level bracket, and getting to a point where combat in the open world feels almost as easy as it did at world level 1 is indeed possible.

  3. I am not a big MMO player ( I touched 3 of them and only played GW2 for real) but I was surprised how few I was attracted to this game after all the glowing review at launch (exploration, nice paysage, fun action combat).
    I think you nailed a big part of it : I strongly dislike the fact of switching personage, and the upgrade process is a nightmare. I felt totally disconnected from my character and from the world. And I am used with either a weak personality for a personage I create, or a strong personality for a character imposed to me. A bland main character that I cannot customise ? And that is then switched out for another bland character ? Nope, not for me.

    1. I keep referring to Genshin Impact as an mmorpg because it really feels like one to me but it's actually a single player open world rpg with optional co-op. I get so convinced I'm playing an mmo I 'm sometimes convinced I'm seeing other players but it's just the many NPCs that make the world feel alive.

      None of that makes the design choices any more palatable, though. Even in single-player rpgs where you play a preset character it's almost always clear who the protagonist is. In GI it could literally be anyone.


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