Zenless Zone Zero preview – bangin’ battles and bodacious bangboo

Hoyoverse has really been knocking it out of the park lately, and it doesn’t show any signs of stopping. In fact, less than a year since the now-award-winning Honkai Star Rail invited us on an interstellar journey, we’re embarking on a new adventure in this Zenless Zone Zero preview.

Zenless Zone Zero is a little different than its predecessors. It’s an urban ARPG with roguelike mechanics, in which you take control of one of the two Zenless Zone Zero Proxies (either Belle or Wise). The game is set in the near future, taking place in a post-apocalyptic world that has been taken over by hostile alternate dimensions known as Hollows.

These Hollows act as portals, through which powerful entities known as Ethereals have traveled into the human realm, wreaking havoc and wiping out most of humanity. However, a group of resourceful survivors managed to fight back by extracting Ethereal technology and resources, forming a bastion against the invaders in the form of the last standing metropolis, New Eridu.

As a Proxy, it’s your job to help your clients explore the Hollows, gathering new allies to fight the Ethereals and push back against this colossal threat. But your work isn’t exactly safe or legal. Luckily, Belle and Wise aren’t new to this – they run a video store called Random Play as a cover for their operations, work under pseudonyms on the interknot, and are very careful about what clients and commissions they take on.

There are plenty more twists, turns, and nuances to the world that envelops this game, but I feel this brief overview is about as deep as I can go without spoiling much for you. Just know that, while it’s clearly still in its early days, the steep lore and intricate worldbuilding are just as stellar as you’d expect from a Hoyoverse game. And, of course, there are plenty of goofy jokes and heartwarming moments to make you fall in love with your new friends.

The gameplay is split into two main sections. The first is set on Sixth Street in New Eridu, where Belle and Wise live. Here you can find a variety of stores to visit and people to interact with. These include Enzo’s Remodelling Shop, where you can upgrade your Bangboo, The Bardic Needle, where you can exchange materials for disk drives (ZZZ’s version of Genshin Impact’s artifacts or Honkai Star Rail’s relics), and both Coff Cafe and Waterfall Soup, where you can eat and drink to gain extra battle buffs.

Sixth Street is also home to the Godfinger arcade, in which you can play different arcade minigames. Currently, we only have access to Soul Hounds III, a game where you play as a cute, dog-like critter digging through blocks, and Snake Duel, which is essentially a fancy way to play Snake. There’s also Snake Duel: Clash, where you can occasionally play alongside Zenless Zone Zero’s Billy against two other NPCs. During the beta, there were also two Zenless Zone Zero events which allowed you to compete against other players in both Soul Hounds III and Snake Duel: Clash.

I really enjoy both of these games – they’re very well made renditions of arcade classics that you’ve likely played in some form before, and I have easily spent far too much time trying to beat my high score in them. Once again, it shows a lovely level of attention to detail and worldbuilding, and I really hope to see a few more games appear in Godfinger after the full Zenless Zone Zero release date.

Zenless Zone Zero preview - a screenshot of the Godfinger arcade screen

On top of that, Sixth Street allows you to travel to other locations through a few different means (by car, a fast travel option in the menu, etc). During the second beta, we only had access to Brant Street Construction Site (a location where Belobog Heavy Industries is working), and Battle Twins Road (which appears to be tied to Victoria Housekeeping, though the main story content ends shortly after you unlock this location).

There appears to be a further three locations in the works, noted by question mark icons in the travel menu, but we don’t have any real hints as to what these areas are yet. I presume they’ll be related to the other factions the Zenless Zone Zero characters are associated with.

I will say that, while charming and well-designed, all of the areas so far are pretty small and restricted. I really like the vibe, and enjoy chatting with the characters that wander around, but I would’ve loved to see a more fleshed-out metropolis like those in the Persona games or Master Detective Archives: Rain Code. Even the upcoming One Punch Man: World has a bit more room to stretch your legs. I was never expecting Zenless Zone Zero to be an open-world game of course, but it would be nice to have slightly larger maps and a bit more to explore, as these small locations get quite samey after a while.

Finally, Sixth Street is also home to the aforementioned Random Play, Belle and Wise’s home and base of operations. The front part of the building is a video rental store. This is, of course, Belle and Wise’s cover job, and you need to keep it running in order to avoid suspicion from the authorities. This relies on you working with the adorable Bangboo 18 and several other film enthusiasts like Zenless Zone Zero’s Anby who volunteer to help out, as you promote tapes from the hottest genres and open for business each day.

Zenless Zone Zero preview - a screenshot of the Random Play video store management screen

It’s a pretty simple feature, but I actually quite enjoy it, as it offers more worldbuilding and is an easy way to make extra in-game cash. I also very much enjoy browsing through the tapes to see their art and synopsis, as you can tell that Hoyoverse put a lot of care into these elements.

The back of Random Play is where the real magic happens. It’s a cozy little office that almost looks like a combination of security and staff room, but it’s not only where Belle and Wise chill out and take naps, it’s also where they run their Proxy business.

This leads us nicely into the main meat of the gameplay – the different commissions and Hollow exploration segments. To pick up commissions, you must either talk to characters around New Eridu, or reply to forum posts on the interknot (the latter of which is a pretty fun place to browse, and once again offers a nice level of world-building). Then, it’s time to head into the Hollows.

You can access Hollows via Belle and Wise’s PC in the back of Random Play, which soon enough gains the added bonus (or chaos) of a strangely jealous and protective sentient AI called Fairy, who helps you organize all of your quests. These include main story commissions, side commissions, rally commissions, and the Hollow Zero – the latter of which is a more in-depth, multi-level gameplay mode reminiscent of dungeons in the best RPGs or the Honkai Star Rail Simulated Universe.

Zenless Zone Zero preview - a screenshot of Hollow exploration, showing multiple screens on a grid

When diving into a Hollow, you get to choose a team of three characters, and, unless it’s a main story commission, you also get to choose which bangboo you want to fight alongside, with each one offering different skills and buffs. Aside from rally commissions, these gameplay modes revolve around a very unique Hollow traversal system that places you on a grid of screens that you must move between to get to your objective. As you travel from screen to screen, you encounter a variety of different features and mechanics, including items, buffs, dialog-based events, and more.

Some screens are tied to combat or challenge events, where the game transports you to a location where you have to fight or solve puzzles to progress. Here, you play as your chosen team members, accompanied by your bangboo.

Combat is incredibly fluid in this game. It may not be to everyone’s taste and is quite different from Genshin Impact and Honkai Star Rail, but it’s very fine-tuned and fast-paced. While you do have your usual rotations of normal attacks, special attacks, and ultimates, there are quite a lot of variations depending on combos and your reactions to enemy attacks, adding a nice level of depth to any fight.

For example, you can use your character’s special attack at any time, but using it when they have enough energy triggers a more powerful version called an EX special attack. Similarly, you can dodge or switch characters at any time, but doing so just as an enemy is about to hit you triggers a perfect dodge or assist, which can slow down time and/or unleash a powerful parry attack.

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On top of all of that, rather than your traditional ‘classes’, characters also have different attack types and elements that excel in different scenarios. All of this combines to make a surprisingly detailed combat system and, while you can get through a lot of content by picking one strong character and button mashing, the game certainly rewards you for investing more time into exploring different combos and team comps.

As you’d expect, you can also upgrade each of your agents’ levels and skills, and equip them with w-engines (essentially weapons) and those aforementioned disk drives to increase their power. This, of course, requires that familiar material grind. Luckily, you can do a lot of this grinding by either purchasing chips from the cute bangboo on Sixth Street, or through the VR gameplay mode, where you choose different enemy cards to build a challenge for yourself based on what materials you need.

So, how do you get characters? Well, while you do get a few freebies at the beginning of the story (such as Zenless Zone Zero’s Nicole and Billy), it should be no surprise to anyone familiar with other Hoyoverse titles that ZZZ is another gacha game. If you want a full breakdown on the different banners, rates, and available items in the beta, be sure to check out our Zenless Zone Zero banner guide – but, in short, it’s nearly identical to the gacha system seen on the Genshin Impact banners and Honkai Star Rail banners.

You get at least one A-rank (equivalent to a four-star) character, bangboo, or w-engine every ten pulls, and at least one S-rank (equivalent to a five-star) character every 90 pulls, with the limited banner abiding by the standard 50/50 rules. The S-rank w-engines and bangboo weren’t available on the banners in this beta, but I presume they’ll get their own banners in the future.

Zenless Zone Zero preview - Tin Master picking out a coffee cup

Visually, Zenless Zone Zero is a very attractive game. Both the playable characters and notable side characters such as the adorable bangboo, General Chop, and Elfy align with the high standards we’ve come to expect from Hoyoverse over the past few years. The menus and environments are snazzy, seamlessly blending retro vibes with futuristic elements, and I love the way elements such as the interknot and the Hollow exploration zones look. I’m also a huge fan of the comic book-style cutscenes.

I will re-utter that the environments are quite small, though, and are currently quite limited in variety. Therefore, both exploring Sixth Street and the Hollows can feel pretty samey after a while. This is especially true in the Hollows battle locations, with the first two chapters taking place in very similar settings.

The start of the third chapter does switch things up a bit as you begin to explore the almost ghostly, supernatural museum-like location around the Ballet Twins, but we’ve yet to see much of that beyond a brief glimpse. I mean, it makes sense that a lot of the areas consumed by the Hollows look somewhat alike, but I still hold out hope that we’ll get a little more environmental variety come the full release – though I do love the overall aesthetic so far.

In terms of performance, I’ve played on both my PC and iPhone 13, and it runs well on both. I do prefer PC, as the mobile version’s buttons are a little too small and close together, making combos a bit trickier to pull off, but that’s primarily down to personal preference. I suffered no real frame rate drops, lag, or stuttering across either platform, and the crossplay progression, as always, works seamlessly.

Unfortunately, my editor Ruby did have some issues with performance on the iPad, with the screen appearing quite blurry, and she struggled with the same battle UI issues I did on mobile. But, considering the great performance of both Honkai Star Rail and Genshin Impact on mobile, I have high hopes that Hoyoverse will fix these problems before release.

Finally, there’s the sound design. As always, the voice acting in Zenless Zone Zero is absolutely top-notch, with all of the voices fitting the characters perfectly. It should also be no surprise that the OST is brilliant, with its music style aligning more with that of HSR than Genshin due to its futuristic setting. There are some really great lo-fi tracks to enjoy during the game’s more chill moments, and the electric beats of the battle music never fail to get me pumped up.

Zenless Zone Zero preview - Grace smiling and saying 'Every building can only give one hug in its lifetime. He gave his to you, and he even drove off the ethereals'

Overall, Zenless Zone Zero is a very promising game. While it does maintain some familiar elements that we’ve come to love from Hoyoverse’s previous games, it’s definitely a pretty big step outside of what we’ve come to expect, and I appreciate that. Its fresh, futuristic setting, top-notch world-building, and fluid, fast-paced combat all make for a very fun and engaging experience. However, the world is currently quite small, and I’m not entirely sure there’s enough to keep fans of Genshin and HSR engaged for a long period of time.

Either way, I’m very much looking forward to seeing what comes of Belle, Wise, and their friends in New Eridu, and I’ll be awaiting my next journey into the Hollows with bated breath. I’ve learned to not underestimate Hoyoverse, and I truly hope they take this brilliant foundation and really run with it.

Anyway, it looks like we’re going to have to wait a little longer to find out more about the Proxies and their pals, at which point I’ll be sure to turn this Zenless Zone Zero preview into a full review. Until that point, be sure to familiarize yourself with all the characters in our Zenless Zone Zero tier list, or head over to our Genshin Impact codes and Honkai Star Rail codes guides to grab some freebies.