Zenless Zone Zero captures the perfect action game flow

Belle, a blue haired girl, happily waits for another bowl of noodles in Zenless Zone Zero
Image: Hoyoverse via Polygon

With all-star cast of weirdos

The best character action games let me enter the combat flow state. I love zipping to my target, pummeling them with attacks, nimbly dodging, launching them into the air, and juggling their body until they eventually give out — or in the case of Zenless Zone Zero, explode into a kaleidoscope of neons evocative of a ’90s television set. Hoyoverse’s latest free-to-play offering excels at frenetic fighting that’s instantly gratifying. If anything, I sometimes wished I could get back to the action more quickly while I was playing, but there’s a lot more to the rest of the game too.

Zenless Zone Zero, or ZZZ, is my first Hoyoverse title. I haven’t tried Genshin Impact or Honkai: Star Rail, but that’s mostly because the setting and game style of ZZZ appealed to me much more. Since my playthrough was a beta with everything unlocked, I can’t speak to how the free-to-play gacha mechanics will be reflected upon my live playthrough.

A Bangboo in an orange neck scarf sits behind the counter at the Random Play video story in Zenless Zone Zero
Image: Hoyoverse
A Bangboo, a rabbit-shaped robot, works the counter of Random Play video store, which is also Belle’s home base.

ZZZ puts me in the shoes of Belle, a teen girl living in a future technology-centered metropolis populated with regular humans, augmented humans, cat people, shark maids, robot espresso makers, and any other combination of personhood ever dreamed up on an anime poster. That’s not a derogatory sentiment, by the way; everything and everyone in ZZZ feels like part of the same chaotic, fashionable universe, and I love it. There are robot rabbits called Bangboo that help with every sort of task. Belle runs a video rental store by day with her brother, but her main gig is serving as a highly skilled guide through interdimensional rifts (called Hollows) that keep spawning in her city. I never fight anyone as just Belle; for action sequences, I’ll switch to the battle-oriented crew of playable characters. Belle is present, but observes and directs the party members through her own Bangboo robot that she controls remotely.

During ZZZ’s fights, I can toggle at will between up to three characters. While they all have different weapons and play styles, all combat is focused around chaining light and heavy attacks, a dodge, and a meter-based super move. Billy, a cyborg, uses guns and ranged attacks, while Corin, a maid whose main personality trait is “deeply anxious always,” uses a staff that’s also a chainsaw to tear into the faceless Ethereal foes. I can quickly swap between my party members at will, but there are special points where I can tag in an assist for more damage. No matter which character I pick, the overall combat system is intuitive and fluid. It offers up the perfect video game-y sensation of suddenly letting the player feel powerful without boring them through overly simplistic mechanics.

Lycaon executes an enemy with a high kick over the text “WIPEOUT” in Zenless Zone Zero.
Image: Hoyoverse via Polygon
One of the fighters, Lycaon, takes out an enemy.

The other aspect of Hollow exploration is a bit surprising: puzzles. Instead of sending a squad down an endless maze of hallways that all look appropriately tech-wasteland-y, I navigate across a grid of televisions superimposed on a 2D plane. Sometimes I’ll slide weights to open a door; other times I’ll jump between floors to access different points on a map. It’s a unique mechanic that, like any good puzzle, gets more complex after its tutorial phases. Solving these puzzles is tied into story objectives, but they’re also an important way to collect resources throughout ZZZ. Their design is a novel approach that I haven’t seen much in any game, and they are a nice palate cleanser after the action sequences.

A screenshot of Zenless Zone Zero depicting a bunch of TVs in a grid, with one character’s face on each TV, showing four enemies on TVs to the south of the character Anton and the player character
Image: Hoyoverse via Polygon

There’s also a whole lot to do when I’m not in the Hollow. As Belle, I can explore my neighborhood, manage the video store’s display to boost customers, play arcade games, take pictures of cats, text with friends, or get coffee or noodles to boost my stats for the next Hollow run. (If you’ve ever wanted to see the tantalizing fuel-up pre-battle scene for an espresso machine, ZZZ has you covered.) I can even doomscroll on my phone on forum posts before bed.

A red yokai with robot arms stands behind a noodle bar, waiting to take your order in Zenless Zone Zero
Image: Hoyoverse via Polygon
This yokai will serve you noodles in a Monster Hunter-like flourish that will power up characters for the next trip into the Hollow.

There are a lot of in-game activities that pad out the experience, along with a fully voiced story told through comic still panels or conversations. I often wanted to get back to just fighting, and sometimes the litany of things — and the endless amount of menus to upgrade my characters and weapons — felt like barriers to the meat of fighting and puzzles. When Belle got assigned a daily list of chores to complete for in-game loot, I realized how much of ZZZ’s scope went beyond just the speedy battles that I’d grown to love.

Since I was playing on a beta account provided by Hoyoverse, all my progress will be wiped when ZZZ goes live. But I’ll be curious to play the real experience, including with its gacha elements, to see how that affects the flow. I’m looking forward to finding the zen of ZZZ’s action sequences again.

Zenless Zone Zero will be released July 4 on Android, iOS, PlayStation 5, and Windows PC. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release beta download code provided by Hoyoverse. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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