The Zenless Zone Zero beta shows off a fresh, stylish new world draped over a familiar framework

If you haven't been following the game closely, you'd be forgiven for not knowing much about Zenless Zone Zero outside of it being the next major title from HoYoVerse (a.k.a. miHoYo), developers of gacha game titans Genshin Impact and Honkai Star Rail. But if you've more extensive experience with the company's output, the game may bring up memories of an older title, and miHoYo's breakout success: Honkai Impact 3rd. That's how I feel, at least, after spending some time with its second closed beta test.

That first impression bodes quite well, as like Honkai Impact 3rd, Zenless boasts slick real-time combat layered over a reliable - if familiar - progression framework and wrapped in a stunning sense of style. It remains to be seen whether or not that will be enough to make Zenless Zone Zero stand out, and crucially, give it the substance to last in an increasingly crowded and competitive landscape.

The Zenless Zone Zero second beta - called the "Equalizing Test" by HoYoVerse, seems to be the version of the game that the company feels is ready for more public scrutiny (though the test itself is closed and invite-only). The beta build features roughly what one might expect out of a launch: Two relatively long main story quest chains, a number of side quests and character-focused quests, what feels like the full suite of core progression and combat mechanics, and a roster of 14 playable characters (so far). The only things missing are ways to actually buy currency and the battle pass-like reward ladder.

Zenless' premise is a typical one for a live service title: Civilization has been destroyed by a supernatural calamity: the "Hollows". These spherical portals to other dimensions grow and engulf inhabited areas, corrupting those within to turn them into "Ethereal" monsters. Only the metropolis of New Eridu survives, thanks to miraculous technology that turns the Hollows into valuable - if dangerous - places to extract precious resources from. Now, Hollows are exploited to fuel the city's growth, controlled and monetized by the city government. In the shadows and behind the authorities' backs, "Hollow Raiders" and other factions explore Hollows on their own, using the guidance and navigation skills of a special class of gig economy professional known as a "Proxy".

Zenless Zone Zero makes a strong first impression. Just as in Genshin Impact and Honkai Star Rail (and any number of gacha titles), players can select the gender of their default avatar, in this case by choosing from Belle or Wise, the two siblings operating together as the legendary New Eridu Proxy "Phaeton".

Unlike Genshin and Star Rail, however, choosing one sibling to represent you doesn't cause the other to unceremoniously drop out of the story. Instead, whichever sibling you don't choose becomes your backup, and both siblings maintain an active, central role in the narrative. They even have distinct personalities, differing reactions to similar situations, and in one case even switch roles temporarily, with players controlling the other sibling.

The opening storyline essentially kicks off with the siblings getting doxxed by a mysterious villain and having to abandon their high-level Proxy account to protect their identities. Forced to essentially restart their Proxy career, the two must make ends meet by climbing the ladder once again, taking on odd jobs from the local commission board (called the "Inter-Knot") and running "Random Play," their video rental store as their day job.

A lot about Zenless Zone Zero's storytelling feels more small-scale and personal than the wide-ranging sagas of its HoYoVerse peers. Rather than looking to solve the fate of planets or nations, players begin with relatable problems like paying the bills and putting food on the table in the bustling New Eridu neighborhood of Sixth Street. The siblings don't fight in combat directly: As a Proxy, they instead remotely pilot one of the game's ubiquitous, minion-like "Bangboo" drones, guiding teams of Agents (read: the real playable characters) through the Hollows as they carry out Commissions for various clients.

The choice to remove Belle and Wise from combat while keeping them in a critical support role is a smart one: If they're not involved in battle, they'll never suffer the ignominy of being the protagonist of the story outshone by the units HoYoVerse wants people to go gambling for. In fact, the main campaign quests even have a "Story Mode" toggle that gives you preset, pre-leveled units that are relevant to the story only, partially freeing players from the need to level a full roster just to see what happens next.

Tonally, the storylines of Zenless Zone Zero themselves also have a scrappier, underdog air. The first main plotline involves unraveling a corporate cover-up and saving a poor neighborhood and its residents from being victimized by an unscrupulous construction firm. Many of the early side quests have Belle and Wise run errands for the personalities of Sixth Street, like the robot that runs the coffee shop, the furry lady that runs the arcade, and the dog that runs the lotto stand, while others even have them take on jobs while trying to maintain their cover as mere video store proprietors. The game even operates according to a rudimentary day-night schedule, with shop actions and some commissions only being available to take up during certain phases of the day, and a mandate to go to sleep on the couch by midnight. The whole thing gives the game a breezy, everyday vibe that seems appropriate for the kind of game players are expected to engage with on a daily basis.

All of this is wrapped up in a striking sense of style. Where Genshin Impact emphasizes elegant fantasy elements and Honkai Star Rail tempers its sci-fi chops with a lot of high-concept inflections, Zenless Zone Zero channels a pure sort of urban, retro-future aesthetic, combining the atmosphere of a hip Chinese neighborhood with an almost anachronistic appreciation for older technology. Everyone uses chunky smartphones and 80s-style VR headsets, but plays copycat versions of Snake and Mr. Driller (complete with matchmaking) at an arcade with 90s-style cabinets. The siblings run a video rental store that deals exclusively in VHS-style tapes, and Wise loves to force Belle to watch art films on their dial-operated TV.

In fact, the primary exploratory mode of the game, "Hollow Exploration", consists of guiding the siblings' Bangboo avatar across a grid made up of joined CRT TV screens. The screens flicker on and off and present hazards or puzzles to interact with, the grid breaking apart and reassembling to reconfigure the stage. It's all expertly animated, but also carries the aura of an old-style grid-based roguelike.

Battles are presented much like HoYoVerse's Honkai Impact 3rd, with players piloting a party of three through interconnected combat arenas. The combat is heavily based around timing and interrupts. Enemies flash when about to launch an attack, and hitting the character switch button at the right time causes the next character to swap in, either parrying the blow or slipping away and setting up a powerful counterattack. Hitting enemies builds up a Daze meter that stuns them when full, increasing the damage they take and opening them up for chain attacks, strong sequential swap-in moves. Building up a Decibel meter also unlocks a screen-clearing Ultimate. Some characters even have preset synergy with others from their team or faction. The high-rarity hammer-wielding girl Koleda Belobog will have her attacks and ultimate enhanced if her partner Ben Bigger (a massive bear) is in the same party. Characters also have elemental qualities and attack types that increase their effectiveness against certain enemies.

I found the combat to be fairly simple in practice. Just whale on an enemy, press dodge or swap in when they glint, and then hit prompts when they come up. Perhaps it was due to my relatively low level, but I didn't see much need to  "team build" too much. The skill descriptions detail quite a few effects, but in practice I found them too subtle to drive my character choices the way elemental skills and bursts do in Genshin Impact or party composition does in Honkai Star Rail. Though very stylish and well-presented, I do wonder if the game's combat has enough depth to keep players interested. Then again, it is also refreshing for the game's combat to feel interesting and impactful without forcing me to try to analyze my whole roster looking for the best matchups.

At least the teams are easy to like. Of the HoYoVerse live service games I've played - and I've played them all, bar Tears of Themis - Zenless Zone Zero has the most appealing and varied initial launch roster. With a couple of exceptions - Anby Demara and Soldier 11 seem like alternate costumes of the same character at first glance - the selection has someone for everybody. Small girls, tall girls, hot boys, robots, and even a few furries are present, and all are presented quite beautifully, with silky smooth animations that pop with life and impact.

Speaking of getting those characters on the payroll, Zenless Zone Zero's gacha system - called here "Signal Search" - unfolds as you might expect from a HoYoVerse game. "Film" is the in-game currency equivalent to Primogems and Stellar Jade, and on the gacha one spends "Master Reels". Those can be used for rolls on the standard banner, while Encrypted Master Reels can only be used on a Limited Signal Search that promotes the banner character. There are three ranks of gacha drop: B-rank, A-rank, and S-rank, but characters only come in at A-rank or higher. A ten-roll on any banner guarantees at least one A-rank drop, and the published rate for S-rank characters is at about 0.6%. The now-familiar 50-50 system is also in place, where an S-rank drop is guaranteed for every 90 rolls on a banner, and that S-rank has a 50% chance of being the banner character. If it isn't, the next S-rank that drops is guaranteed to be the banner character.

Progression and outfitting is also fairly familiar if you've spent time with Genshin Impact or Honkai Star Rail. Every character can equip a "W-Engine" as their "weapon," upgrading its level with materials and unlocking its potential by feeding it duplicates. So far there doesn't seem to be a separate banner for obtaining W-Engines, though there are S-rank W-Engines that seem tailor-made for specific characters. As a person who loathes HoYoVerse's use of weapon and light cone banners in Genshin and Star Rail, I appreciate that Zenless seems to be free of that devilry.

Alongside the W-Engine are six slots for music discs obtained from a random draw system at the record shop, Bardic Needle. Players will pay with currency awarded from Hollow Exploration. The discs are named after musical genres like "Assassin's Ballad" or "Twisted Grindcore", with genres corresponding to various set effects (analogous to Artifacts or Relics in other HoYoVerse games). Between skills, traits, characters, gear, and even Bangboos, there's plenty to upgrade and optimize for players that like the grind. Grinding is made slightly more convenient by the ability to configure one's own material-gathering quests, setting up customized gauntlets of enemies to target specific material drops.

One limiting factor is Battery Charge, the Zenless Zone Zero equivalent to Resin or Trailblaze Power. Charge levels in the game are fairly low, and in contrast to Genshin and Star Rail, even main and side missions consume Battery Charge to launch. With charge-refilling items being fairly uncommon outside of buying small amounts of coffee, this low cap leads to an unpleasant balancing act between accomplishing dailies or hitting progression goals and seeing more of the story. While I appreciate energy systems for imposing a soft limit on session length and establishing boundaries on how much a game will be expected to eat into a person's time and attention, the current system feels in need of tuning before it launches for real. A higher cap or a way to store excess at launch would remove much of the hassle.

If this all sounds quite a lot like Honkai Impact 3rd with an updated daily and weekly structure, you're not wrong. Genshin Impact and Honkai Star Rail both come across as more traditional game types adapted to fit a free-to-play gacha structure more commonly seen in mobile games. By contrast, both Honkai Impact 3rd and Zenless Zone Zero feel more "mobile-native" in their general flow and how they prompt players to engage with them. Whether or not players are looking for that remains to be seen, but at the very least, outside of tuning on the Battery Charge system, I haven't witnessed as many occasions where the game and HoYoVerse's apparent plans for it seem too much at odds.

The beta is also not free from quibbles on both a technical and user-experience front. The menus require a few too many button presses to access core functions like leveling, and despite the relatively small area of Sixth Street as the main hub location, there are a few too many loading transitions needed to access the equivalent of progression menus. One other issue, already marked as "known" in the developer notes, is text rendering in English. The game's font seems ill-suited for readability (a concern on smaller phone screens), and will often overflow the UI text boxes. Zenless might have one of the most stylish urban vibes this side of Splatoon 3 or Persona, but prioritizing players actually being able to read the game would be a welcome compromise of that vision.

Otherwise, so far, so good. Zenless Zone Zero appears poised to make a strong debut, adapting the basic play mechanics of Honkai Impact 3rd to a new, unique setting unburdened by that game's multiple years of storyline and lore. However, merely from the context of a beta, one can't quite determine just how HoYoVerse will treat the game in the medium- and long-term, and the battle Zenless faces to become players' next habit is more intimidating than ever. Not only is this new game going to compete against any number of other gacha titles and live service games that already exist, it may well be trying to carve out a space from its own sister titles. But that's a question that'll only be answered by time. The Zenless Zone Zero undergoing testing today feels like a enjoyable few hours, at the least.

Zenless Zone Zero is in development for PC and mobile platforms. The second closed beta test is ongoing, though a launch date has not yet been announced.