When Genshin Impact‘s annual update finally arrived last week, I was expecting minor tweaks to its open world formula. Instead, the Sumeru region feels like an entirely different game. As I zipped around the forest canopy in every direction, I started to forget about the main quest and my daily farming routine. HoYoverse got rid of the frustration factors of its previous regions while rewarding players who have a keen eye for environmental detail. This is Genshin‘s open world formula at its absolute best. Sumeru is based on the element of plant life, and yet it feels the most lively and vibrant of any region I’ve explored so far.
Before I get into what makes Sumeru’s exploration good, I need to explain what made previous regions an exercise in patience and sanity. Mondstadt was the tutorial region, and the different sub-areas felt very cookie-cutter and nondescript. Liyue was distinct in its towering mountains, but climbing them meant that you spent a ton of time watching the stamina bar with your nose pressed against an ugly gray cliff. Inazuma gave us seven wholly distinct areas, but the constant peril and difficult puzzles made it difficult for me to fully enjoy them. Until you unlock fast travel points, exploration was a chore that you had to get through before the real fun could begin.
In contrast, Sumeru invites players on a pleasant “walk.” The four-leaf sigils dotted all over Sumeru allow players to instantly zoom to their location from even far-off distances. Not only does this make travel incredibly efficient, it also becomes easier to enjoy the gorgeous views when I’m not trying to figure out how to overcome a physical obstacle. Sigils were also present for puzzles and challenges. When I did need to climb a mountain, I’d look for stamina-refilling flowers that dotted some cliff faces. I didn’t always feel the need to use them, but this was the first time that a region felt like it was trying to guide me rather than being laissez-faire about open world design. In fact, Apam Woods has become my favorite area in Sumeru. I loved being able to zip around the forest canopy in any possible direction I chose. Usually, falling off a tall area in Genshin means having to fast-travel back to the top. Here, I find my four-leaf sigil and get back to my platform again.
When there’s not a fast travel point nearby, I often have to make calculated decisions about where I’m going next. These decisions are usually shaped by local resources in the area, and I almost never had any reason to go anywhere else. There are entire parts of the tutorial region (Mondstadt) that I don’t remember anymore because they don’t have any exclusive resources. But ever since the sigils removed much of the friction around traveling, I’d always end up somewhere I wasn’t planning to go. This completely reshaped how I experienced Genshin‘s open world. The changes are so stark that I feel significantly more frustrated whenever I revisit the older zones.
Normally, I would end up all over the region in the pursuit of finishing up my quest list. Once I’m done with everything, I’ll look up the areas with certain types of flowers and fruits, since they’re necessary for raising future characters. I’ll only visit those specific areas every few days. Once I’ve built up a sizable stockpile, I’ll finally pursue treasure chests and puzzles for the special types of currency that I can use to redeem for materials and furniture blueprints. Sumeru feels so pleasant to explore that I’ll just find myself in a completely different region, far from where I was looking for a certain type of mushroom. Sumeru proves that the best player experiences aren’t guaranteed by a hands-off design philosophy. Sometimes, a game needs more artifice in order to push us out of our comfort zones.
Sumeru also brings back element-based puzzles. By charging a green mushroom with Electro power, you can use it to bounce to even greater heights than if you simply jumped on it normally. Certain puzzles only respond to the new Dendro element. And if you want to fight certain Ruin Guards for chests, then you have to set their binding seals on fire. Genshin has always used elemental powers as the basis for many of its puzzles, but their use feels more prevalent in Sumeru. I was constantly rotating my traveling party, whose type elements are more varied than what I usually travel with (doubling up on elements confers certain combat bonuses).
The new Dendro element is also a fascinating and complex element. Previously, applying Pyro to Dendro would simply set an enemy on fire. Now, applying Hydro to Dendro causes a seed pod to spawn, which can be further triggered into a Hyperbloom (Electro) and Burgeon (Pyro) reaction for AoE damage. Applying Electro to Dendro causes the enemy to take additional damage from Electro and Dendro attacks. For years, Genshin players have complained that Electro is the weakest element. But the elemental additions have revitalized an element that most theorycrafters considered to be non-viable. Rejoice, Yae hands. Your time has come.
Before Sumeru released, I felt Genshin was undergoing a bit of an identity crisis as an open world game. Accusations of “Breath of the Wild clone”dominated early coverage of the game, which were mostly mitigated by the game’s visual style and engrossing narrative. Inazuma felt like overcompensation. The region was hostile, difficult to traverse, and filled with puzzles that were difficult for no discernible narrative reason. Sumeru is a return to what made Genshin fun in the first place: Being able to see fascinating sights no matter which direction you looked.