Honkai: Star Rail Review – All Aboard the Astral Express!
Title: Honkai: Star Rail
Release Date: April 26, 2023
Reviewed On: PC
When I first had the opportunity to play Honkai: Star Rail in 2022 with the second closed beta, I was very excited. After all, HoYoverse’s Genshin Impact was an immense success, and while Honkai Impact 3rd was also huge on its own, I was eager to see another game on the same scale. But at the same time, I went in wondering if Star Rail could stand out among its older brothers.
In Honkai: Star Rail, the story begins with a group known as the Stellaron Hunters, who, after infiltrating the Herta Space Station, steal the Stellaron and imbue it inside your player character, the Trailblazer, who awakens knowing nothing but their name. After defeating the monsters attacking the space station, they are invited to the Astral Express. On this mysterious train, all who enter have a burdened past and secrets they either want to learn more about or keep to themselves.
The narrative here certainly feels much more linear and JRPG-like than Genshin. There are also side quests, but most consist of going to an area and reporting back to the NPC. Unfortunately, the locales don’t allow for much exploration, as there are many invisible walls and places in the distance you just can’t access. Additionally, the dialogue tends to feel a lot quicker and snappier. However, some side quests’ text reads awkwardly in English, with odd tenses and verbs.
Several familiar faces from Honkai Impact 3rd appear in Star Rail, such as Himeko, Welt, Bronya, and even Seele. Still, you don’t need to have played Impact 3rd to understand the main story, although I did hear from some friends that some characters retained lore. You can see cameos and references from HoYoverse’s other games, too, such as Pela’s phone case displaying the protagonists of Tears of Themis.
Under the hood, Honkai: Star Rail shares plenty of features with HoYoverse’s other juggernaut, Genshin Impact. Admittedly, I acknowledge that comparing the two releases is unfair, as they boast severely distinct play styles and other differences. But much as I tried, it’s almost impossible not to see the similarities between the two, especially in select mechanics. For example, the Shop is nearly identical, and even the smartphone menu’s button placements are the same as the Paimon Menu, with the only difference being that it’s on the right instead of the left.
The mechanic similarities don’t stop there, however. Relics are basically the same as your Artifacts. And Eidolons are the same as the Constellations, which grant additional abilities to your characters. Even the Shops are structured similarly to Genshin. Of course, those aspects don’t sound like big deals because, as the saying goes: “Why fix something if it’s not broken?” It’s just that if you’ve had any gripes with any particular feature of Genshin, Star Rail is not going to do anything to change your mind.
Because of the turn-based nature of combat, having the right element is even more crucial than in Genshin unless you have a team capable of holding out as you gradually chip away at an enemy’s health. Battles can drag themselves out immensely if your primary element dealer dies, and there’s a lot to consider, such as the right Relic or Light Cone build. Essentially, no one team composition can clear everything flawlessly. There were many times when I had to retreat from combat, reorganize my team, and rearrange their Relics and Light Cones.
One of my favorite sets of gameplay features in Star Rail is how it allows you to use quality-of-life options such as Auto Mode or x2 Speed. These inclusions are handy, and on top of that, you can leave the title grinding as you multitask with other objectives. For instance, you can attempt challenges like Calyxes, which allow you to set a loop of 6 battles that will play consecutively and compile all the rewards. Plus, unlike other certain titles, it’s not locked behind a VIP pass.
Now let’s move on to the much-maligned gacha, which, again, shares many of its systems with Genshin. The draw rates remain at a pitiful 0.6% chance for a 5-star unit. Plus, there are the returning permanent banners alongside two rotating ones and the 50% chance of a featured character at 90 pulls (popularly known as the “pity system”). Those who start the game also have access to the Beginner Banner, where you’re guaranteed a 5-star unit after 50 pulls, and the Standard Banner lets you choose a 5-star after 300 pulls.
Unfortunately, one missing feature is the complete lack of an event theater that allows you to replay cutscenes. Moreover, you’re blocked from advancing to the following line of dialogue line until the character’s animation finishes. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s no text log. I find these faults significant since the animated cutscenes and dialogue are so great that I would honestly love to replay them. But without such a feature, my only options are to search the cutscene on YouTube or start a new account from scratch; neither of which are ideal.
Thankfully, many improvements were made compared to the developer’s previous titles. For example, a common issue from those other entries is that the voiced lines would not be adequately lip-synced to any language aside from the original Chinese. But now, regardless of your voice language, the characters will correctly be synced to the audio.
Their expressions are also more varied, and you can really see each character’s quirks shine through their design. Further, the animations are fantastic, and none look the same across party members. They all contain something closely related to their abilities or lore, such as Bronya’s animation showing an army and Clara’s animation having Svarog appear.
Furthermore, Light Cones and Relics – equippable powerup items – can be easily obtained from various game modes, such as the Forgotten Hall or the Simulated Universe, without worrying about the gacha. This offers an excellent way for players to scrape by and still be able to clear content without worrying that the lack of luck and RNG will be the deciding factor. Some items help mitigate random elements as well.
While Honkai Star Rail’s current state can be easily described as “turn-based Genshin Impact in space,” HoYoverse has managed to make this a reasonably easier title for those who don’t have as much time to invest.
Its character designs and story are charming, and the game and its systems are highly polished. Still, one thing’s for sure: If Star Rail wants to stay for the long run, it will need to do much more to stand out in the sea of turn-based RPGs available on both PC and mobile. And only time will tell if that will happen.
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