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Honkai Star Rail Review - Come on, Ride the Train

Steven Weber Updated: Posted:
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Hoyoverse has become this monolithic developer in the mobile MOG genre. As the developers behind the popular game Genshin Impact and their previous Honkai title, Honkai Impact 3rd it’s abundantly clear that Hoyoverse knows how to build popular titles that have since transcended the mobile space and splashes onto PC’s and consoles as well. After dozens of hours in game, it's clear that Honkai Star Rail provides a new take on Hoyoverses usual brand of action combat, but they don’t stray too far from the playbook that has made their previous titles so successful. Should you board the Astral Express and travel the universe, or should you pass on getting a ticket to this particular train?

I have played Honkai Star Rail several times through their beta stages, and if we’re honest, there isn’t really all that much that has changed from my initial impressions. However, for the review, I went far beyond Jarilo 6, and delved deeper into what will eventually culminate in the endgame activities that players should expect after battling their way through the level-restricted storyline. What I found was unsurprising, but because we can’t jump directly to endgame, let’s start with the basics.

As you log into the game for the first time, you’re greeted with a brief tutorial where you meet a pair of Stellaron hunters that awaken you, the main character, by implanting a Stellaron inside you. If you’re familiary with Genshin Impact’s travelers, then you’ll be equally familiar with Honkai Star Rail’s trailblazer. There is no way to customize your trailblazer outside of simply selecting male or female, and because your character type is fixated out of the gate, there are limited options as to how you can really strategize the use of them. Luckily, your initial challenges on the Herta Space Station aren’t so insurmountable that you require that much strategy. I won't be providing too many story spoilers in this review, but the basics are, you're a Trailblazer with a mysterious past that was found, and has joined, the Astral Express. A space-faring train that finds and stops Stellaron's, powerful otherworldly artifacts, from destroying entire worlds. Along the way you'll meet plenty of unique characters, and you'll unfold a long, overarching story that you'll play a large part in.

Unlike the world of Teyvat in Genshin Impact, Honkai Star Rail is very limited in where you can go and what you can do. The zones are very rigid and straight forward. Hoyoverse has done a good job of making up for the limited traversal with several unique kinds of puzzles that open up the further along you go in the game. In Herta Space Station, you’ll be met with some floating square puzzles, where you’ll need to step on each square one time without backtracking and make it across a small gap to complete the puzzle. Later you’ll find puzzles that will require you to connect the flow of energy by connecting the circuits, and even solve strange, unique 3d puzzles like the Hexanexus, all of which will reward you with a chest upon completion.

As you travel through these small zones, completing puzzles, and unlocking more pieces of the map, you’ll have to test your mettle against the dangerous inhabitants. Each zone will have numerous enemies that respawn every time you rezone, and they often drop materials that are useful to level up your characters as well as some money, so it’s never a bad idea to defeat some if they block your path. Because this is a turn based game, the enemies that you see are only avatars for what might lurk beneath. For example, you may see a voidranger out in the world, but as soon as you are in a battle with him, there may be multiple voidrangers, or he’ll have baryon or other enemy types alongside him

That means that, you may never know exactly what you’re up against until you’re in the battle. This is important because in Honkai Star Rail the weakness system is the fundamental crux that combat is built upon. Similar to Genshin Impact elemental types play a big role in how fast you can defeat an enemy. When you’re surrounded by enemies in Genshin you generally have a good idea of how many there are, and what element your character needs to bring to the table to defeat them. In Honkai Star Rail that’s not always the case. Even in the best cases where you’ve planned to battle in an instanced mission, such as a Calyx (a short instanced battle that gives level-up rewards), it may give you a recommended element type, but that element type may not attune to very many enemies weaknesses, so it’s often a crapshoot on how effective the characters you bring into a battle actually will be.

Each character has an element type, and a special out of combat technique that you can use to prepare for the upcoming battle. In many ways, these out of combat techniques are as important as the characters you bring with you in battle, and you only have a limited number of times you can use your techniques on a map before you’re out of charges, or you’ve found a technique canister to replenish them. I was lucky, as early one I was able to pull Gepard, who is a five star “preservation” character. His out of combat technique would allow my party to start with a strong barrier over their health bar, which was by and large the most useful technique I’ve had access to, as it’s saved me from a lot of unnecessary damage when an enemy has the initiative and attacks first.

There are several types of classes in Honkai Star Rail. Preservation types are the defensive characters. The Hunt characters are the high, single target DPS. The Erudition are the AOE damage dealers. The Destrcution are characters that have a mix of DPS and survivability. The Nihility Debuffs, and the Abundance heals. Finally, Harmony characters will buff your teammates. All of them have their uses, but as you can clearly see, there are 7 character types, and only 4 slots in your party, so this is really where team strategy begins. Rather, this is where team strategy eventually will end, but where it begins is fraught with luck, and quite a bit of frustration.

Players won’t get to choose what characters they obtain in Honkai Star Rail, and to add insult to injury, leveling characters takes a lot of materials. As characters themselves are locked behind Gacha rolls, it’s abundantly clear that paying to get more rolls, and more characters, will be the clear path to success. Hoyoverse does provide you with a few characters as you play. You’ll have a bubbly ice preservation character named March 7th, a stoic single target damage dealer named Dan Heng, and you can unlock additional characters like the Eridition character Herta, and the (absolutely necessary) healer Natasha. Your Trailblazer will also gain the ability to change their class and element type later on, which once again, mirrors the Traveler on Genshin Impact. There are enough character options between these starting characters to get you through a good portion of the story, but not without a great deal of frustration.

Battling and strategizing can only take you so far. I have accumulated almost a dozen characters so far, and have all 6 slots of my team rosters filled. I’m still missing some key class and element types in my roster. That puts me at a disadvantage, and I’ve often had to back out of a battle and change my roster so that I play up an enemies weakness with the element types that I do have. Eventually, leveling your roster becomes a must if you want to advance on key game modes like the Forgotten Hall’s memory challenges, which act similarly to the Spiral Abyss from Genshin.

Combat has a familiar turn-based flow where each character will take turns attacking. Each character has only 2 abilities, with a third ultimate ability that can be executed no matter whose turn it is. You need to ensure that the ultimate is charged, of course, and it can’t be executed mid-attack. Ideally, you’ll have a diverse party that covers the weaknesses of your enemies. When you hit an enemy weak to your particular element type, it not only loses health but it also decreases the enemy’s toughness. Once low enough, you’ll perform a weakness break, pushing the monster down the turn-based order, and often breaking their attack, trance or next planned ability.  You can also inflict status effects that will damage your opponent or, in some cases, completely stop them from attacking at all. This happens most frequently when your enemy has a low resistance to an elemental type.

The ultimate abilities are met with a short cutscene, all of which are cinematically beautiful in their own way. As you become stronger and more proficient, you won’t need to be so active in combat, opting to speed up the pace and even auto-battle most enemies, as both of those options are available in the top right corner of the combat screen. This comes in handy for trash mobs and daily missions, and the auto battler is completely disabled in major story fights, which is probably a good thing, as the AI auto battles isn’t known for making particularly good battle decisions.

The main issue is that, most players probably don’t want to sink a lot of time and materials into characters that aren’t the ones they want. Yet, because you may never get the character you actually want, at least, not without a rate up banner, you’re stuck with leveling what you have, wasting a lot of time and materials, that will eventually get replaced once you have the character you want. Gacha and luck play such a large part in this, and honestly, without Gepard, I don’t know if I would have progressed as quickly as I have, pushing past level 30 and nearing trailblazer level 40 in just a few days, without spending an arm and a leg to get there.

That’s not to say that I didn’t spend anything to progress how I did. As an avid mobile gamer, there are “deals” that I allow myself to spend money on, and those generally revolve around time-based rewards. Daily login currency bonuses, and battle passes are under a less gacha-inspired impulse buy for me. As PR was not able to provide any currency in time for this review, I wanted to ensure that I was able to progress a little more quickly, and all in all I spent a total of 25 dollars, which only really paid off so far in the materials I’ve obtained through the battle pass. My gacha rolls haven’t yielded very much, but that’s the nature of the beast. Hoyoverse provides plenty of Stellar Jade (cash currency for rolls) by completing dailies, and clearing missions.

On the front end, you can expect to spend your Stellar Jade quite frequently, if you’re buying gacha rolls. The Pity system is alive and well in Honkai Star Rail and may continue to be Hoyoverse’s saving grace that makes this system marginally more palatable than gacha systems that never guarantee a 5-star reward. In the early game, Stellar Jade comes quickly, on top of additional free Star Rail passes (rolls), which you’ll probably want to use on the new-player banner which will guarantee you a 5-star character in short order. Now, as I’m nearing 40, the Stellar Jade has slowed, and I’ve started to feel a little bit of the squeeze that comes with the increase I difficulty.

Honkai Star Rail has a lot of content built in. Players will be introduced to a lot of characters and locales, and throughout the majority of the game, story will likely amount to about half of your time spent. There are long stretches of conversations, and the main story missions are all well voiced, marking the high quality that we’ve come to expect from Hoyoverse. The detriment comes to those that would prefer to just get back to the action, as outside of the main story, every side quest has substantial text exchanges that can often chew minutes out of your time. I applaud the forethought that Hoyoverse puts into building the world of Honkai Star Rail and equally so that they often slip in several pop-culture references where they can, but between your in game cell phone text exchanges and a recurring daily quest where you have to explain to an NPC how to converse, it does eventually get a little tiresome when you just want to destroy monsters.

One of my favorite gameplay modes in Honkai Star Rail is the Simulated Universe. In this game mode, players are introduced to a roguelike gameplay mode where you’ll choose to battle your way through increasingly difficult enemies on a stage-by-stage basis. There are 6 different worlds in the Simulated Universe, with several difficulty levels for most of the worlds, providing plenty of challenge. When you start the Simulated Universe you’ll be able to choose a path based on one of five archetypes. Once you choose a path, you’ll see more blessings of that chosen path appear as rewards when you defeat an enemy. Once you’ve chosen three blessings of a particular path, you’ll open up Path Resonance, which is a powerful ability that will be instrumental in defeating the difficult foes in the Simulated Universe.

The Simulated Universe can only be played a certain number of times per week to obtain the coveted rewards you can earn from it. The mode is a lot of fun, especially for me as I’m a huge roguelike fan. As with any roguelike, the blessings you obtain are all by chance, and I’ve had runs where I completely dominated every enemy including the boss, to runs where I never made it to the boss at all. The replay ability of this mode is a very fun departure from the rest of the story-based gameplay, and the Simulated Universe is part of the weekly evens players will want to complete as part of the endgame loop.

Genshin Impact players will not be surprised at all in the way you advance your character and the type of events you’ll need to complete in order to progress. The system has been lifted entirely from Hoyoverse’s other games. You have relics (gear), Light cones (weapons), Character level, Traces (skill levels), and Eidolons which are upgrades for when you roll the same character multiple times. In order to level up all of these things in tandem, ascend your character and weapons, and make it to the top level, you’ll need to consistently play through repeatable game modes like the Calyx (enemy battles), Stagnant Shadow (Boss Battle), Cavern of Corrosion (enemy battles for gear), Echo of War (Story Boss Battle), and the Forgotten Hall (spiral abyss).

Anyone that has played Genshin Impact will be extremely familiar with this, and the trailblazer level, which is the arverarching level that gates your story progress, and your overall power. For new players, all of this can seem very overwhelming. It’s easy to focus on character level, and forget about the rest. It’s quite common to not focus on your gear or light cones, or just completely miss the min-max nature of synergizing your relics with proper rolls so that you’re doing the very best you can at your characters desired roll. It definitely gives you a long journey to make it to the top, but most of these game modes are restricted by Trailblaze Power which is a limited energy source that builds over time. Of course, if you want to spend money, you can replenish this time-gated energy system entirely, progressing far faster than everyone else, but without it, you’ll probably log in daily just to utilize your Trailblaze Power and then log off until it replenishes if you’ve hit a story or power-gate wall.

There is so much in Honkai Star Rail to enjoy. There’s a heavy emphasis on story, puzzles, and turn-based strategy, with so much content that free players will likely have more than enough to do to last months on their way to Trailblazer Level 70. With nearly identical systems to Genshin Impact, gamers that have really taken to the Hoyoverse’s tried and true systems should feel right at home here. New players that have been scared away from Genshin due to the action-combat nature will have no problems investing some time in this free-to-play gem. If you can temper your impulsiveness and only spend what makes sense to you, and not dive into the dangerous gacha rabbit hole, Honkai Star Rail will be the ride you never want to stop.

8.0Great
Pros
  • Appealing anime art style with superb voice acting
  • Tons of story and repeatable content
  • Fun puzzles and unique game modes
  • Excellent turn-based strategy combat
  • Simulated Universe Roguelike Gameplay is very fun
Cons
  • Gacha and more gacha for characters and light cones
  • Some side missions are long-winded and can't skip text
  • Trailblazer level restrictions slow progress
  • Once story winds down all that's left are daily and weeklies


StevenWeber

Steven Weber

Steven has been a writer at MMORPG.COM since 2017. A lover of many different genres, he finds he spends most of his game time in action RPGs, and talking about himself in 3rd person on his biography page.