It’s a sign of how popular Genshin Impact has become that Honkai: Star Rail is being discussed more like its sequel than the fourth entry in the Honkai series. With a full tonal 180 from the ‘Breath of the Wild clone’ Derrison Genshin Impact at launch, these constant comparisons may make sense to some Honkai Impact 3 players, but what sets the two apart is how similar they are. Really tough. Cut out all the annoying grinding and open world from Genshin, then put it in a blender with turn-based combat and a squeeze of honky lore, and saw, you’ve made a star rail smoothie. Not exactly healthy considering your precious gaming time, but healthy from falling off another cliff because your stamina bar ran out on your third day of farming for character material.
So is it so? Is it just a sci-fi genshin that cuts down on more time-consuming activities? A big part of me wants to say yes. You could put a screenshot of the two side-by-side and it would be hard to tell them apart with similar character models and environments right down to the UI. However, that description feels like it’s doing an insult to Star Rail’s delightfully goofy humor, charismatic voice cast, and genuinely great combat.
This Now A sci-fi take on the Genshin formula, but if you’ve been playing Genshin Impact for a while, you’ll definitely have a useful cheat sheet to help you understand how the system works. As far as I can tell, there isn’t really a similar benefit from playing the previous Honkai games, as Star Rail is set in an alternate universe with different versions of some of the returning characters. I’m sure it will be fun for fans of Impact 3 to see Bronya and Seele again, but I enjoyed discovering their new story as relative newcomers to the series nonetheless.
Despite Star Rail’s best efforts to dissuade me, I really enjoyed the story a lot. On the surface it’s typical video game nonsense involving a destructive force known as the Stellaron (affectionately known as the Cancer of All Worlds) housed inside your main character, Trailblazer, who has Anime-Amnesia. You soon join the crew of the Astral Express on their space train on a space mission to spot Stellaron disasters wherever they occur. The dedication to world-building is evident, and most of the characters’ individual stories really managed to pull me in despite all the clichés, but the way major story moments and concepts are told is often underwhelming. Why give one sentence explanations for important details, yet spend eight paragraphs on the simplest plot twist? Add regular fade-to-black moments with ‘you do this thing’ or ‘you explain what happened’ text instead of a basic cutscene or dialogue prompt, and it can feel a bit dull at times. A space opera with all the drama, but none of the excitement.
The charming voice cast is a soothing balm during these more painful scenes, and a big reason why the goofy humor goes off so well. Skyler Davenport, the English voice actor who plays March 7 (don’t ask), is a particular stand-out. March 7th is the typical cute anime girl who accompanies you throughout most of the game, so she could easily have become a mascot for the annoyance, but with Davenport’s delivery she really comes across as a goofy, sweet friend. Jo plays the perfect double act with grumpy Dan Heng, another Astral Express partner. While the characters often follow some overdue archetypes, the talented cast helps keep them feeling fresh.
The lack of oomph in the environments isn’t something refreshing, which feels like a consequence of running on a mobile. The traditional Chinese-inspired ‘silkpunk’ design of the Jianzhou Luofu ships you’ll discover later does its best to inject a little style into your journey into the stars, but not much. The music certainly helps create an inviting atmosphere where the design doesn’t, offering a delectable smorgasbord of piano melodies, gentle chants and harsh electronic beats depending on where you’re looking. There’s even a pop-rock song I haven’t gotten bored of, despite it being chosen as the only track to play while I’m on my magical space train between missions.
It’s clear that the feeling of playing Star Rail takes priority over its looks, and by far the best feeling comes from the spectacular combat. Turn-based fighting is a much harder sell these days, but with the helpful double speed and auto-battle toggles, Star Rail has managed to mix elemental and traditional JRPG class systems, somehow failing to make it fun.
Each character has an element and a path, their element making them stronger against certain enemies, and their path locking them into a certain role. If you bring a character like Asta into your party, for example, you can easily fire off vulnerable enemies’ break bars, knocking them down and opening them up for more damage. It’s helpful, but it’s not her main role, as Asta on The Harmony Path is used for allies. His specialty is increasing your team’s speed so you can have more turns. This is useful, but there are 22 characters in Honkai: Star Rail at launch, each with their own element and path combination, with unique abilities only they can use.
In the later stages of the game, you’ll come up against elite enemies and bosses that require strategic thinking about your party composition, and it’s very satisfying when you solve these battle puzzles , because there is not a universal solution. You can defeat a boss by bringing four damage dealers and nuke them before they have a chance to wipe out your team, whereas I can defeat the same boss by bringing a DPS main, a healer and two supports. The possibilities aren’t endless, but it feels like it when everyone has a different set of characters to choose from.
There aren’t too many difficult bosses as long as you’re leveling up characters, so combat in the alternate Forgotten Halls and Simulated Universe challenges is the most fun to be had with experimentation. Forgotten Halls tasks you with defeating enemies under a set number of turns, as it gets harder, forcing you to think extra carefully about party lineups and each individual attack. The Simulated Universe mixes things up and adds a massive Rogue-like mode, with each enemy being defeated giving random ‘blessings’, such as a bonus shield, or a higher chance to freeze enemies. You get to choose from three blessings each time, and there’s a permanent ability tree, which gives some control over how buff you get when you reach the boss at the end of each world.
It’s these two gameplay modes that may have you turning to Star Rail’s gacha loot boxes in hopes of pulling off a 5-star character to help you push through the latter few levels, but in my experience Since, it is not necessary. Spend your free currency on them, sure – having more party options is never a bad thing – but there’s no need to spend money on character or weapon banners to progress. It’s really about how you play a person and what team you build around them, not their base stats. A shiny new 5-Star might make things easier, but they won’t help you much if you don’t know how their individual abilities work with your existing roster.
It may seem counterintuitive to focus so much on 5-stars when they really aren’t needed, but it’s the great magic trick Genshin Impact has been pulling off for years now. Creating hype for a new character on social media certainly helps, but it’s the attention to detail in designing a fresh playstyle that piques the interest of those willing to experiment with combat, and it seems to That’s Honkai: Star Rail going down the same road. The first character to have a limited time is Banner Seele, who is on The Hunt Path, meaning he must be used in single-target encounters. Leaving Seele’s passive talent she gets another turn and if she hits an enemy, it also makes her good in multi-target scenarios. No other character moves quite like this, and therein lies the appeal of spending your currency on Seale. Well, that, and you want him on your team because you like him. Never underestimate the appeal of pulling for a waifu or husband in a gacha game, as I’m sure Hoyverse’s annual earnings can attest to.
Star Rail also caters for those who are not interested in combat and just want to hang out with their favourites. Companion missions delve deeper into backstory and allow them to board the Astral Express upon completion, but my favorite feature is the random text messages. Your phone is usually a side search machine, but occasionally, there are irrelevant conversations that pop up. Maybe someone is feeling stressed at work, or wants your opinion on their photography skills, or just messages to show off their latest chibi stickers. It adds a welcome camaraderie between high-stakes storytelling and resource farming, opens up a different side to some of the characters, or just provides a laugh or two.
All this, and this is only the first chapter of your trailblazer journey. With each new patch, the future of Star Rail awaits more characters, stories, side quests, planets and enchanting music. The story execution might fall flat at times, and the atmosphere might feel a bit lackluster, but with the promise of a lesson from your buds just around the corner, and delightful combat challenges to deal with, I can’t help But excited about the next destination of the Astral Express. Just a sci-fi Genshin Impact? Maybe for some, but I love my Star Rail Smoothie even though it tastes familiar.
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