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Honkai: Star Rail is a stylish turn-based JRPG, with very similar energy to Genshin Impact

If you don't like anime, I have bad news

Over the last few weeks I've spent a number of hours with Honkai: Star Rail's closed beta, and it certainly seems that MiHoYo's upcoming free-to-play RPG is hoping to capture a similar audience to Genshin Impact. Star Rail's turn-based battles and JRPG leanings might be a bit of a departure from Genshin's open-world adventuring, but it's definitely, 100%, without a doubt, anime as heck. Oh, and very gacha. There's a lot of currencies. So many currencies. Still, I think it's shaping up to be a decent time.

Honkai: Star Rail is technically a follow up to action-RPG Honkai Impact 3rd, but from what I've played at least, you don't need any prior knowledge to understand what's going on. That is, if you care about what's going on in the first place... which I don't. I'm someone who's spent hundreds of hours with your Isekais and your Shonens and wept quietly after numerous romances (Ore no Monogatari and Orange, I'm looking at you), so I'd hoped to get sucked into Star Rail's story just the same. In the end, it didn't pass The Phone Test: a cutscene succeeds if Ed doesn't pick up his phone and start chuckling at goblin improv on TikTok.

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I'm sure some will find Star Rail's story a treat, but I felt it leant too heavily on jargon to build its sci-fi universe, with phrases like "The Emanators of the Aeon Mythus" and "Ponderers who inadvertently encountered the Nihility" being thrown about with the same casual energy as Spooner and Sonny going for 18 holes around Chicago. These big words are meant to draw you into the game's universe, presumably sucking in folks who like being left in the dark about a big freeze or a calamity or whatever, and relish their gradual unveiling over a chapter or so. In the end, though, it ended up having the opposite effect on me.

Still, the core of what you do in Star Rail is undeniably cool. You're a silent protag who's had an evil cube (a Stellaron, if you will) shoved into your chest, so you've got a powerful doodad whizzing about your veins – classic. It's something you don't really remember anything about, but it does lead you to join a band of tropey anime folks (quiet broody guy, chipper girl, etc.) on their space train. They call themselves the "Trailblazers", riding the anime express to explore distant planets and save them from more evil cubes.

March 7th says that she hopes to discover her past by exploring space in Honkai: Star Rail.
While I think the characters likely have some interesting backstories, I do find some of them a bit too anime. And that's coming from me!

Star Rail trades Genshin's open world exploration and real time combat for something more akin to a traditional JRPG, so frolicking and fighting is a little more restrictive here. Instead of letting you glide across planets and scurry up mountain ranges, Star Rail ushers you through a largely linear storyline and keeps your feet firmly planted on the ground at all times. Early on you'll explore a space station, then an icy city called Belobog (which was very pretty indeed). Sandwiched in between cutscenes, quests, and chatter, you'll be popped into combat sequences which resemble Persona's dungeons: lots of corridors with enemies planted in your way. Run up to them and you'll engage in a turn-based battle with all your anime pals.

And I'm pleased to report that Star Rail's fights are good! It works similarly to most other turn-based affairs, in that you've got basic attacks and skills, with basic attacks costing zero mana to cast, while skills always cost something. Mana regenerates between each of your pals' attacks, so it's important to balance your bashes, basically. Each enemy has an elemental weakness too, which you must, I cannot stress this enough, must exploit by hitting them with whoever's attacks correspond to that element on your team.

Exploiting an enemy's weakness will cause their guard to break, rendering them useless for a turn and more vulnerable to attacks. There's a clear rhythm to Star Rail's combat, which is basically – hit the enemy with the element. I can't comment too much on how the combat evolves, as things could change, but I wouldn't say it was all too complex in those early hours. And that's coming from me, someone who's not all that into turn-based, strategy stuff. I liked how easy it was to get to grips with the fights, though, and the satisfaction that came with shielding the right characters at the right time, or securing the all-important guard break to prevent an enemy's big wind-up finisher.

March 7th, an icy archer, aims at a soldier in Honkai: Star Rail.
Note the little elemental icons above each enemy. Hit 'em with a corresponding element and you'll smash that white bar down, until you eventually guard break them.

That's not to say I don't have some gripes with the combat. My main issue is an inability to swap out party members mid-battle, especially if one of them goes down. Maybe this changes later on, but it's frustrating when you can't revive them or have someone else slide into view for the tougher boss battles. For instance, one fight saw me lose over and over and over again. I'd get close, but they'd always wipe me out, no matter what I tried. It then took me a bit too long to realise that, yes, Star Rail is a Hoyo game, and yes, it's a gacha game. I'd forgotten to go into one of the game's many menus and spend many of the game's currencies to level up my teammates. Once I'd done so, I won the fight convincingly. That's right: you can't escape the gacha.

What's gacha, you ask? You spend tickets – or Star Rail Passes, in this case – on a percentage chance to receive a cat boy. What often happens is you don't receive a cat boy, but one of five trillion currencies which can be spent somewhere in one of five trillion menus. I may be overexaggerating a bit, but the game is bursting with bits. It's pretty overwhelming, honestly, and it can take a long, long while to figure out which funnel you're meant to pour them into. Once you do so, it's quite satisfying levelling up things which increase stats, and I did get excited when I bagged a teammate that fought with an electric guitar.

A look at salvaging materials in Honkai: Star Rail.
It took some real effort to understand how all of the currencies and upgrade systems worked. Prepare to be overwhelmed.

Let's just say, though, that you won't like Star Rail if you don't like levelling up a character's skill tree, or their special cards, or their memory fragments, all of which have their own little micro-economy going on. You simply have to engage with the gacha, otherwise you won't be able to progress.

Still, from the early portions of Honkai: Star Rail I've played, I think it's shaping up to be a solid JRPG. The story might not be for everyone, but its characters seem fairly nuanced, and the universe they've built is wonderfully detailed and expansive. Combat is strong and approachable, too. Not to forget that it's all free-to-play, which represents ridiculous value if you're in the market for a very anime, planet-hopping trip with some tropey teens. Yes, it has an inescapable gacha layer which entices you to spend real world money, but for what it's worth, I didn't need to spend anything to get by. Whether it forces you to part with your cash later down the lines remains to be seen, I suppose. I'll be watching you from the Aeon Mythus, Star Rail.

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