Honkai: Star Rail review: a slick, anime-infused RPG bursting with potential
Star Ocean, but if everyone was hotter and you could gamble
Honkai: Star Rail throws you into the body of an amnesiac protagonist with unknowable hidden powers who has been awakened from a deep slumber by someone called Kafka. This woman is something of a mystery and seems to have a flair for the dramatic as she kicks off the whole game by playing an invisible violin along to the classic Baroque epic Pachelbel’s Canon as massive, intergalactic monsters invade a spaceship.
It’s an incredibly cool opening, the kind of thing that John Wick would watch to get pumped up before, well, John Wick-ing all over the place. It’s pretty clear that Kafka isn’t a hero, but they’ve woken you up, and since you’ve got no memories, you must be one of the good guys. This setup feels familiar, but there are enough changes to make it feel new and get the blood thoroughly pumping.
Actually, that’s basically what Honkai: Star Rail does really well. It’s full of tropes that we’ve all seen before, but it tweaks them just enough to make them feel revitalised and interesting. While the story is still in its early stages at the moment, it’s likely something that’s going to be worth investing in. Plus, Star Rail is free, which makes the initial hurdle a little easier to jump – but it’s also a gacha, which brings with it some baggage.
Gacha games are pretty much designed to take advantage of people like me, who have rubbish impulse control, ADHD, and no time to get outside anymore because I’m too busy cleaning up cat poop or being attacked by my kids. Despite that, I play a lot of them, and I went from having briefly tried Genshin Impact upon launch to not having missed a day since last July when I fell back into it.
Now, Genshin is free-to-play friendly-ish, but it mostly serves low-level spenders who don’t mind splashing out on the battle pass, along with whales who get everything they want and keep the lights on at miHoYo. From what I’ve played of Honkai Star Rail so far, I’m assuming the same is true here too, which is good news for low-spenders.
I also feel like the story is going to grow in the same way as well. The main premise here is that you and the other Trailblazers of the Astral Express, a spacefaring train, have to hunt down Stellaron. Known as the 'cancer of all worlds', Stellarons have been strewn about by Nanook the Destroyer, an Aeon (god) who is going to have a lot of fan art made of them. The main character has one of these implanted in them, and it seems to draw them towards other Stellaron.
Hunting for objects to save the universe isn’t new, just as much as being a chosen one with something evil within them isn’t new. However, the individuals you meet and the mysterious Aeons that seem to control everything will help pull story-focused players through the game. Take Bronya, for example, who’s the daughter of the supreme guardian of the first planet you land on and is driven by duty and her mother’s orders. She's a stone-cold badass, and one of the best units in the game so far, but her story evolves in a genuinely touching way, and her interactions with other characters evolve as she steps further out of her comfort zone.
The thing that’s fascinating here is the potential. Genshin’s story is secretly one of the most heartfelt and devastating out there, but it didn’t start like that. The first few story beats have you saving dragons and other fantasy gubbins, but the more recent stories are about the truth of the world, whether the past can be changed, and so much trauma. I have full faith that Honkai: Star Rail will achieve the same level of storytelling and - if Bronya's mommy issues are anything to go by - especially on the trauma.
Outside of that is the actual gameplay, which I'm happy to report is also incredible. Honkai: Star Rail is a turn-based RPG, not an action one, and while I was a little nervous about that, they’ve done a stellar (hur hur) job of making it interesting, despite also being incredibly simple on the face of things.
Each character has a normal attack, a special skill, and an ultimate to use. Normal attacks generate skill points, special skills use those skill points, and ultimates charge up as characters take their actions. It’s all simple enough, but beneath that simplicity lies so much depth to explore, if you want to. This is partially due to the speed of the characters. You see, there’s a turn order here, but there are characters and abilities that can allow you to take multiple turns before the enemy does anything.
On top of that, each ultimate can actually be activated at any time. This allows you to mess around with turn orders and sequences, lets you hit enemies while they’re vulnerable, or make sure you heal or shield before a big boss attacks. Each character is from one of seven different elements, and hitting an enemy with an elemental weakness allows you to break them, which will push them further back in the turn order and usually do a little bit more damage.
"It’s all simple enough, but beneath that simplicity lies so much depth to explore"
Most characters have their own mechanics of some sort to manage, whether that’s stacking game tiles to pull off huge damage or the ability to counterattack if a character is shielded. The depth comes from manipulating the turn order, but also building your teams to work together seamlessly and play off of each other.
You can build several teams, and because different situations generally require different elements it’s a good idea to have multiple teams with different focuses. Obviously, that’s a ploy to make sure you try and get more characters, which then makes miHoYo money, but you’ll also be glad to hear that the free characters that Honkai: Star Rail gives you aren’t just useable, but actually quite strong.
All of the content that’s in the game at the moment can be beaten with the free characters - and a little bit of strategy - which is very reassuring. There are also a lot of ways to earn free and premium in-game currencies, like completing daily tasks, specific achievements, and during events that will come further down the line.
There’s a roguelike mode too, where you fight through a simulated universe in order to talk with Aeons, and as you do so, you pick up different buffs that can work together to help you clear it. It’s a fun way to test out new teams, test your luck, and earn premium currency all at the same time. On top of that, there are bosses to fight, little dungeons to stumble across, chests to find, side quests to indulge in, and login bonuses as well. Oh, and one more thing, there’s both a speed-up and an auto-battle function, which makes grinding a lot more enjoyable. There’s a lot of game in Honkai: Star Rail – even as a Genshin Impact fan and all the similarities between the two, it’s a lot to take in.
Honkai: Star Rail is still in its early stages but it’s incredibly good fun to play. With the promise of more planets to come, more characters to fall in love with, and more twists and turns than anyone can see coming, this is one train that’s worth riding.
This review is based on a review build of the game provided by the publisher miHoYo.