What is something that you do every day at least 3 times, before leaving home, after lunch, and before bed? If you’re a well-adjusted person your answer is probably something like “brushing your teeth.” If you’re like me however, your answer is “use my stamina on Honkai Impact 3rd.” I wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time, I was a productive member of society with a bright future ahead of me. It was Hoyoverse’s Genshin Impact that got me to give games with the gacha model a chance, made me fall in love with the studio, and ruined my life. Naturally, I was eagerly looking forward to their most recent title Honkai: Star Rail, especially after finding some time to fall in love with the source of its namesake, even if I’m not quite up to date.

No, you don’t have to play the previous titles to understand anything going on here, and in fact I wouldn’t recommend you try to do any background research. Not only because no one should try to fit more than two gacha titles in their life – do as I say not as I do, kids – but also because this game’s gear and progression systems take so much after Genshin Impact that it might get a little bit tiring unless you are just enamoured by that game’s design. Damage equations, gear systems, general build structures, and even the kind of flavour text you can expect each unit and piece of gear to have all follow the studio’s previous title to a T.

The biggest difference between these two is, of course, setting and genre. Honkai: Star Rail is a space-faring adventure by way of the truest and most tested genre of all: the JRPG. Taking on a classic odyssey format, you will visit small sections of frozen planets, research stations, and even entire societies that now live amidst giant space-faring vessels. All the while standing with three of your friends in a row and respectfully taking turns smacking enemies.

Screenshot of combat during Honkai: Star Rail. Various characters stand along a line, while an overlay of their portraits and status meters on the bottom of the screen.

There is no real science to this gameplay, however, for the most part the only concern during a battle is to appropriately time your healing and to manage your skill points that are shared across the whole party. Much like in Persona, most of the time you will find yourself doing nothing but hammering away with the most effective move while using supports to stay alive turn after turn.. While it is flashy, and even the most complex JRPG combat systems don’t tend to be much more sophisticated, it is still only one step above barebones.

Perhaps the greatest strategizing required of you is building a proper team with the short move list of each unit, and following the game’s strict requirement that you engage with its elemental weakness system to break the enemies’ guards, lest each encounter last a lifetime. This is unfortunately where the gacha system might make it so some players have an incredibly tough time with certain encounters if you just don’t have a good fire, or ice, or spaghetti and rice damage dealer. It is fun to play around with creative team lineups if you get some good guys and gals like I have, but it is easy to imagine how their absence might make even some story encounters a bit of a pain.

The real charm of Hoyoverse’s titles is in the writing, the visual design and the music however, and I’m happy to say this game brings all their usual strengths in spades. Thanks to more sophisticated rigging for every model, and a larger variety of builds among these, even the most casual conversations in this game are more dynamic and flow more smoothly than Genshin Impact’s.

Screenshot from Honkai: Star Rail. A medium shot of a pair of two humans in futuristic clothing standing in an interior. A man with blue hair stands closer to the foreground, putting his hand to his head.

The sound design is outstanding. The music, as is customary, draws from a dozen different traditions and styles, albeit with more of a metal spice this time around which is quite welcome. Though as usual the soundtrack ranges from Canon in D, to folksy pop once you board the train with Take the Journey and the usual dozen arpeggiator synths that every Japanese game has to use any time machinery is shown on-screen by law.  And true to the usual Honkai Impact 3rd style quite a few of these actually have lyrics. For its part the voice acting is extremely solid, within the ranges of anime style games. If you can’t stand English-language speakers overacting in this manner I see little that should change your opinion, especially given that a lot of these fine folks are being put to the task of pronouncing Mandarin semi-convincingly for the first time in their careers. It is a nice silver lining however, that the improved lip syncing for every language does help it mesh much better with the models’ performances. 

Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the writing it’s hard to ever feel like you really get to know any of the locales you arrive at. From the Herta Space Station where the geniuses of the galaxy conduct their research, to the Luofu ship of the nomadic Xianzhou Alliance, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you are doing the galactic equivalent of popping in for a couple of days to ride the touristic buses and then continue on your way. The usual order of operations is: you arrive, solve a local problem while blazing through a couple locales, then leave without looking back. The fact that these are self-contained areas connected by elevators in the best of cases and just a loading screen at worst makes it so these places exist more as their own highlight reels (albeit very beautiful and memorable ones) than as fully breathing worlds along your journey.

Screenshot from Honkai: Star Rail. A wide shot of a town square. Towering at the center of its plaza is a monolithic, industrial monument with crystals poking out of it. People stand scattered around it.

In all other aspects the writing is surprisingly thoughtful as is characteristic of Hoyoverse, indulging in all their usual topics such as academic malpractice, the role of deities in a world of ever-advancing science, and the many ways in which humans decide to interpret the wills of those who came before. All the while, it’s doing the Genshin trick of leaving the more heady stuff on papers scattered throughout every nook and cranny. Meanwhile, cutscenes keep it light, fun, and accessible, in part thanks to not trying to adopt a time-appropriate affectation as they do in Genshin, which gives the dialogue a snappy and irreverent tone that makes this game genuinely funny more often than not. And of course, the main plot sees you convoluting a way to come to blows with a monster the size of a mountain by the end of each world because this is a JRPG.

This title’s relationship with Honkai Impact 3rd seems to be mostly informed by the same core ideas of societies’ response to seismic adversity and what being at the forefront of such a response does to individuals, how those left out of the coordinated response form lifes at the periphery and so on. To fit that motif, many of that game’s cast has been imported into this new universe, living in different circumstances whilst largely retaining their core traits. It’s an interesting idea, but until these versions are more developed it’s hard to say if this is a little more than a party trick to make you smile when your favourite 3rd character shows up in a new form in Star Rail.

Screenshot from Honkai: Star Rail. A pair of two anime-stylized female characters look towards the viewer.

Hoyoverse’s titles tend to start slow. No matter how they start, it usually takes two or three years for their more interesting ideas and best design to come to light. This was incredibly clear after Honkai Impact’s massive leap in every regard, and Genshin’s storytelling has only begun to get more focused as it finally begins to acknowledge all the things it teased back in its 1.0 patch.

But experience and my increasing forays into honest-to-god adult responsibilities have taught me that one can’t actually just review a Gacha game like one would a regular game. Just like MMOs or Fighting Games there are genre-specific considerations that one has to take in mind. Throughout most of this review I have adopted a tone of voice that obviates and tries to work around the gacha as an inconvenience, but by doing that I’m not only doing a disservice to you the reader, but ignoring large parts of the games both virtues and flaws. Games with a gacha model are games you are supposed to play daily, or close to it, if you are to make the most of them. To pick one up and end up really falling in love with it is picking up a long-term task in a way that’s fairly different from other ongoing titles. 

I still remember a conversation I had with a stranger while making small-talk over phone games wherein he tried to sell me on Blue Archive. Gracefully ignoring the ten-ton side-eye I shot his way upon the mention, his opening salvo was “You barely have to play it at all” which made me write him off as a crab person for the remainder of the conversation. I bring up this anecdote not to humiliate this anonymous man in a public venue but so that you may flay my prostrated figure with the appropriate force when I tell you, with no hint of irony, that I was relieved to find out that in a pinch, keeping up with Star Rail most days is a matter of clicking 3 or 4 buttons and letting the game’s autobattling feature take over for 8 to 20 minutes depending on your build. And at the weekly level all that’s required of you is a few playthroughs of the bonus mode Simulated Universe if you want to keep up with a modicum of rolling currency and equipment rewards. These additional playthroughs should all in all add up to 90 minutes every week most of which can also be done automatically.

Screenshot from Honkai: Star Rail featuring a menu selection screen.

Though this man was actually a crustacean masquerading as a human, it wasn’t for those reasons. The plain and simple truth is sometimes you don’t want to play the same game you’ve been playing for months for 20 minutes to do your dailies. And the harsher truth is that sometimes you can’t afford to sit out for 20 minutes. In those moments features like Honkai: Star Rail’s autobattling and easy to fulfill objectives, or the fact that most days you can simply click on buttons to have the game spend all your stamina for you in Honkai Impact 3rd is are quality of live features I thanked the heavens for like no other when I had to travel out of my home for a week for personal reasons or when I had to cram hard for semester finals. And the flipside to this is, of course, you are free to take charge and play all these instances if you so desire. Star Rail even includes completely optional daily missions if you feel like spending 4 to 6 minutes reading through a joke-of-the-day storyline instead of leaving it all to the AI. 

Though the daily obligation of gachas is born from the need to log in to keep up with upgrades and premium currency to obtain new characters, it’s easy to see how such a format would appeal to more writerly types such as Fate’s own Kinonoko Nasu or Mihoyo’s whole oeuvre. Let us not forget that works like The Portrait of Dorian Grey or The Count of Monte Cristo were originally written as serials before being compiled into their novel forms in which they can be read today. A story read over time is a very different experience than one read in a few sessions. But it’s also keeping in mind that a large majority of the story, in fact what will end up being the bulk of it, does not currently exist and you need to decide for yourself whether to take on such a long-term-commitment with such an uncertain outcome.

As of the time of writing the game is smack-dab in the middle of its 1.1 version, with events doing a pretty poor job of varying up the gameplay but a formidable one at fleshing out locations and characters with new storylines. Already addressing some complaints like allowing you to explore new locations in places already visited and showing more interactions between the cast when not in the middle of a JRPG crisis.  But, like any gacha event, each one of these is at most 2 hours of drip fed entertainment before you are returned to the wasteland of stamina management and material grinding. It comes with the territory.

Key art from Honkai: Star Rail. Two anime-stylized characters wearing futuristic clothing lean over the railing of a nightlit, building rooftop.

I was initially skeptical of the idea of a turn-based JRPG in the format of a gacha game, but this has proven to be a winning formula for titles such as the monolithic Fate/Grand Order and Granblue Fantasy games, and now that the studio that first eased me into the format has thrown their hat in the ring, I can safely say I understand the appeal. Though it might not do anything as unique as Genshin Impact to set itself apart from the rest of the mobile and gacha scene, leading to many endemic annoyances being more apparent, what is here is high quality and in many ways more refined. 

Honkai: Star Rail’s initial versions are an incredibly solid foundation for what might come ahead, though it also seems to leave little ground to grow much more beyond the realm of a traditional JRPG. By now you should know what you’re getting into when you pick up one of these. As for myself, I need to stop writing this review and go do my dailies, thank you very much.   

4 stars

Lovely and mundane daily life among the stars

Beautifully written and executed take on a well-known genre and format but lacking in surprises

About Walker

Walker is a bilingual Punk living in Mexico. When they are not getting stomped on in a mosh pit, they are online getting stomped on in BlazBlue.

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