It’s a year of big disappointments, from Forspoken to Redfall. However, it’s also one of big surprises, like Hi-Fi Rush and stellar titles like Dead Space Remake, Resident Evil 4 Remake and Star Wars Jedi: Survivor (ideally once the technical issues have been ironed out). I didn’t doubt that miHoYo’s latest free-to-play RPG, Honkai: Star Rail, would be at the same level of success, but not to this degree.
Honkai: Star Rail isn’t just an incredible sci-fi role-playing game packed with content and loving attention to detail. It’s one of the better RPGs I’ve played in the past few years and a stellar free-to-play title, which is saying something given the competition it faces from miHoYo’s catalogue, like Genshin Impact and Honkai Impact 3rd.
"The world and its elements, along with the Aeons and the role of the Astral Express, are well-detailed, as are the motives for each character."
The story unfolds in an alternate universe to the Honkai Impact series, where mysterious beings known as Aeons exist. The Aeons are all powerful and follow different Paths, not unlike the Archons and their elements from Genshin Impact. Different factions and cultures have emerged around the Aeons, but that’s not where your story starts. You begin as Kafka, a mysterious figure who infiltrates the Herta Space Station in search of the Stellaron, while the Anti-Matter Legion attacks.
The mysterious substance is known as the Cancer of All Worlds. After some digging and stylish combat, Kafka implants it into the player character (Stelle or Caelus, referred to as the Trailblazer) before departing. The Trailblazer doesn’t have memories of their previous life but is haunted by visions of Nanook, the Aeon of Destruction responsible for creating the Stellaron.
Now in control of the Trailblazer, you meet up with March 7th and Dan Heng of the Astral Express, an organization venturing to different worlds to contain the Stellaron and its disastrous effects. It’s a star-faring journey across multiple planets with an expansive cast of characters and several NPCs. You go from Herta’s Space Station to the ice-covered Jarilo-VI and beyond to learn more about the Trailblazer’s purpose, and hopefully, the Stellaron within them.
Though it starts in media res and showers the player with lots of unknown information, Honkai: Star Rail does a great job bringing you up to speed without dragging the pacing down. The world and its elements, along with the Aeons and the role of the Astral Express, are well-detailed, as are the motives for each character. More importantly, despite seemingly adhering to some tropes, characters like March 7th, Dan Heng, Welt and more have a lot of personality, thanks to the sharp writing.
"Visually, Honkai: Star Rail is absolutely gorgeous to behold. miHoYo’s character designs and animated art style remain as distinct and striking as always."
All of this combines for a strongly paced-narrative that never really slows down. The way that stories unfold for each location is also excellently done, as you come to care about the characters, whether it’s Herta Station’s head astronomer Asta or Bronya, leader of the Silvermane Guards. Some dialogue can end up a bit too wordy, but it does fit in with the disposition of some characters like Sampo.
The voice-acting cast also does an admirable job in this regard. Capable actors like Dani Chambers (Arlan), Nicholas Leung (Dan Heng), Skyler Davenport (March 7th), and Molly Zhang (Seele), among others, imbue their characters with personality while still sounding natural. The same goes for random NPCs, which is a delight, even if many don’t have significant roles in the plot. The Trailblazer also feels like a distinct personality, even with limited lines and a lack of spoken responses in many conversations. Having dialogue choices that actually elicit unique reactions in conversations also helps in this regard, and some of the results are genuinely funny.
Visually, Honkai: Star Rail is absolutely gorgeous to behold. miHoYo’s character designs and animated art style remain as distinct and striking as always. The environmental design is similarly incredible, embracing a more idealized version of sci-fi while sprucing up locations like a frozen world and a city with a distinct class divide. They’re also full of details – I never thought a game would find a way to make investigating trash cans or closets enthralling, but here we are. The music also deserves special mention, providing fantastic orchestral pieces and synth tracks in equal measure, along with more straightforward emotional tracks like “Take the Journey.”
Unlike Genshin Impact, Honkai: Star Rail isn’t an open-world game, but it’s not mission-based like Honkai Impact 3rd. The narrative is on rails for the first hour or so, and then you’re let loose to explore different environments in a location. These are regarded as separate stages instead of one seamless map and feature NPCs roaming around, providing side quests and dialogue to enemies to fight and resources to collect. Even as you follow the story, it’s possible to return to previous areas, which sometimes opens up new quests, thanks to the instant messaging system (which also provides some hilarious conversations from different characters).
"Speaking of combat, it’s entirely turn-based, relying on a command-based system and turn order."
Some areas may be considered a little too small in scale, with a few branching paths containing chests with loot, rare enemies and Formidable Enemies. However, it works to Honkai: Star Rail’s advantage, focusing on the narrative while offering some breathing room between major story beats to explore and fight. You’ll still get that vibe of areas being little more than expensive movie sets, but at least they feel alive in their own ways, especially when engaging in side quests.
Speaking of combat, it’s entirely turn-based, relying on a command-based system and turn order. Each of your four characters has an Element that determines how effectively they can break an enemy and a Path that determines their role. For example, Dan Heng uses Wind attacks and follows The Hunt, which makes him exceptionally good at single-target damage. By comparison, March 7th follows The Preservation, serving as a strong defensive option while dealing with Ice damage.
You’ll always see enemy elements before a battle, allowing time to prepare, but each character has their unique way of harnessing Paths and Elements. Serval follows The Erudition and can target multiple enemies in battle with her Lightning damage.
While Arlan also deals Lightning damage, he’s more about front-loaded damage thanks to The Destruction, with his main Skill dealing self-damage. Elements also have different status effects for crowd control and damage over time. Even if you’re not exploiting a weakness, they can contribute in different ways (as long as enemies aren’t resistant).
"I am impressed at the sheer balance of encounters, including boss fights, and how having healers is a bonus rather than a necessity."
You’ll quickly pick up on options to delay an enemy’s turn by exploiting their elemental weakness to break them. While Ultimates, powerful abilities that charge over time and when dealing or receiving damage, can be used on a character’s turn, you can also activate them immediately, like the S-Break abilities from Falcom’s Trails series.
It allows for cutting into the turn order and either granting another turn to a character, immediately slaying an enemy before it can deal any damage, or breaking a foe en route to its big attack. Different conditions also allow party members to “follow” up with attacks – for instance, execute three elemental breaks, and Himeko will immediately execute an AoE attack for solid damage.
It’s surprisingly tactical but remains fast-paced and fluid, thanks to the solid controls and well-designed effects. I do wish there was a character-switching option mid-combat, though. While you’ll quickly learn about the enemies in each area and their weaknesses, being able to, say, sacrifice a character’s turn to replace them with another would be ideal, instead of returning to the menu.
However, you can always create custom team load-outs and switch as necessary, based on the area, so it’s not a major issue. I am impressed at the sheer balance of encounters, including boss fights, and how having healers is a bonus rather than a necessity. Fortunately, as you figure out different enemies and their weaknesses, you can increase auto speed and enable auto battle to quickly complete some encounters, even if the latter is a little too Ultimate-happy sometimes.
"It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the sheer number of systems and materials required, but you’re always given specific details on where to get what for each character…"
Aside from the main quest, there is quite a lot to do with side quests and optional activities. Many of the usual tropes, like material grinding to level and ascending various characters, Relics, Light Cones (which provide different passives, based on conditions met in combat), and so on, apply. Completing Challenges awards small amounts of Stellar Jade, used in rolling for new characters. There are also daily login rewards, daily missions, separate currencies for world vendors, the option to send characters out to gather resources, and much more.
Calyx Challenges are littered throughout areas, each providing Trailblaze XP and different resources in exchange for defeating waves of enemies and consuming Trailblaze Power, which regenerates over time. As you level up your Trailblaze Level (equivalent to Genshin’s Adventure Rank), you’ll receive additional rewards and can also increase your Equilibrium Level for tougher challenges and better drops.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the sheer number of systems and materials required, but you’re always given specific details on where to get what for each character, whether it’s completing certain activities or Synthesis. The fact that these systems are gradually introduced does help, and aside from incremental upgrades for each character, you don’t need to fully commit to the grind unless you’re diving deep into the end game.
Side quests are par for the course, but each offers some unique twists and mechanics, like a treasure hunt when finding lost items or box-pushing puzzles. Then there’s the Simulated Universe, a venerable rogue-lite game within the game where you select a team and venture into a series of randomly arranged “Worlds” for rewards.
"If you want to remain completely free-to-play and enjoy the story at your leisure, as I have, then Honkai: Star Rail is incredibly viable in that respect."
Defeating enemies grants different Blessings that significantly alter your play style and provide massive benefits and different encounters with simulated versions of the Aeons provide more context into their various natures. It’s incredibly well done, providing a fresh experience with each run while offering tougher challenges as you explore subsequent worlds.
Since this is a gacha game, the highest rarity characters are locked behind RNG, as you spend Star Rail Passes and Stellar Jade to roll for them. I found the system to be fairly generous when it came to doling out resources, not unlike Honkai Impact 3rd. However, gacha is still gacha, and there’s still that trap of spending real money to continuously roll for characters, receiving numerous Light Cones in return and maybe entering pity at some point.
You’re showered in free stuff to entice and hook you from the beginning, and eventually spend more time to earn that same amount through regular gameplay. There is a Battle Pass to provide additional rewards and materials as you rank up (which can be upgraded for a price), and a pass to grant Stellar Jade each day you log in. But when it comes to the highest-ranked waifus and husbandos, everyone is at the mercy of RNG.
You’ll still receive a steady stream of characters while playing through the story, and I never felt my power was limited by not having a specific character. If you want to remain completely free-to-play and enjoy the story at your leisure, as I have, then Honkai: Star Rail is incredibly viable in that respect.
"If you’re a fan of turn-based role-playing games, and don’t mind the gacha systems, Honkai: Star Rail is at least worth trying out."
It also doesn’t continuously remind you to make purchases because your current power isn’t enough, unlike some free-to-play titles (cough, Diablo Immortal, cough). However, while I never felt pushed to spend money, others with a weakness in this kind of service model will definitely feel the pull if the reported millions earned in just a few days weren’t enough of an indicator.
As a new addition to miHoYo’s growing library of free-to-play RPGs, this is an incredibly well-realized space-faring adventure. It has great characters you want to know better with interesting backstories. The main plot and setting are genuinely interesting to follow, even if the narrative abruptly stops after completing the available content, which is, unfortunately, the bane of every free-to-play title.
The combat is incredibly fun and well-designed with deceptive complexity. The presentation and production values are top-notch, and the performance is pretty much flawless. If you’re a fan of turn-based role-playing games, and don’t mind the gacha systems, Honkai: Star Rail is at least worth trying out.
This game was reviewed on PC.
Interesting universe and story, reinforced by a beautiful aesthetic and exceptional production values. Combat is easy to get into, but highly tactical and addictive. Strong characterization, voice acting and pacing. Lots of fun side content to delve into.
Explorable areas are on the smaller side in terms of scale. Some dialogue gets a bit too wordy. Gacha systems aren't the most ideal, even when the game showers you in Rail Passes and Stellar Jade.