The spiritual successor to Honkai Impact 3rd, HoYoverse’s first foray into tactical turn-based RPGs with Honkai Star Rail is anything but amateur. A flashy presentation, clean user interface, great music, and a simple but refined combat system make Honkai Star Rail an enjoyable ride, even on older hardware.
If you have already been keeping up with information on Honkai Star Rail, we’re about to make your day even better with a review of the game’s second closed beta test. Keep in mind that the game is still in production and aspects of the game may change on release, but unless HoYoVerse decides to completely rework the game, you’ll find that Honkai Star Rail has plenty to offer, and will be worth the wait.
▍Honkai Star Rail – The Journeys’ Beginning
As Honkai Star Rail begins, we are introduced to the Herta Space Station as it is being invaded by the Antimatter Legion. Here we get to control the wanted Stellaron Hunter Kafka, as the game introduces the basic systems while we get a glimpse as to why Kafka and Silver Wolf, have snuck their way into the Space Station.
▼ Kafka and Silver Wolf Gameplay
As the pair make their way past the Legion, Silver wolf uses her hacking ability to make their way past a room hidden behind the security room to awaken the player character. Here you get to pick your character’s gender, and won’t be able to change back after this. The mysterious prologue serves to open up several questions about the lore, while also giving you a great introduction to the game’s basic combat mechanics and world.
Once your character wakes up you are greeted by March 7th, and Dan Heng and make your way through the station, encountering several new characters, culminating in a climactic boss fight and meeting with a mysterious figure. We’d go into more detail with the lore but we won’t spoil all of the key events of the prologue, so here are a few shots to get your mind thinking of what happens in the story!
While Honkai Star Rail’s story is fairly engaging, it’s worth pointing out that unless you actively keep up with sidequests in between the story, it’ll come to a screeching halt. HoYoVerse has a fascination with locking story content behind player levels, and Honkai Star Rail is no exception. The game stopped players from progressing further into the story at one point because their player level wasn’t high enough.
Naturally, this stops becoming a problem once you reach a high enough level, but it definitely kills the mood and pacing of a story, especially when it’s starting to get good, and as a new player, I didn’t appreciate being told that my fun time was over, so do prepare for some brief interruptions if you are a very story-centric player.
▍Stunning Visuals Even On Old Devices
Let’s get it out of the way first, I ran the Honkai Star Rail’s closed beta test on a Samsung S8+, a phone that runs on Android 9.0 and was released in 2017. Despite the older device, the game was still fairly playable in combat encounters, and enclosed space, with a frame rate of around 20~30 FPS throughout the experience on the low setting.
As such, the game couldn’t be run in its full visual fidelity, but even with reduced visual settings, the game simply stunning, in no small part to the strength of its design team. The world and characters of Honkai Star Rail are beautifully crafted and animated, with unique basic attacks and special abilities. Each attack beautifully reflects the character’s personality, from Kafka’s ultimate ability where she’s seemingly toying with her foes, to March 7th’s attacks which show off her playful side while being serious.
Most attacks in the game are flashy, but also fast, so they’ll never overstay their welcome even after you’ve seen them several times, which is important when you’ll be looking at the same moves over and over again. The game also offers autoplay, and sped-up combat, with re-recorded voice lines for every character that matches the pace of the fight when sped up, so it sounds totally normal even when sped up.
▼ Himeko’s Ultimate
▼ March 7th’s and The Trailblazer’s Ultimate
▼ Gepard’s Ultimate
Even minor touches such as the pause menu are contextualized as the characters looking at their phones at the same menu as you are. The game even adds a small touch with every character’s phone being different. Small details like this are something that I love to see in a game, as it shows that the designers care about their characters, and makes each character believable. Of course, they would all be using different phones.
Even things such as quests and notifications are given to you through text messages from related NPCs, so you don’t just suddenly have a quest show up in your journal out of nowhere, making it more believable that you are actually fulfilling a request for someone!
▍Simplified, but Deep Turn-Based Combat
Honkai Star Rail’s combat is completely turn-based, with a turn system similar to games like Final Fantasy X, and Persona, by having an “action order” showing you who moves first, which is something I loved. By showing you the order of moves on the screen, it leaves zero ambiguity as to who will be in control at what point in the fight, letting you strategize on what your next move should be. Of course, the game will not show you WHAT the enemies will do, making each enemy action something to dread in tense situations. Do you try to kill an enemy before right he takes your team down? Or buff yourselves to prepare?
Each character has three moves they can perform, a basic attack, their technique, and their ultimate. Basic attacks damage an enemy while their techniques and ultimate abilities vary wildly from character to character. From buffs, high damaging attacks, heals, and many more. Each character also has an element assigned to them, making them stronger, or weaker against certain enemies. You can see the enemy’s elemental weaknesses in combat, so you’ll know which character is best used to attack them. Hitting an enemy with their elemental weakness enough times causes a “break”, which staggers them and causes them to take additional damage from that element.
The most unique element of the Honkai Star Rail’s combat is definitely the ultimates. Ultimate abilities can be activated anytime during combat and will interrupt the current, or next move in the action order. Because many characters’ ultimate moves behave differently, you will have to consider the best skill to use in that situation. Maybe you’ll want to interrupt an enemy with March 7th’s freeze debuff or finish off an enemy before he can even attack. Since the ultimate gauge builds up whenever a character takes or deals damage, you can time it in between multiple enemy moves, so you’ll have to be on your toes to find the perfect opportunity.
▼ Using Ultimates to Disrupt the opponent
The game’s decision to not have randomized encounters like Pokemon is also very appreciated. In Honkai Star Rail, enemies roam around the map letting you choose when to start combat, but if you’re caught off guard you’ll be ambushed, giving them the first move. You can even attack enemies with their elemental weakness when initiating combat, or use a character’s overworld technique beforehand to give you an edge when starting a fight.
▍Refined Familiar Level Up Systems
Honkai Star Rails’ progression system is very similar to Genshin Impact, for better or for worse. Characters gain exp through combat or using EXP items, acquiring duplicates enhances their abilities, and equips special gear and relics on a character, boosting their power even further.
Rather than having weapons, we get Paths. Each character has a unique Path assigned to them, replacing a traditional class system. One example Is the abundance path, which Natasha and Luocha share, designating them as healers. It does take a little bit of getting used to, as paths like the Nihility and Erudition don’t really get across what they do a first glance, and things like the Hunter and Destruction don’t really get across how differently they behave, but it does sound cool.
Since every character has their own weapon, their main equipment is Light Cones, a card that gives a character bonus stats and can be upgraded. Since it isn’t a weapon, you can assign any light cone to any character, granting them the bonus stats. Match the light cone’s path with the right character though, and its ability activates giving them a powerful bonus effect.
It was surprising to find that some of the most useful light cones are the lowest rarity ones, with ones such as Arrows, a basic 3-star Light Cone giving a maximum of 24% crit rate to Dan Heng, making him a critical hitting machine in battles, destroying almost all enemies in a single hit, or shredding a boss’ HP.
While the progression was fairly smooth from early through difficulty level 0, there’s currently no telling how reliant the game will be on rolling great artifacts. The game did offer a synthesize function to craft relics from any set, so here’s hoping that in the final release the grind for relics will be much more bearable.
Characters are also split up between rarities of 4-star and 5-star. Though the important part of a character isn’t in their rarity, more in terms of what their function is. While characters like Natasha can be earned for free in the game she’s far from useless as she’s one of the game’s only. While you are able to heal with certain characters outside of combat, being able to heal in combat drastically increases your odds of success in prolonged fights, where swift victory is not an option.
While Honkai Star Rail’s Gacha rates are not yet finalized, we were able to pick up Gepard from the beginner’s roll within 40 rolls, with a 5-star guaranteed at 50. Compare to Genshin’s beginner roll of 20, without a guarantee of a 5-star, the starting gacha experience for Honkai Star Rail seems to be far more friendly at first glance. Whether this stays for the final release remains to be seen.
▍Honkai Star Rail is a Trailblazer
Honkai Star Rail is one of the best turn-based RPG experiences I have had on mobile in recent memory. It’s refreshing to see a turn-based game look as beautiful as this while having some added depth to an otherwise basic combat system using ultimates. It is quite astounding how HoYoVerse have managed to deliver on their first turn-based outing, with so much attention to detail in its visuals, gameplay, and player freedom.
The game certainly does have its fair share of flaws. Blocking story progress from player levels is still annoying, overworld puzzles are so far not particularly engaging, and I’m worried players may get burned out or stuck at later parts of the game, because of the relics system.
In the end, Honkai Star Rail is still absolutely worth checking out, even if you’re not a particularly big fan of HoYoVerse’s other works, or got sick of the amount of time needed to invest into Genshin. The intriguing original story, and spectacular visual refreshing take on turn-based combat, make Honkai Star Rail a game worth sinking your teeth into, and possibly a new landmark in turn-based RPGs with other companies trying to follow in its footsteps.