Honkai Star Rail Explores the "Hoyoverse"
A pleasant - though potentially costly - trip
It seems like only yesterday that studio miHiYo made waves with the release of Genshin Impact: it became one of the best games of 2020 and one of the highest-earning F2P games of that year. The studio has grown since then, and its franchise has now expanded to become the "Hoyoverse" with Honkai: Star Rail. Combining aspects of Genshin with JRPG design, the game looks like another winner...but that depends on how much you are willing to pay for a train ticket.
Trains in Space
Our story finds us waking up with no memory aboard a space station. There is evil going on in the galaxy, and it's up to a group known as the trailblazers, their "space train", and you, to set things right.
From the get-go, Star Rail features a similar look, and UI, to Genshin Impact. You'll explore a wide range of environments looking for all matters of collectibles and completing quests with an ever-expanding roster of characters. Where things are different with Star Rail is how combat plays out and what that means for your gacha.
The combat system in Star Rail is more like a JRPG compared to the open 3D action of Genshin. Parties comprise no more than four characters, and you can start fighting by hitting an enemy in the field for a first-strike advantage. The name of the game here is staggering enemies to inflict massive damage and stop them from activating on their turn.
Every enemy has one or multiple weaknesses to the different elements (more on that when we get to character design and the gacha). Hitting an enemy with a weakness will drain their stagger bar. When the bar completely empties out, the enemy gets stunned, takes break damage, and is inflicted with an elemental-specific debuff. They will regain the full bar afterward, requiring you to break them yet again.
A nice feature of the combat, and something that makes characters more interesting, is that many of them have "follow-up" attacks that activate under certain conditions. This allows someone to attack more times than you would normally be able to do during their turn.
With that said, it's time to talk about how characters work, and where your money is going to go with the gacha.
Like with Genshin, Star Rail's monetization and progression is all about its cast of characters. Every character in the game comes in either a four or five-star variety and is a one-off. What defines a character is their path/role, which is kind of like their class, and their elemental alignment. Each character will bring to the table a normal attack, an ultimate, a passive, and an on-field ability -- all of which can be upgraded using different resource types.
Besides that, each character can equip one item or "light cone" which is this game's version of Genshin's accessories. Each light cone can be upgraded and enhanced with duplicate copies and provides a path-specific buff for wearing it. You will eventually get access to relics which provide additional bonuses if you equip all of them in a set. There is also an upgradable passive tree and special upgrades for pulling duplicate copies of that character. Even at the early stage of the game, there is a good variety in terms of characters and their abilities which pairs nicely with the combat system.
And with that, let's talk gacha. The game features a 0.6 % chance of getting a five-star on a banner, which I think is the same rate that was used in Genshin. There is a pity system that guarantees a five-star after 90 pulls, and just like Genshin, there are multiple banners and two different summoning resources for normal and special banners.
It's still too early to say if Star Rail is pay-to-win, but I can definitely say that this game is not friendly for free-to-play players.
Besides all the usual trappings of a live service store, complete with a battle pass, Star Rail does show some troubling signs for people who can't or don't want to spend additional money in the game. The ability to reroll your account or at least try to guarantee a five-star for your account, was made purposely frustrating compared to other gacha games, and you can't start with a guest account.
The problem I envision with the game for free players is how the combat system is perfectly designed around the gacha and requiring certain team compositions. As I said further up, combat lives or dies based on being able to break the enemy's stagger -- normal attacks against enemies of comparable or higher levels barely do anything and will not affect stagger if it's not a weakness. If you bring four party members who can't stagger the enemy team, that fight will go on far longer or may be impossible to win. Boss and elite encounters are with enemies who have far too much health for characters to just tank damage; you must have someone who can either heal or provide defense for your team.
What this means is that if you want to be able to see everything in the game, you must have a party of four that can deal with every elemental weakness, while still having support options to keep your characters alive. That adds up to requiring a lot of characters and being at the mercy of the gacha. For me, the free pulls I got during the opening week did not give me characters that could let me deal with the fights quickly, and it started to become a slog.
From a quality-of-life standpoint, I really don't like how the game throws bosses and elites at you in cutscenes but doesn't give you a chance to swap out your party for members who can counter them without having to retreat. Remember, like Genshin, you are also rolling for equipment, which means you can do a 10-pull on a banner and not get a single new character or duplicate of one you have. And if you do get those five-star characters, then you are at the mercy of getting good light cones for each specific role to power them up further.
While you can earn premium and gacha currency weekly, it is still going to be up to luck in terms of how far you can advance in the game. Doing the game's weekly roguelike mode for resources, it is extremely stingy in providing summoning resources and premium currency compared to other games. Since the game is story-focused, it means certain chapters will obviously focus more on certain elemental types, which also means the difficulty of the game for each player is going to be different based on their accounts. And this is all on top of all the grinding you will need to do for resources to level and ascend characters, upgrade their passives, and upgrade light cones.
A Costly Ticket
Honkai Star Rail at its core is a good JRPG; I can't begin to imagine what it will look like three years from now in terms of content. If you've been on the Hoyoverse ride before, this is another solid title in that regard. However, if you're looking for a F2P game that won't demand a lot of your time or wallet, then this trip may prove to be a bit too costly for you.
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