HoYoverse has built up an empire on the back of Genshin Impact, but before that franchise took the world by storm, the developer released Honkai Impact 3rd in 2016; a spiritual successor to Houkai Gakuen 2, a side-scrolling action/platformer. Though Honkai Impact 3rd drastically changed up the gameplay to make it more akin to a 3D action RPG, HoYoverse is taking a step back with Honkai: Star Rail, the next title in the Honkai universe.
Honkai: Star Rail takes a more tactical approach with turn-based combat, but if my time with its second closed beta is anything to go by, it retains much of what players have come to love from Genshin Impact; including a colorful cast of characters and a grandiose story featuring a very special Trailblazer.
Honkai: Star Rail wears its influences on its sleeve
As you'd expect from the developer behind Genshin Impact, Honkai: Star Rail's story is an epic adventure that follows a special character known as the Trailblazer, who has lost their memories. Implanted with a Stelloran (what is essentially a ticking time bomb), the player travels across the universe in search of Aeons; what HoYoverse describes as "incarnations of universal principles that are able to freely travel between infinite worlds using some kind of primitive force."
With plenty of mysteries for players to uncover and a wide universe to explore, players are in for a treat. Honkai: Star Rail is a live service game that's meant to be supported with frequent content drops in the long term, continuing its story and expanding its cast of characters.
Without playing any of the previous Honkai games, the first thing that struck me in Honkai: Star Rail was just how similar it is to Genshin Impact. Where Genshin Impact is more fantasy themed, Honkai: Star Rail goes all-in on sci-fi. For nearly every mechanic in Genshin Impact, there's an equivalent in Honkai: Star Rail. Wishes are now Warps, Constellations are translated to Eidolons, and there are Relics that reflect Artifacts in HoYoverse's previous title, offering a variety of buffs in combat.
Leveling up is similar, too. Though you can gain gradual experience from combat and exploration, the real way to level up is through earning EXP materials, which dole out experience in bulk.
Each character also has their own skill and Ultimate ability, along with an elemental type: Physical, Wind, Quantum, Ice, Fire, Imaginary, and Lightning. In addition to elements, every character follows a specific path that dictates their abilities in battle. Those who follow the path of The Hunt, for example, excel in dealing a high amount of damage to a single target.
Finding a team composition that synchronizes well and plays off of each other is going to be a huge part of the meta game in Honkai: Star Rail.
Because I hadn't played any previous Honkai games, I was a bit nervous picking up the beta. Thankfully, the gameplay and story are independent from other Honkai titles. When I asked the Star Rail team how similar it would be to its predecessors, they said, "We want Honkai: Star Rail to be a title that is easily accessible to new players, so they too can experience the beauty of the Honkai Universe.
"At the same time, Honkai: Star Rail will carry on the consistent spiritual core of the Honkai series, showing the symbiosis and confrontation between human beings and destiny...
"As a whole, the continuation of this spiritual core of the Honkai series and the independence of the game itself allows all players to develop this magnificent galactic adventure together and enjoy the fun of a brand new game. It will not be necessary for new players to have played the previous Honkai series prior, and old players of the series will share a moment of nostalgia when they reunite some old friends in the new game."
Unshackling itself from the confines of its predecessors was a smart move, as it made it more accessible for me to jump into the game without feeling completely lost.
The greatest difference between Star Rail and other HoYoverse games is that Honkai: Star Rail's combat is turn-based, turning it into more of a tactical RPG than the action RPGs that players may be familiar with. The turn order can be viewed on the left of the screen, and characters are able to hit single or multiple targets depending on their attack.
What I found really satisfying was that a character's Ultimate could be activated at any point, even out of turn. If my entire party had their Ultimate meters full, I could use all of them back to back. This isn't a "get out of jail free" card because you won't one-hit KO most enemies, but it can come in clutch at the right moment.
The team working on Star Rail said that the decision to go from real-time combat to turn-based was made because "the turn-based genre has a prolonged charm of its own." I was told that "its excitement comes from how players defeat enemies after careful planning and decision-making. Though it's easy to get started, a turn-based game allows players to develop diverse and flexible playstyles and strategies in gameplay. Different players may come to totally different tactics to clear the same stage."
Turn-based versus real-time may come down to personal preference, but it works well in Star Rail to keep the pacing more manageable. Combat certainly still has tension, but without time constraints you're able to slow down, take a step back, and assess the situation before deciding your strategy.
What's nice is that whether in combat, or out freely exploring the 3D open world, Honkai: Star Rail features mobile controller support on Android. I found the touchscreen controls to be more than adequate, but I'll never turn down a good mobile controller when I can use one.
What stood out most in my time playing the closed beta was that HoYoverse still has a few kinks to work out in Star Rail. There were multiple times where cutscenes would stutter or freeze, causing me to miss out on crucial story moments. Likewise, the audio will sometimes cut in and out during these moments as well.
The English voice acting also seems hit or miss. There were times when I really felt like I was listening to professional voice actors, and then other times where it felt like amateurs were reading stiffly from a script. Maybe that's just the way those characters were meant to be portrayed, but it didn't do it for me.
Bringing players across the stars
Whether running through the halls of the Herta Space Station or trekking across the snow-covered landscape of Jarilo-VI, HoYoverse hopes to improve the "combat and maze exploration experience, adding more fun to the puzzle-solving and tactics gameplay" with feedback from this beta. Genshin Impact players should feel right at home with what Honkai: Star Rail has to offer.
With some optimization tweaks, I can see Honkai: Star Rail coming out of the gate strong. It doesn't have a release date for mobile and PC as of yet, but the foundation is already there for an excellent experience. Combined with the right support, HoYoverse could be looking at another hit on its hands.
Honkai: Star Rail
Travel the universe and collect a growing roster of characters in this tactical turn-based RPG from the makers of Genshin Impact.
See at: HoYoverse (opens in new tab)
Jennifer Locke has been playing video games nearly her entire life. You can find her posting pictures of her dog and obsessing over PlayStation and Xbox, Star Wars, and other geeky things.
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