On April 26th, 2023, my life was changed forever. Was it changed for the best? Eh, maybe not, but it was changed all the same as I allowed miHoYo to warp my very existence after years of keeping myself clean. When I played Genshin Impact at launch, I wasn’t really impressed with the gameplay, which word of mouth, at the time, tried to sell as a “Breath of the Wild” Free-to-Play game. I never found that to be a good comparison, despite some inspirations, but the real deterrent for me was that I couldn’t stomach the thought of introducing another Gacha game into my life. So for the past few years, I managed to live a peaceful existence keeping it at arm’s length, feeling perfectly content. Fast forward to earlier this year, and everything has gone off the rails, pun intended. Honkai: Star Rail, the latest release from miHoYo and the newest entry in the Honkai Series, sold itself to me with two very important points: Turn-Based Combat and Space Trains, both of which have proven to be my weaknesses.

For the uninitiated, Honkai: Star Rail is a Chinese-developed mobile gacha game, built off the engine and design philosophy of Genshin Impact, both developed by miHoYo. It’s the next entry in the company’s Honkai series, billed as a standalone entry, that doesn’t require any previous knowledge but is definitely enhanced by having it. You play as a Trailblazer and a member of the Astral Express, a space-faring train that travels to the aid of any in need across the galaxy. The game itself features Turn-Based, JRPG-inspired combat where you build teams of four characters that can be acquired through the game’s gacha system. As for its heritage from Genshin Impact, the game’s visual design, UI design, and overall feel clearly share the same DNA, making it easy to distill the game down to “Genshin Impact but in space and turn-based”, and it excels at being just that.

As of writing this post, I’ve completed up to the Version 1.3 Content Patch which covers the end of the story threads presented upon its initial release for the locations of Jarilo-VI and The Xianzhou Luofu, two fairly content-heavy planets/regions. The story content, companion missions, and most events are fully voice-acted and much better written than I expected. The story of Jarilo-VI, in particular, left a really strong first impression as you learn about a world isolated for 700 in an ever-consuming ice storm and the darkness at the heart of the surviving city. In addition to its writing, the game has a really clean and aesthetically pleasing anime art style. It’s artistically very similar to Genshin Impact, sure, but I find that the game’s vibrant yet simple colors do well to contrast the sci-fi setting and backgrounds, making it quite beautiful to look at. To that end, Honkai: Star Rail also continues miHoYo’s trend of having some of the finest anime character designs in the industry, all to our detriment as it’s a lot easier to pull for characters you want to look and play as. Whether or not you’re into the anime aesthetic, I think you’d be hard-pressed to argue that Genshin Impact and Honkai: Star Rail are not among the best examples of high production and stunning visuals in the genre.

Moving onto the overall gameplay experience, Honkai: Star Rail is not an open world like Genshin but instead a series of small maps/levels for a more linear experience. Within combat areas, enemies can be seen roaming around at which point you can avoid them or attempt a pre-emptive strike to get an advantage in combat. At any given time when roaming, you can switch between any of your four party members who each have an attribute type, a normal attack, and a technique ability, which if used during the pre-emptive strike will provide extra damage or apply special conditions to the enemy. From this point, the turn-based combat begins. Each character has a normal attack, a skill, an ultimate, and a talent that affects their gameplay style. Enemies each have weaknesses shown above their health bar that, when damaged by the corresponding weakness, will break the bar to deal additional damage, incentivizing you to capitalize on their weaknesses. While I initially thought having so few options in combat would lead to a shallow gameplay experience, I found that as enemies have gotten tougher there was still plenty of thought that goes into any given move, and the passive talents each character has allows for more variety than expected.

Now that I’ve set the stage for what the game is and some of its highlights, it’s time to get to the elephant in the room, the live service elements, and how they tie into the gameplay. Outside of the initial base characters and random freebies, characters are acquired by the game’s gacha style, which partaking in is crucial to team building. To put it plainly, it’s unavoidable if you want to create unique and interesting teams instead of slogging with the default characters, which is problematic but likely not unexpected. Where I think the real problem lies for this game versus an action game is that there’s no “cheesing”/manipulating your way through combat. Everything is purely stat and ability-based so if you lack cohesion in your team or are missing specific roles, you’re in for a bad time. To mitigate this, you have to actively engage with all the systems in the game to grind premium currency and pick your indulgences wisely, well, only if you’re mildly free-to-play like me.

In order to create a damage-over-time team, I needed to roll on Patch 1.3’s Kafka, a core member of the strategy, which I was forced to get via the game’s pity system, draining all my currency. The pity system in question is once you’ve rolled up to 90 times without seeing a 5-star, you’re guaranteed a 50/50 shot (soft pity) at the focus character. If you fail that roll, then the next 90 rolls will guarantee you the 5-star focus character (hard pity). Now, one benefit of this system is that rolls carry over between banners so 40 rolls without a 5-star on one banner will have you pick up from those 40 out of 90 rolls on your next banner attempt so you can try and math it out, as needed. Getting back to Kafka, at the moment, if I wanted to engage in a DoT team, I had no choice but to go all in as there’s no telling when she’ll return. Like many mobile games, this system is designed to keep you perfectly tied up in the ecosystem and encourage you to spend. However, I find that in Honkai: Star Rail, it’s even more crucial to ensure you’re having a fun time as the base characters leave a lot to be desired. For many, this system can be taxing in more ways than one and a big turn-off, which is why it’s difficult to recommend an otherwise great game so deeply tied to its money-making systems.

The other problem is grinding, and not the classic JRPG grinding but material grinding with a stamina system. Once you get to the endgame and have multiple characters, the game becomes incredibly grindy as you juggle various material types, character gear, and in-game money constraints for upgrade costs. The game utilizes the common “Stamina” system to limit the amount of activities you can perform in a given day to help stretch this process out. In order to progress at a relatively reasonable speed, the game offers a “Battle Pass” every content patch or 5-6 weeks. For $10, or your local equivalent, you get a wide assortment of needed upgrade materials and if you complete the pass you’ll receive $10 worth of premium currency to balance the cost. In my experience, this pass is essential to steady progression and could be looked at more like a subscription fee, which I’m not opposed to but it feels worse being tied to materials rather than a straight-up cost like an MMO. I should say you do get free items as part of the battle pass, as well, and it’s very easy to complete so you’re guaranteed the money back in premium currency. It’s not the worst system but combined with a crucial gacha, I can’t openly ask anyone to crack open their wallet to play.

With all that being said, this article is all to say one thing: I have a love/hate relationship with Honkai: Star Rail. I think at its core, it’s one of the best mobile games I’ve ever played. It’s beautiful, surprisingly well-written, and fun to play but with glaring caveats. That’s not to say someone shouldn’t give it a try as the cost of entry is low enough to find out for yourself. Hell, the problem could just be that I can’t play anything casually and I end up forcing myself into at least a moderate level of competitiveness. For the foreseeable future, I’m going to continue playing and I’m excited for what’s to come so for anyone who’s interested and not scared away by my concerns with the game, stay tuned for more thoughts as content patches release. Ultimately, I love Honkai: Star Rail and am still very optimistic about the game’s future, but I’d also like to be able to share that experience with more and more people, without it being so tied up in mobile game economics.