My daughter is a massive Genhin Impact fan. She cosplays characters at conventions. She calls just so she can talk at length about Genshin theory (I am usually napping while she does, but she doesn’t seem to mind). Once, for Christmas, the gift at the top of her list was premium currency. Thankfully she doesn’t participate in online forums or discussions, but she reads them all the time. Because of her obsession with Genshin, I learned about Honkai Star Rail, another anime-based game from developer HoYoverse. I enjoyed Genshin for its easy introduction but left because of its insane number of levers and nice-but-not-exciting-to-me fantasy world, but I knew I would give Star Rail a try because it’s got a sci-fi setting and I’m all about that. While it still features gatcha mechanics, HSR is a completely different beast than Genshin, and it speaks more deeply to me.
You Are The One (Of Two)
The game begins with a narrative crash into an obviously ongoing storyline that apparently involves time-travel, and which ends with a choice between our male or female avatar. This is a bit misleading, as we don’t play as a single character; we build a party of four who are deployed during the turn-based combat sequences, and we have no control over who shows up during our story-progressing cut-scenes.
HSR, like Genshin, is very story focused. While we get to run around and decide which quests to embark upon, damn near all of them result in some kind of cut-scene. Side quests usually stay with the standard camera and involve just reading the conversion, some of which are about as involved as their more animated affairs. We participate by selecting response options, none of which are voiced by our main protagonist (although sometimes he/she does have voice lines via inner monologues randomly interspersed throughout the game).
The general gist is that our main character is created from something called a ‘Stellarion’, which is likened to a bomb — some kind of phenomenon that, as you progress, you learn can cause all kinds of problems wherever they are found. As a result of your unusual pedigree, you become a person of interest aboard a space station that is under assault by Forces From Another Dimension called the Legion. Once the invasion has been more or less dealt with, you are invited to board the Astral Express, a steampunk-esque train that travels from planet to planet, exploring and dealing with these Stellarion incidents.
If you know anything about me, you know I rarely do any kind of ‘homework’ about my games. This has recently bit me in the ass (which I will talk about when I get back to ‘Stranded: Alien Dawn’), but sometimes it yields a delightful surprise.
Like Genshin, HSR has you running around environments talking to NPCs, getting missions both main and side, and finding interactable objects that can provide treasure, or…something else entirely.
Aside from moving the story along through dialog, the one thing we do the most often is fight. Enemies are represented in the game world and approaching them carefully at distance will provide some insight into how best to deal with them. Although we only see a single creature in the world, battles are generally fought against at least two and sometimes up to five individual creatures, and sometimes there are multiple waves as well.
Each party member represents a different element, which seems to be de rigueur for HYV’s games. Part of the strategy, then, is to build a party representing the elements that work best against the enemies you suspect you’ll be facing. Above you see Dan Heng, Wind-Waker extraordinaire. The rest of the current party covers physical (my avatar), fire (Natasha, our healer), and ice (March 7th, whose name has an explanation, trust me). The creatures we are facing in the screen above are pretty susceptible to all of these damage types, and then some. Their physical representation also gives some indication about their weaknesses; the dude on the left looks like fire and is weak to ice while the dude on the right looks like ice and is weak to fire. Swapping party composition is simple in the open world, as members that we own can be added or removed at will. We can also set up multiple configurations and switch them en masse without having to deal with individual members.
Unlike Genshin, though, combat in HSR is turn based. The turn tracker is seen on the left. Each character has a primary attack which requires nothing special to invoke, and a special skill which requires one point from a shared party pool to use. The special skill might be a more powerful attack, an AOE, or a support skill (like shields, heals, or party buffs). Every character also has an ultimate which fills as attacks are made. Kicking off ultimate abilities result in short (though quickly repetitive) animations of typical anime proportions — explosions from space, holographic environments, lots of posing, etc. — before the devastation is unleashed.
The goal in a battle is to weaken the opponent and drive down the white progress bar above their heads which will put them into a vulnerable state. Eventually, this meter refills, de-buffing the damage they receive. Having the right elements in a fight will knock down this ‘toughness’ meter pretty quickly, a fact which can make combat a real slog when the party’s makeup doesn’t compliment the elemental requirements.
Weirdest of the Weird
One unexpected thing that HSR brings to the table is a wicked sense of humor. We are all familiar with games that try to capture the zeitgeist by incorporating meme-references that might not age well. Others are just good advice:
HSR goes a lot further than this, often, and a lot harder.
There is a ‘silent quest’ on the first planet of Jarilo-IV that kicks off when you interact with any trashcan or dumpster sporting a glimmering mote above it. To say that this circuit is bizarre is an understatement; I don’t know what’s going in the lives of the writers of this segment, but I hope they get the therapy they so obviously need. Then there’s fourth wall breaking, like when I participated in this eating contest where I had to plow through the text prompts in less than 20 seconds, but considering the prompts were just begging you to read them…
And no game is complete without at least one well-played ‘mom joke’.
No doubt some folks will see these examples and turn away from HSR, but seeing as how these anime games feature at least one prominent character in the lineup who’s a bit loopy as a rule (Paimon in Genshin, March 7th in HSR), the door is always ajar for this kind of silliness, and ultimately, I don’t mind. In fact, I’m hoping it gets weirder along the way.
One thing that I don’t really enjoy is how HSR (and Genshin) have so many levers to pull in order to keep your characters current. There’s the standard level up which can only happen by consuming resources found in game. Then there’s the Ascendency mechanic which works the same, happens every 10-20 levels, and requires a different material. HSR has ‘cones’, which are hot-swappable mega-buffs that are keyed to a character’s activity domain (different from their elemental type), and those can be leveled and ascended. We also have Traces and Eidolons which can advance characters, and eventually ‘relics’ which are pieces of buffing gear that…wait for it… can be leveled up.
Considering there’s a massive stable of characters to obtain, and a limited opportunity to gain the materials necessary to level them up, decisions have to be made along the way as to who gets to level and who’s warming the bench. I frequently forget to level some aspect of my characters, leading to a lot of defeats or slim victories and a trip to the character stable to review every single lever available for every single character I have active. This turns into a game of accounting, and I’m not really a fan of this breadth of number-crunching.
There are a multitude of activities which don’t fall into the main story category. One of the most prominent is a simulation run by the sentient AI of the space-station, Herta. She and her team are trying to understand the deities of this universe, called Aeons, and are doing so through a virtual reality construct that you’re called upon to test once in a while. The rewards for doing so are worthwhile, and the more often you participate, the more rewards you get. There are in-world activities called ‘calyx’ which get discovered over time and offer configurable waves of enemies that can be fought for different rewards that depend upon the calyx chosen. There’s also the Hall of Memories, which I just unlocked, and appears to be a battle against single, powerful creatures that we’ve already encountered.
If the main story isn’t paying out, or when we reach the point where the story stops and wants us to progress to a certain level (a hallmark from Genshin repeated here to slow people down, I guess?), these activities are the primary means through which we’re expected to level up.
Aside from these major activities, we’ll find one-off things to do, like the memory bubbles in the station, or the trash-can tours in Belobog. It seems that anything you can interact with has some kind of payout, which is good because nothing in this game is free.
Saving the best/worst for last, there’s the monetization, fed primarily through the character gatcha scheme that works so well for Genshin. Ther are 4 types of premium currencies: Undying Starlight, Undying Embers, Oneiric, and Stellar Jade. These are earned through gameplay, with Stellar Jade being the most frequent and therefore the most useful way to work with the premium shop. Oneiric — which is what’s granted when applying Real Cash — can be used to buy convenience boosters (level up materials, mainly) or can be converted to Stellar Jade. Embers are used to buy level up materials, crafting materials, and cones. A lot of these items are only available for a period of time, and new items are swapped in. There is a standard in-game currency, credits, which is used to buy items from NPC vendors and that piles up so quickly that buying it via the shop doesn’t seem like a good bargain (at least not at the point where I’m at in the game). Some of these credit items are just collectables, but materials can also be had in this way. Each planet also has its own currency which can only be used in certain shops on those planets.
The general-purpose target available in the cash shop, then, is the ‘rail passes’. These come in two flavors ‘normal’ and ‘special’. Pases are used to roll for characters and cones through the ‘warp’ system.
As you can see, the more pulls you attempt, the better the chances are that you’ll get something “good. In the Stellar Warp above, there’s a chance to get a five-star copy of Gepard, Bronya, or Himeko, or a five-star cone. The pull history can be seen through the ‘view details’ button which gives a rundown of all of the items you’ve received through this system. Some warps are permanent, like Stellar, and some are temporary, or offer time-limited rewards.
I always sit down to write these ‘first impressions’ posts which seem to want to fold themselves into a crash course in everything the game offers and normally that’s a daunting task because no post can explain an entire game and still be readable in one lifetime. I feel that in the case of Honkai Star Rail, this is exponentially true. There is so much going on here that I know I am forgetting to mention a whole bunch of stuff, but at the end of it, there’s no point in worrying about it. There’s almost too much to do up until the point in the progression when there isn’t, as the game’s contrived gating mechanics force players to ‘just do busy work’ until they manage to get leveled up enough to continue the story.
Although anime isn’t my jam, sci-fi is, and as a fan of ‘the new’, the fact that HSR offers a sci-fi setting and a constant stream of systems to explore means that I have been not only playing this religiously since launch, but borderline obsessively. As with Genshin, HSR is available for both desktop and mobile. Last night as my wife was falling asleep on the couch, I was on the phone knocking out side-quests. Sadly, HSR doesn’t support controllers on mobile, which saddens me greatly.
The turn-based combat appeals more to me than the live-action combat of Genshin, especially on mobile with no controller support. It’s easier to deal with, can be put down for a few minutes without fear of getting steamrolled, and generally feels better to me.
I am always ok with whatever monetization scheme a game wants to employ. I signed up for the $5 per month drip-feed pack which provides daily jade and some XP materials, I think. I haven’t spent anything else with this game, though, and have been relying on the in-game rewards for my warp attempts. I’ve been discussing the game with my daughter and with friends, and that has been keeping my hype level fairly constant which is making me want to obtain certain characters before I lose the opportunity, but I’ll hold off and see what might come naturally through gameplay rather than just throwing money at the problem.
Honkai Star Rail has a lot to do so I’m never bored with the gameplay (although the mining cart puzzles can fuck right off. Once was fine; fifteen times or whatever is just overkill). The story is about as interesting as an anime story can be to me, but the off-the-wall humor is really what gets me and is more of an interest driver than it has a right to be. I really do like the turn-based combat over the real-time stuff Genshin has because it gives me more time to relax and tackle the battle at my leisure. As I don’t see any other games on the horizon that I’m planning on jumping to, and because I think HSR is a natural fit for mobile devices, I don’t see any opportunity to get off the Astral Express any time soon.