Review: Honkai: Star Rail is a goofy but well-oiled space adventure

Review: Honkai: Star Rail is a goofy but well-oiled space adventure

In space and in anime, almost anything can happen. You will meet a girl named March 7th who wields a comically tall bow that fires glittering, bunny-shaped snowballs. Secret organizations will steal the memories of strangers and wrap them up in membranes that look like bubbles. You will step into the shoes of the Trailblazer, who’s not a person so much as a bodily receptacle of mysterious cosmic power that can bring disaster to entire planets. But even in the rush of its confusing early moments, Honkai: Star Rail presents a fractured sci-fi world that shimmers where it breaks.

Honkai: Star Rail marks another massive release from Hoyoverse, the studio behind the breakout hit Genshin Impact and Honkai Impact 3rd. Honkai: Star Rail is currently available to play on mobile devices and Windows PC (where I played it for this review), and will come to PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5 eventually. While fans of Genshin Impact and similar mobile games will recognize several of the systems in Star Railits designers take this game in a new direction by blending turn-based combat with more linear dungeon exploration, rather than giving players an open world.

You start off playing as the Trailblazer, a person who has had a cosmic power called a Stellaron inserted into their body by a mysterious woman named Kafka. After the insertion process, the Trailblazer forgets everything about their past, except for Kafka’s name. They wake up on a space station, where they meet Dan Heng and March 7th, two characters who travel from world to world aboard an interstellar train called the Astral Express.

As the Trailblazer, you help the two clear out an enemy threat of robots on the space station, and the leader of the Astral Express — a Greek goddess of a woman named Himeko — invites you to join the team in the hopes that you can uncover more about your past. You accept, and your new colleagues welcome you aboard a luxury lounge car headed by a bunny mascot named Pom-Pom. Eventually, the train hits a snag on an here planet called Jarilo-6.

An image of Hook from Honkai: Star Rail runs around the city of Belobog.  An ornately designed building resembling a governmental building is just ahead of him.

Hook from Honkai: Star Rail runs around the city of Belobog.
Picture: Hoyoverse

The adventure that unfolds next is a classic RPG plotline: Catastrophe hit the planet and transformed its mild climate into a nearly unlivable wintery hellscape. Now, its people live penned into a single steampunk-esque city called Belobog. Some residents manage to eke out a prosperous life on the otherwise barren planet, but only because of class division. The city has been physically divided into two discs: The top disc consists of the more affluent population of administrative offices and city leaders known as the Architects, whereas the lower disc is home to the miners who extract an ore that powers both the lower and upper parts of the city. (Any Final Fantasy 7 fan would recognize this general premise.)

Space exploration in the game happens in a much more linear format than adventuring in Genshin Impact‘s open world. Forget climbing, or even jumping in Star Rail. You’ll teleport from map to map, running to a set point on each one using the game’s ample waypoints. Some areas, like the lower decks of the space station, will spawn enemies. Others function more like city centers where you can get resources and talk to characters to unlock quests or complete requests. Each map gives players a bite-sized adventure in a range of settings, from a section of an underground mine with glowing orangish-yellow ore, to a cavernous building interior with towering, empty ceilings fit for Star Wars, to a sunny but cold city center in a Russian-inspired town square.

As you explore the space station, your characters — you’ll start with three that you can switch between — can attack monsters while walking around the overworld, or they can use a technique to give buffs and other support before the fight begins. Once you start a fight, you’ll engage in turn-based combat, during which all characters have three primary moves: a basic attack, a skill, and an Ultimate. To win a fight, you will have to enlist a variety of characters who possess different roles called Paths, as well as different Combat Types, which work like an elemental type, with certain Combat Types counteracting other ones. Although battles are turn-based, the back-and-forth ping-pong battles so quickly that you can zoom through matches. There are also settings that allow you to speed up gameplay and auto-battle in a fight, further reinforcing how zippy the pace of fighting feels.

A screenshot of a fight in Honkai: Star Rail.  The main character, the Trailblazer, stands on the battle field wielding a bat in her hand.  The icons for her four teammates are at the bottom.

An image of a fight in Honkai: Star Rail.
Image: Hoyoverse via Polygon

Crafting these characters into a formidable fighting team, and understanding what goes into their stats, is far more complex than the turn-based battle mechanics. Your characters’ strength and overall effectiveness in battle will be determined by a statistical soup of variables including the level of your character, their weapon (Star Rail calls them Light Cones), the level of their weapon, sets of equipable items called Relics, the stats of those Relics (which are randomly assigned), Relic level, additional boosts from a skill tree called Traces, and the number of Eidolons a character has (which are powers and boosts granted when you roll multiple copies of a character). Star Rail is also a gacha game, meaning that you’ll be able to earn an in-game currency called Stellar Jade in order to spend it on randomized chances to get better characters.

Reading that description could feel overwhelming. How the heck does the Relic system work, you might be asking? And what if you can’t grind enough Stellar Jade to get the characters you want? In practice, it’s not that bad. The process of leveling characters, even within the short review period, felt like a reasonable system since the game mechanics appear to incentivize building several characters rather than over-investing in one single team. You don’t even need to get into all of the mechanical details if you just want to focus on the story. Regular players will seemingly be able to chip away at all these different gameplay elements over time and build up a strong team.

Star Rail pairs its battle system with a stunning animation style that, at points, looks like it’s almost straight out of an anime. Hoyoverse has appeared to go all out for the various character Ultimate move animations. Some are gorgeous: The Trailblazer wields a bat that has a spectacular sparkling visual effect as it vibrates with flecks of neon blue, yellow, and black electrical pulses. Others are whimsical: Natasha, a healer, tosses a teddy bear up into the air and shoots it with a grenade launcher, after which it rains down presents that heal allies. And some are just plain over-the-top: Himeko calls upon a satellite death laser that annihilates enemies as she sips tea.

An image of Himeko's ultimate move in Honkai: Star Rail.  A satellite fires a giant death laser at the opposing team as she casually sips tea.

All hail Himeko, the queen of Honkai: Star Rail.
Picture: Hoyoverse

Each animation shows us so much about each character and their story. For example, when characters first arrive on Jarilo-6, they end up on the lower disc, where they meet a young girl named Clara. She’s small and meek, but determined to make a difference, repeatedly advocating on behalf of a band of misfits who live in the undercity. And on the battlefield, she powers through enemies by summoning her friend Svarog, a giant robot fit for a mech anime. During her Ultimate attack, a glorious up-top camera angle shows Clara balled up in fear under Svarog, as he leans over her to protect her with his glowing red eyes fixed straight ahead at the enemy. It’s striking to see how small Clara looks at this moment, and how threatening her protector comes across as he charges up for a laser attack. It illustrates the care Svarog has for her.

I played the story of the game up through the end of the characters’ journey on Jarilo-6, and it’s a relatively interesting plot, but what’s more noteworthy is the general tone of the game. Although Genshin Impact certainly has its goofier moments, it concerns itself with weightier topics, telling stories of gods that take on a sort of mythical quality. Star Rail has a much lighter note that feels more youthful and less serious.

For example, many characters note how strangely the Trailblazer speaks, because they talk like an internet-savvy person on Earth from the year 2023. They use modern-day vernacular and describe an arrogant researcher as being “cringey.” The Trailblazer eventually gets a phone, which they use to text “beg me~” to another character at one point. Objects in the game sometimes have funny descriptions; a mailbox isn’t just a mailbox, as investigating it might tell you that someone stuffed sausage in its narrow slip, perhaps mistaking it for a trash can.

Best of all, I cannot emphasize enough how much better the companions of March 7th and Dan Heng are in this game when compared to Paimon from Genshin. March 7th is the perfect girly pop who just wants to take cute selfies with you and isn’t afraid to call you out if she thinks the dialogue option you picked was dumb. Meanwhile, Dan Heng is a cold and calculating type, adding some welcome tension to the party even if I personally think he’s too tough on March 7th at points.

A text conversation in Honkai: Star Rail shared between Dan Heng and the Trailblazer.  The text reads Dan: “Found an old Express communication log in the data bank, and one of the categories is Dad Jokes.  I don't fully understand it, but my instincts tell me you should be able to.”  Trailblazer: “So, this is the kind of person I am in your mind?”  Dan: “Yeah.  This is what it says.  'On watchkeeping duty with Himeko.  She's talking in her sleep.'  Pom pom.  There's another entry an hour later.”

A text conversation shared between Dan Heng and the Trailblazer after he asks about dad jokes.
Image: Hoyoverse via Polygon

But before even bonding with those new friends and embarking on the journey to Jarilo-6, the game offers the Trailblazer a choice: Board the Astral Express, or stay on the space station. If you keep talking to Himeko, it appears that your insistence on chatting with her about every topic comes across as the Trailblazer being hesitant to join the journey. I tried pressing her at this moment, asking her what it would mean to be a member of the Astral Express and a Trailblazer. She tells me the journey isn’t even about going to new places. “Walking the same path over and over will never be the same, there will always be something new. That’s the meaning of trailblazing,” she tells us.

Her comment captures the feeling of enduring a journey that feels simultaneously new and familiar at the same time. In it, the meaning of creating a path for oneself doesn’t come from treading new ground, but from walking a path again, and uncovering something new. Her comment — perhaps intentionally — neatly captures the present moment of the game as a product itself. Honkai: Star Rail is Hoyoverse’s third major release and marks another mobile game in the studio’s ever-growing catalog of games. Hoyoverse is yet again walking the same path.

In many ways, Honkai: Star Rail shows a refinement of Hoyoverse’s work up to this point. The game eschews the excesses of an ever-expanding world from Genshin, instead creating tightly designed, linear worlds and dense systems from start to finish. You’ll fight to save the world with dazzling snow bunnies and text your new friends in the meantime. Rather than restricting the developers and their vision, Star Rail‘s design leaves ample room for them to build out other aspects of the game. By pairing a refined, turn-based system with a comedic, lighthearted writing style, Star Rail‘s future route looks like it’ll be a smooth ride.

Honkai: Star Rail was released April 26 on iOS, Android, and Windows PC. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Hoyoverse. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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