Honkai Star Rail is a stellar interstellar turn-based RPG

The Honkai Star Rail beta offers an enthralling, sci-fi adventure, proving this fresh, turn-based gacha RPG is much more than Genshin Impact in space

Honkai Star Rail preview

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Hoyoverse’s games – I even named my new kitten after Genshin Impact’s Xiao. So when I heard that they were bringing out Honkai Star Rail, a fresh, 3D adventure in the Honkai universe, I just had to jump on it. Please note that this is a preview of my experience with the beta so far, and as such certain details may change with the final release – it will be updated to a full review at a later date.

I admit, from what I’d seen in preview videos and promotional material, I thought Honkai Star Rail was pretty much going to be a Genshin clone with turn-based combat and a space-themed reskin, but boy, was I wrong. Honkai Star Rail isn’t a mere Genshin clone, it’s so much more than that.

The plot of Honkai Star Rail is gripping from the get-go, launching you into a space station in the midst of a chaotic attack. After initially testing the waters as the badass Kafka and Silver Wolf, you naturally take the role of an amnesiac newcomer with little to no knowledge of the world around you. While it may be somewhat of a cliche by now, the fish-out-of-water trope works well here, allowing you to learn about the world alongside the character.

During the massive attack on Herta Space station, you manage to accidentally Kirby mouthful mode a Stelleron, also known as ‘the cancer of worlds’ – yikes. This pushes you to hop aboard the Astral Express to avoid becoming a test subject for Herta, the super genius leader of the space station. Alongside the sunny, optimistic March 7th, and her stoic, sensible companion, Dan Heng, you set off Trailblazing. So, it’s time to go exploring new worlds, fighting fragmentum monsters, and trying to work out how to get that pesky Stellaron out of your tummy.

Honkai Star Rail preview - two characters talking

The storytelling is honestly stellar, featuring a wonderfully weird sci-fi tale wrapped up with grounded political conflicts and realistic issues. Even the random side quests you pick up pull you into engaging, world-building stories – I especially found those relating to Natasha and Hook to be so moving, it’s tough not to shed a tear or two. I’ve now finished the main story and side quests available in the beta, and I’m painfully eager to see more.

The dialogue is delightful, and certainly doesn’t take itself too seriously most of the time, while also treating darker subjects with tact and care. Your speech options as a main character are more varied than that of the Genshin Impact Traveler, and the people you’re talking to react accordingly depending on what you choose to say. Even the NPCs and objects have interesting backstories (just take a look at our piece on the Honkai Star Rail trash cans if you don’t believe me).

A group of Honkai Star Rail characters

Of course, all of this is supported by a truly wonderful cast of characters. I can never fault Hoyoverse’s gorgeous character design, and it really shines here, in both aesthetics and personality. Whether you’re exploring new areas with the chronically upbeat March 7th, fetching packages for the kind-hearted Natasha, chasing down the mischievous Sampo or Hook, or asking Welt a wealth of questions – they’re all so loveable, and truly make for an enchanting experience.

The Honkai Star Rail mobile controls are great, both in and out of combat. Buttons are large, positioned well, and easy to see. The UI is as minimalistic as they could make it with so much going on, and both movement and camera controls are intuitive. However, I often found when collecting rewards, the list of goodies overlapped with the on-screen joystick, meaning I couldn’t move until it faded out.

At first, I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy the turn-based combat – I usually prefer fast-paced, action-style battles. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how engaging and challenging it is. Hoyoverse hasn’t developed a turn-based RPG before, but you’d never guess that upon diving into Honkai Star Rail. The systems are implemented brilliantly and offer a wonderful change of pace to the constant movement of Genshin, pushing you to be more strategic without losing any momentum.

Honnkai Star Rail characters preparing to attack

Honkai Star Rail’s combat is challenging without being too intimidating, offering a healthy scaling rate and mechanics that keep pushing you to carefully consider your strategies and pick the right characters for each battle. Every character has their own element, and each enemy has a shield and specific elemental weaknesses. While you can certainly charge through some battles without taking team composition into account, you have a far better experience if you adapt accordingly.

To add to this challenge, you can’t consume healing or buff items during combat, meaning you must rely on your team’s abilities to shield or heal your team. There’s also a skill metre shared across your entire party, which is capped at five charges. Every time you use an elemental skill, you use one charge, whereas every time you use a basic attack, you add one charge. This means you have to be mindful of how many charges you have at your disposal, especially when you need a specific character’s skill for a heal, buff, or debuff.

There are plenty of other minor mechanics that I could go into, but I believe the above gives you a good scope of just how thoughtful and thorough the turn-based combat is. And even if you’re finding sitting through the enemy attacks and flashy animations of your team a little tedious, there’s also a speed up function which makes battles much quicker while still allowing you control over your team, or an auto feature which has the AI take control of your characters. This is great for farming battles you’ve done a million times before, in order to gather things like level up materials.

Honkai Star Rail preview characters in a battle

There are multiple game modes outside of the core content. Like Genshin Impact’s resin, you have Trailblaze Power, which regenerates over time. You use Trailblaze power to fight specific battles that give your relics, level up materials, and more. Then there’s Herta’s simulated universe, which consists of an exploration mode and challenge mode. The exploration mode plops you in a dungeon, where you clear multiple floors, collecting blessings and curios along the way. The challenge mode pits you against a powerful boss, making use of the buffs you gained in the exploration mode.

There’s also the Forgotten Hall, Honkai Star Rail’s Spiral Abyss, which consists of 15 floors, each with unique goal parameters. If you smash all the goals, you get heaps of goodies. Everything in the game so far is single-player, but Hoyoverse has suggested there may be co-op in the future – we’ll have to see when the full game is released.

A huge mech in the Honkai Star Rail preview

In addition to the unique designs of the characters and their awesome attack animations, I personally love the enemy designs. All of the monsters are connected through a cohesive aesthetic that fits in with their origin as beasts from the fragmentum, and the human enemies have uniforms or outfits suited to their roles. With a variety of robots, strange sentinels, thugs, and guards to battle against, there’s enough variety to keep you entertained, and I hope to see more unique designs as we explore other maps beyond the space station and Jarvon-VI. The range of enemy attacks, buffs, and debuffs is also well varied, and keeps combat entertaining.

The boss enemies are intimidating and powerful, with some being familiar characters you meet through the story (or through pulling them in warps), and others being huge, formidable, futuristic robots. Their attacks make use of what you learn through normal battles, while also pushing you in unique ways, and the stories that lead up to them always push you to emotionally invest in the battles, making the fight more thrilling.

You encounter enemies while exploring the world, and when approaching them, you can see their elemental weaknesses. You can then use your character’s techniques to initiate battle, taking you to a separately instanced arena. The techniques offer another level of strategy to the gameplay, as using the right enhancement techniques and attacks to start the fights can make a big difference in how the battle goes.

A Honkai Star Rail preview character stood in front of rubble

When it comes to the main maps, they are somewhat ‘open world’ in the sense that you can go where you please, hopping between areas and even planets through the navigation map. But exploration is a lot more linear than games like Genshin Impact and Breath of the Wild, with most areas consisting of closed-off rooms, hallways, and streets. In fact, it’s closer to the map systems in Monster Hunter, where each section is separately instanced. There are puzzles to work out, doors to unlock, boxes to smash, and chests to open as you wander around, but, aside from that, there’s not much to it. You can’t climb, glide, or jump (the latter of which annoys our editor Ruby to no end), and your main exploration boils down to interacting with objects and initiating battles.

However, I can’t say the world ever felt empty to me, and the separately instanced areas definitely take less of a strain on your device. Honkai Star Rail consistently ran smoothly for me, even in town centres with multiple NPCs running around, trams trundling by, and more. Plus, the beautifully designed environments and architecture add a sense of vibrancy and life to every corner – even the snowy wastelands.

A Honkai Star Rail preview menu

All the different items and skills can be a little confusing at first, and despite the smooth UI looking very similar to Genshin, there are some notable differences in the equipment and such. For example, instead of weapons, you equip your characters with ‘light cones’, which don’t change your character’s attacks, but offer useful buffs. However, these light cones need to align with the character’s path in order to activate the buff. The tutorials offered are clear and easy to follow, but I felt some of them came a little late – especially the one for relics (this game’s version of Genshin’s artifacts), which I had already equipped and upgraded by the time the game told me about them.

When it comes to the gacha elements, they’re very similar to Genshin Impact. The main currency is very similar to primogems, and you can gather it through events, quests, opening chests, and completing milestone missions – and, presumably, purchasable through premium currency, though paid content wasn’t implemented for the beta. There are two different kinds of gacha ‘passes’ you can buy, similar to the fates in Genshin Impact. One can be used on the premium banners, and the other is for the standard banner.

As of the beta, there are multiple different banners. There’s a beginner banner and a standard banner, with characters and light cones up for grabs, then four premium, limited banners – two feature five-star characters, and two featuring five-star light cones. While this sounds complicated, it’s pretty standard gacha stuff and won’t look unfamiliar to anyone who’s played Genshin.

A character banner screen in Honkai Star Rail

The pity system seems to be the same as Genshin, with one four-star guaranteed every ten pulls, and a five star after 75-90 pulls. I presume there’s also a hard and soft pity, 50/50 system in place too, but I’ve not confirmed this yet. Throughout my time in the beta so far, I’ve managed to pull both of the featured five-star characters with only twenty pulls on each of their respective banners.

I’ve also acquired all of the four-star characters, either through the Herta Store (a shop with currency earned through completing the Simulated Universe), or through pulling on banners. Naturally, these drop rates seem extremely generous, and I presume they’ll be reduced come the full release. But I still find Genshin and, in turn, Honkai Star Rail’s gacha system to be one of the most forgiving I’ve experienced. Even without pulling on the banners, you get March 7th and Dan Heng from the start, and after completing a few floors of Honkai Star Rail’s version of the Spiral Abyss, you get the awesome Serval to add to your team, all of which make for a decent party alongside your main character.

The sound design in Honkai Star Rail is lovely. As expected of Hoyoverse, both the voice acting and OST are top-notch. The characters’ voices suit them perfectly, and the battle SFX enhances the impact of combat. The music is an absolute treat, with a great mix of futuristic techno and classical orchestras, and I can definitely see there being a ‘Music of Honkai Star Rail’ tour to rival the Genshin Impact one in the future.

When it comes to things I’d like to see changed, the one thing I want above all else is controller support. I’ve been saying this about Genshin for ages, but this is an extremely important point for accessibility. While I love playing with a keyboard and mouse, I personally find playing on a phone for long periods of time without a controller to be uncomfortable, and I know many people that struggle with both phone touchscreen controls and keyboards, so adding controller support to PC and Android versions would be a welcome addition.

Two Honkai Star Rail characters talking

I’d also like to see a log of what you’ve pulled on each banner – a feature in Genshin that I’m surprised to see absent here. Plus, a log of dialogue during cutscenes would also be welcome, as with such a narrative-driven title, accidentally tapping and skipping a single line of dialogue can lead to you missing an important piece of information. Also jumping. I think my editor would be very upset if I didn’t mention jumping (though I personally don’t feel like we need it).

Overall, Honkai Star Rail is an awesome sci-fi adventure featuring a whole host of charismatic characters, a thoughtful narrative, a great variety of gameplay modes, and engaging combat. It’s proved itself as far more than a simple Genshin clone, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store with the full release. Between this, Genshin Impact’s constant updates, and the upcoming Zenless Zone Zero, Hoyoverse has quickly become one of the most exciting names in the current gaming scene for me, and I’m always excited to see what they’re planning.