What I'm Playing: Honkai Star Rail

(screenshot gallery at bottom)

In short, it's a space fantasy RPG, turn-based combat, gacha but generally free-to-play (F2P) friendly. I'm running it on iPad, but it also has Android, Windows, soon Playstation. Like the company's previous two games, Honkai Impact 3rd & Genshin Impact, it's very pretty. Unlike them, it's turn-based combat, with heavy emphasis on elemental rock-paper-scissors, getting team skill synergies, and better gear ("light cones" are weapon buffs, "relics" are armor).

It has some of the best writing I've seen in a game. There's in-universe lore, letters between characters, chat logs, database dumps, a ton of weird people with semi-branching storylines. Occasionally some really serious consequences; telling the truth might set someone free or destroy them, I've seen both happen. Could I have avoided a crushing, cruel fight if I'd been more subtle? There's also a lot of comedy, and references to science fiction and other culture. The trash cans are more than they seem.

HI3 was all waifus, very blatantly taking advantage of Chinese & Japanese otaku. GI was a little less predatory and monotone, tried a little harder at the global audience, but then had the most annoying mascot ever, Paimon, that did all your talking for you. HSR has found a nice balance, there's a lot of hot female chars, but also boys (alas, all twinks; none have body or facial hair or any build other than "teenage swimmer" except a couple older NPCs), and the game tends to throw opposite gender flirt at your main character; I'm glad I chose the male MC.

They've learned how to make maps. HI3 had very narrow corridors to do linear action fights in. GI has a vast, largely empty and samey world to scrape over for materials, and then closed mini-dungeon arenas to do jumpy puzzles & action fights in. HSR maps are fairly small, mostly interiors or box canyon mazes, with connected zones at a couple places, but they're much more interesting than the HI3 maps, it's worth going back a few times to find all the secrets, kill the special monsters. Many HSR maps have 2-3 floors, and switches for different paths, just like a real RPG.

The daily grind is a mix of little fetch quests and other tasks in explored zones, Simulated Universe which is a "roguelite" series of fight rooms & random buffs, Forgotten Hall boss fights, Calyx Trees where you grind mobs for specific materials.

If you overlevel the mobs, you can just set combat on auto, 2X speed, and it'll be fine. As soon as you hit any kind of elite or boss, or near your level, that stops working, you need to KNOW how elements interact, PLAN your fights, and use skills intelligently. Read the hints as they pop up, and the books in your database/library, it's all explained.

HSR owes an enormous visual & story debt to Galaxy Express 999 (Matsumoto Leiji anime, willowy long-haired girls & emo boys in dusters with hair over their face, trains in space, vast cosmic threats treated as secondary to personal squabbles and little children, etc), with a much better thought out variant of the cosmology in HI3. Gameplay and visuals are extremely similar to Star Ocean, SMT Persona, some Phantasy Star (esp. the architecture). That's not to say it's a "ripoff", just fairly obvious about its influences. Weirdly just before this, I was playing Eroica, which is fantasy-steampunk-science fiction gacha game about a train on rails of light, fighting magically-corrupted monsters in turn-based combat with the same kind of time-to-strike counter; Eroica's much lower budget, but it was good training wheels for this.

The UI is pretty much the same as Genshin Impact's, but a little more smartphone-like; you hit the phone icon, and that gets you a single top-level menu (and your char holds up their phone! Every char has a custom phone skin/dangly bits). There's hot-buttons around the screen for specific parts of that menu. There's a soft joystick in the bottom left, action buttons bottom right, border's full of widgets and data like any MMO. Sometimes it's a little crowded, but not like a WoW raid screen.


So, the gacha needs to be addressed. You get "star rail passes" which are for the normal banners, and there's a starting banner at 20% off (8 passes = 10 pulls). My advice is to spend the 40 passes for 50 pulls it gives you, just for the discount and one five-star char you get from it; I pulled Gepard the tank, not my favorite but useful later. Then keep pulling those passes on the regular banner after that, and enjoy whatever you get. Don't spend jade (F2P gems) or anything else on this.

There's also "Special Passes" for the event banner, currently Seele who is the best single-target DPS char so far, and I loved the version of her in HI3, so I want her back. If you play intensely, and spend all your jade on it, you may be able to hit the "soft pity" level where you have an increased chance to get her. Even if you don't, the pity apparently carries over to the next event banner. I'm planning on doing everything F2P to get her, and then if that doesn't work, I'll think about spending a little real money on it; I have paid for the $5 monthly pass, so I'll have some paid gems. I'm not willing to spend $200+ to guarantee getting her like some streamers have!

You don't need any of these. The main character (Trailblazer, same whether male or female) is actually pretty good as physical DPS/tank, and after an event becomes a top-tier fire DPS/tank (Eroica did the same thing, but without the choices! Sei is the best tank in the game). The free shielder (March 7th), healer (Natasha), AOE (rock star Serval), hunter (the very boring Dan Heng), etc. are more than good enough to get you through all the story and all but the very hardest optional bosses. Don't waste money thinking you need a better character; only spend if you can afford it and really want a specific char. I don't believe in rerolling, I think it's a very stupid & anti-fun waste of time, and this game takes a couple hours to reach the point where you could reroll hoping for a 0.3% chance at a specific char.


I've spent, uh, rather too much time in game; since Tuesday, I've done consistently 4-8 hours per day, total 27 hours. That's clearly deranged; I'd like to get it down to ½hr daily, 2hr weekends. But I'm now on the 3rd world! So that should calibrate your JRPG-grind meter. Like all live service games, it'll presumably keep getting material until we don't pay/play anymore, HI3's still supported after 7 years. Shockingly HSR's not as CPU/GPU/battery-burning as others, a couple hours is <25% battery used.

I have one world left to slowly explore and then nothing but dailies to do until the next update (maybe in May when the next banner starts). If you're less obsessive about it, this could be months of game right at launch, and you'd never run out.

★★★★★ absolutely must-play if you like JRPGs. Don't spend money until you know you like it.