REVIEW: ‘Honkai: Star Rail’ Brings Some Of The Best, And Worst, Of Mobile Gaming (iOS)

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Honkai Star Rail — But Why Tho

You awaken on a strange space station with no memory or knowledge of where you are. But inside you lies a power that can change everything. Now, along with the crew of the Astral Express, you will set out on a journey that will take you to the stars and back in Honkai: Star Rail, a turn-based RPG developed and published by COGNOSPHERE PTE. LTD.

Mobile gaming is oftentimes a sphere of the industry fraught with contradictions. While some aspects of it blaze forward with innovations in everything from gameplay and graphics to monetization plans, other elements cling to the old parts of the realm that have made it a shunned area of the medium since it first burst onto the scene. Rarely have I seen a game that manages to embody both sides of mobile games space, both good and bad, quite like Honkai: Star Rail. Let’s start with the best parts of the game first. Let’s talk gameplay.

In most standard battle encounters the player commands a party of four characters as they take turns trading attacks and utilizing skills with similar-sized groups of enemies. There is a fair amount of thought that goes into battles thanks in part to the Break System. Every enemy has one or more elemental weaknesses. Each character the player controls has a chosen element tied to their various attacks. Hitting an enemy with the chosen element drains their break meter and when it is completely depleted the enemy becomes stunned, opening them to further damage and letting your party have a break from their attacks.

Making sure to take full advantage of elemental weaknesses is crucial as mid-combat healing is rare in Honkai: Star Rail. For the early game, players are only guaranteed access to a single character that can provide protection to allies during combat. Balancing keeping characters on their feet with pressing your attack is crucial to surviving combat.

The other major mechanic that works to make combat interesting is skills. Every character has a skill that can be activated by spending a skill point from the team’s communal pool of them. Skill points are regained by doing basic attacks, so prioritizing who gets to use skill points and who attacks to charge more points can sometimes be trickier than you think.

The final element of Honkai: Star Rail’s combat is, of course, ultimates. What would a turn-based game be if your party wasn’t constantly building up bars to deliver flashy super moves? Not only do the ultimates in this game deliver plenty of flash, and some of the animations are downright cool, but they also charge fairly quickly, so you don’t need to be afraid of using them, only to not have them later when you need them most.

But while combat is fun in the moment, it does have one glaring frustration to it sometimes. It can go on for way too long. This happens largely when your party is confronted with a powerful enemy who doesn’t have a weakness your party currently wields. With seven elemental types and only four characters, this happens more often than you might expect. While all the areas I explored mostly have similar groupings of characters so you can be prepared for what the game will throw at you, there are always outliers who will take you by surprise. While this doesn’t necessarily spell defeat for your party, not having the proper attack types seems to double or more the time taken to finish the combat.

Adding to the complexity of the gameplay are multiple ways characters function and can be customized. Beyond their elemental alignment, party members are each dedicated to one of the game’s Paths. Paths dictate the roles of characters in the game. Some are focused on doing area of effect damage, some on protecting party members, while others specialize in debuffs. While none of the classes are particularly unique, there are enough of them to give the party a lot of variety in how you approach combat. There are also equipment sets that can give bonuses to characters as well as light cones. Light cones are tarot-looking cards that one gets that grant stat bonuses, plus a special effect if the card is equipped to a character of a particular path.

Honkai Star Rail — But Why Tho

All of these systems and gameplay are presented to the player with a gorgeous visual presentation. The world of Honkai: Star Rail is vibrant and fun, and each party member has their own eye-catching design which makes them stand out in any crowd. Combat animations are also excellently executed, giving battles an enjoyable appeal, even when they drag on a bit. The only area where I wish a little more could’ve been done for the visuals comes in the waves of faceless minions that the crew of the Astral Express battle. Largely generic robots or floating sci-fi-looking orbs, these characters lack any personality. While I understand not giving them as much love as the player characters, giving them something would’ve been nice.

The next element of Honkai: Star Rail we need to talk about is story. The story so far is fine. The main path gets you from point A to point B clearly enough, while stringing together enough science-fiction babble to make everything work. The only big problem with the story is how many detours it takes. As a live service game, the developers want players coming back to Honkai: Star Rail for a long time. So, to stretch out the plot, lots of detours happen to keep you from progressing as fast as you may like. While some of these have narrative-related reasons, you have to help someone with their problem before they will help you, other times you will simply be blocked from progressing till you reach a certain level. At this point, players must do side missions or engage in repeatable battles till the requirement is met.

While the plot sometimes goes sideways and flounders, the voice acting is generally great. Characters have a lot of personality to them, largely due to the enthusiasm most of the actors bring to their roles. While there are the occasional characters that are just annoying, they are a small minority.

While Honkai: Star Rail delivers some great elements of what mobile gaming can do, great gameplay, compelling visuals, and strong voice work, it does cling to remnants of the past that hold it back. The biggest of these are the currencies. I receive so many various currencies as I play this game. Some are for leveling up characters, some are for improving gear, some are for redeeming prizes from one of the several seasonal events that are going on, and some I truly have no idea what they do. This quickly led me to just look for key elements in rewards screens that I recognized and ignore the rest untill a time when I need to figure it out. There are so many secondary items and limited-time things you are being reminded about that it can become truly overwhelming.

The final thing that has to be addressed is acquiring new characters and light cones. While some of these are rewarded to the player through gameplay, the vast majority of them are gained through a loot box-style system, or gacha if you prefer. During my hours with the game I never felt pressured to buy pulls from the randomly selected prizes, and the game is certainly generous with giving pulls out for free, but they are there. And while it never pressured me, there were times when it went out of its way to point them out in ways I didn’t appreciate.

The best example of this is early on when the game forces the player to have the character Himeko in their party for a brief time. The player cannot opt out of using her, and the enemies are of course aligned with her element, so you can fully appreciate just how cool she is. This isn’t terrible, but it was obnoxious that the game needed to push it like this.

When all is said and done, Honkai: Star Rail provides some fun characters and gameplay, despite layering them under lots of unnecessary elements. If you want a turn-based RPG that you can sink your teeth into, even if it won’t always respect your time, this game has enough fun to make your trip across the stars a worthwhile one.

Honkai: Star Rail is available now on iOS, Android, and the Epic Game Store.

Honkai: Star Rail
  • 7.5/10
    Rating - 7.5/10


Honkai: Star Rail provides some fun characters and gameplay, despite layering them under lots of unnecessary elements.

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