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Honkai Star Rail - The Gacha Got Me, But Can It Keep Me?

Honkai Star Rail First Impressions - Windows PC

Honkai Star Rail

Developer: HoYoverse
Publisher: HoYoverse
Release Date: April 26, 2023

Over the course of a decade, there hasn’t been a single type of video game that has taken the industry by storm more than the “live service” model, Honkai Star Rail being the latest and greatest. In the past, video games were usually a “what you see is what you get” deal. Most games had received updates in the form of “expansion packs” but these were usually reserved for PC games. PC was also the most beneficial platform to distribute updates over the internet, but this wasn’t possible for console players until the mid-2000s.

As more players started to connect to the internet, both on console and PC, publishers were slowly adapting the “live service” approach. Why settle for releasing a game and not touching it, aside from game fixes, when they can entice the players with more content for years to come? Even if the newest game of a series comes out, the previous game will still have a dedicated fanbase large enough to continue making money. Now imagine all of these benefits but apply them to a game that’s free to play. Eliminating the cost of entry altogether means your customer potential skyrockets, which games like Fortnite are examples of.

The three heroes are here to probably make the day worse.

miHoYo, or HoYoverse as they are now known globally, has thrived in this market for almost a decade, finding international success despite having three games. Honkai The 3rd and Genshin Impact alone had achieved great notoriety and for the longest time, I didn’t understand the hype. Genshin Impact’s characters are all cool and unique from a design perspective, but I wasn’t a fan of the “gacha” game type. In Japan, gacha is a unique kind of live service with the intent of trying to entice the player to get the rarest drops and the best characters.

While the tactics to unveil the dangerous gambler in all of us warrants a different article altogether, in short, I thought it was predatory. That “one more pull” mentality to earn that banner character is like a voice in the back of your head, but I felt I wasn’t being fair. Every single convention I'd attended had at least 10 Genshin Impact cosplays per day. There was a cool dynamic between content creators and the community itself and I felt I was missing out on a lot due to my own personal bias. 

miHoYo has always made great looking protagonists and Stelle in Star Rail is no different.

Here we are now in Honkai Star Rail, a brand new game with a guaranteed install base from Honkai 3rd and Genshin Impact combined. I spent the weekend playing my first Hoyoverse title after I swore I wouldn’t go down the rabbit hole once upon a time. Was I overexaggerating on these kinds of games? Or was I just wasting my time instead of my wallet? Here are my thoughts on Honkai Star Rail, what I feel is working in its favor and things I’m concerned about.

Another reminder that I am the least experienced Hoyoverse player in history so I am coming at this as if I’ve had not a single clue what I was getting myself into. What I did know was that there was little to no requirement to play Honkai 3rd before Star Rail as while HSR is in the same universe, it’s two separate stories. However, due to the premise of Star Rail’s Express visiting planets across the galaxies, I’m fairly certain fans of 3rd can expect to see a crossover event soon.

Honkai Star Rail plays like a traditional turn-based RPG which is a different tempo than their previous action titles.

Before you begin your star-faring adventure, the player controls a predetermined team, with the playable tutorial protagonist, Kafka. Kafka and her partner are fairly strong, serving as a way to teach the player its gameplay. Each character is represented by an element, ranging from Fire, Ice, Lightning, Wind, Normal, Quantum, and Imaginary. Attacking enemies that are weak to a specific type enough times will trigger a Weakness Break, dealing bonus effects according to the element. 

The player can control up to four characters and each has a unique skill, ultimate, and talent along with their regular attack. Skills require Skill Points, which are gained by landing a normal attack. This adds a thinly coated layer of strategy as the player will often have to consider if it’s better to use a skill to deal extra damage or save that precious final SP for a support user to give a life-saving shield. Talents are passive abilities that activate under specific conditions, ultimates attacks are charged over time and can be activated at any time. However, Ultras will only activate after someone’s turn is finished, so it can’t be used to cancel an opponent’s attack mid-animation for example.

There's a bonus "Simulated Universe" mode that acts similar to a roguelike.

There are several nuances including enemies having certain tells when they are about to use a powerful attack. Breaking an enemy can cause their attack to be delayed by one turn depending on the type of element used (Ice, Quantum, and Imaginary). Applying shields proactively can also help if the player is not confident in killing the enemy before this happens. After a while, it becomes a battle of “big numbers and good synergy = won battles.” While I was nowhere at that point in Honkai Star Rail, it all began to make sense.

The story is nothing to really write home about, as it is essentially Mass Effect, with a group of space mavericks solving space issues across various planets…in space. It managed to convey most of the current anime tropes that one would experience in these kinds of games and it’s honestly endearing. Continuing the story doesn’t require much resources although most leveling is done with materials earned from quests and fights. Restoring health is located at certain checkpoints, which takes some time to recharge. There are daily challenges and bonus missions that players can do for more materials as well.

Now for the elephant in the room, the gacha. As Honkai Star Rail just came out, there are a lot of launch events happening at once and most of the rewards are lucrative, earnable by just playing the game. While giving players an early headstart is a neat incentive to play the game, those who are interested in the story content should be glad to hear that things are easy with F2P. You have enough tickets to get some decent drops and most of the normal enemies are pushovers until they start to take a beating. These are usually field bosses who guard treasure chests so, again, optional challenges.

Some of the more desired characters, like Himeko, show up as "guest characters" to give players a taste of what a 5* is.

Overall I was pleasantly surprised by how polished a Freemium game was, especially considering an “F2P” player can basically play the game up to the end of its first patch albeit not as fast as one paying $5 a month, maybe. Regardless, I love the art design and the vocal talent for Hoyoverse games was always stellar as well. I’ll break down more of the general quips I have with this game as they come up, but overall if you are a fan of turn-based strategy games, Honkai Star Rail may be a good choice. 

Honkai Star Rail is available on mobile platforms and PC.

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