As someone finally coming to terms that my Genshin Impact playtime is probably in the thousands of hours now, not hundreds, I understood Honkai: Star Rail's systems as soon as they were introduced. Although it bears the Honkai brand (technically the fourth in the series, but this one is set in an alternate universe), Star Rail feels more like a sci-fi sequel to Genshin than another dive into Honkai lore. So I expected some of Genshin's flaws to carry over too, and although an important one does, HoYoverse's newest live service entry has actually almost entirely fixed the grinding gripes I have with Genshin. One of the best improvements now makes it mercifully quick to farm for resources, and another lets you buy high-level weapons by saving up free currency.
For those who don't spend their evenings skipping Paimon's dialogue and collecting resources in Genshin's vast open world, levelling characters and equipping them with the best gear is important for late-game content, but it's almost entirely optional. The appeal is pulling a character from the gacha system and getting them to a level you can clear content with, either just because you want them in your team, or in order to experiment with unique party lineups. Although Star Rail has traded hack-and-slash combat for a turn-based system (more on this interesting choice later), it seems to promote the exact same gameplay loop. I made a team of four characters I liked to play with, rather than meticulously reading stats to suss who had the best damage capabilities, and I never had a problem with progressing through the main story - and it took me about the quarter of the time it took to get four characters to the equivalent level in Genshin.
That main story might be as divisive as people's opinions on turn-based combat, not because it's bad, but because it's the typical melodramatic anime-inspired ridiculousness that either attracts or repels people.
In Honkai: Star Rail, you play as 'The Trailblazer', who wakes up on a space station while it's under attack by a group of baddies called The Antimatter Legion. You then get a destructive force known as a Stellaron unceremoniously placed inside of you by a group of Stellaron Hunters, before being swifty abandoned by them. A team of adventurers then invite you to join them on the Astral Express (stay with me now), a space train with a rabbit for a conductor that travels between worlds to contain Stellaron disasters. Seems pretty important that you have this potentially planet-ending thing inside of you, so naturally the next fifteen hours of story focuses on the plight of the lower class citizens of the eastern European-inspired planet of Jarilo-VI instead.
It's stupendously goofy, takes itself way too seriously at times, doesn't explain half of what's going on, is full of clichés, and yet I couldn't help but love it. Your own anime nonsense mileage may vary, but Star Rail's silliness does help undercut its intergalactic melodrama. Nobody ever mentions it, or explains it, but it seems to me that the Stellaron inside of the main character might be influencing how they feel about things, like...trash cans and closets. Yep, there's detailed descriptions about how good it feels to rummage through the bins of Jarilo-VI, and a whole five minutes of hiding in a closet because your character likes the look and smell of it. These bizarre moments, along with some unexpectedly funny dialogue, have endeared Star Rail's story and characters to me in a way I wasn't expecting.
I did, however, expect to like the combat, as I'm an old school JRPG fan. Personal preference aside, it is an odd choice to pivot from the developer's usual modern action RPG style to turn-based strategy, but it's a decision that works incredibly well for mobile. Third-person action tends to be clunky on phones if you're not hooking up a controller, but simply tapping the screen to issue commands has led to me spending far more time playing on my phone than I intended to.
There are also a few convenient improvements that come with the turn-based combat, such as double speed and auto-battle toggles. The auto-battle is your best friend when grinding resources, turning what could have been a laborious task into a trip to pop the kettle on and watch your team destroy some poor grunts. It's not limited to side activities either, so as long as your party is of an equal level to the enemy, you can also auto-battle through story sections, bar important bosses.
Then there's the elemental system that you need to keep on top of, with an enemy's weakness helpfully displayed above them. Attacking with a character of the element they're weak to will lower their Break Bar, which stuns them for a short while and increases the damage you do when attacking. It's pretty important for stronger enemies, but if a character is powerful enough, they can bypass this and can kill them in one or two hits. On top of this, each character has a Path that makes them suited for single-target or multi-target damage, healing, buffing, debuffing, or survivability. Basically, it's a class system, and I found it actually slots in well with the elemental mechanic, encouraging me to switch-up my team for some tougher fights.
This is where the streamlined resource farming comes in handy, as it's super quick to level-up characters of a different class. It's turned the lengthy, monotonous grinding for resources present in Genshin Impact into a five minute job that you can literally walk away from if you toggle auto-battle. I even spied an item on the free tier of the battle pass that looks like it can make a custom Relic, gear which raises stats and gives set bonuses. These stats are something you have no control over in Genshin, which can lead to dozens of hours farming for something you need that you may never get a perfect drop on anyway.
Logging in to complete dailies is also quick due to the simplicity of your tasks, and I don't know about Aeons and Archons, but there must be some sort of cosmic force looking out for us, as there's no stamina bar, which is a major downside to traversal in Genshin. Although, ease of navigation and speedier battles does come at the cost of exploring the beautiful, serene open world core to the Genshin Impact experience. Instead, you travel through smaller areas that sometimes loop back on each other. With its vast areas full of treasures to find, hidden side quests, and Domains to unlock, Genshin feels like a game that just so happens to be on mobile, whereas Star Rail's focus on speeding up your journey feels like a premium mobile game that just so happens to be on PC. Everything's easier, but everything's smaller. This doesn't necessarily make it better or worse - it's just different.
Something not so different is the lack of representation in character design. Of the 28 characters available in the beta, only one isn't white. Arlan is also the only person of colour I remember encountering throughout my entire journey in the three main areas. This could change in the full release, or with future updates, but HoYoverse don't have the best track record with responding to these criticisms. Their games seem more concerned with diversity in quirky hair colours than accurately representing cultures they pull from. Yes, these are made up worlds, but basing architecture, clothing, customs, music - everything - off real world countries, but continually failing to represent the people that live in them can't be called an oversight at this point.
It's a noticeable stain that mars Star Rail's otherwise impressive showing. Sure, it's also still got a gacha system, which I'll never advocate for, but at least the character rates aren't predatory here: a 4-Star character or item every 10 'Warps', the game's lootbox gacha system, and a 5-Star every 90. The currency to use on Warping can also be earned at a decent rate for free by taking part in optional activities. You can eventually get every character without spending money, it'll just take a lot, lot longer. So prepare to conserve your currency for favourites. A slow wait in an otherwise fast-paced game.
It's that rapid pace of play that has me most excited to get started on the full release of Star Rail. I don't think anybody is gunning to add yet another live service game to their list of dailies, but the ease of playing Star Rail on mobile actually makes it something of a perfect companion piece to slot in between other games. I've made a lot of comparisons to Genshin (sorry Honkai fans), but I think this is the most relevant. I don't think Star Rail is going to pull many away from Genshin Impact, but it absolutely has the potential to run alongside it, which I'm sure is intentional on HoYoverse's part - why take people away from your massively popular game when you can get them hooked on two at the same time?