In my opinion, the best RPGs are the ones that immaculately capture the sense of adventure, excitement, and wonderment through their beautiful landscapes, party banters, otherwordly conflicts, melodious and bombastic scores, and layered combat systems. Honkai Star Rail seems to have it all, and if my first ten hours with the game are any indication, it could very well be one of the most awe-inspiring video games of the year.
From the moment I heard the game's mystical main menu soundtrack, showcasing the magnificent Astral Express all ready to venture into the unknown, I felt this immense sense of excitement and nostalgia building up inside me, something that not many modern RPGs have been able to do in a while. It reminded me of when I first booted up Dragon Age: Origins or Skyrim or Final Fantasy 7, all incredible RPGs that inexplicably captured that same sense of adventure, and I knew Honkai Star Rail was something truly special.
A More Condensed Experience than Genshin Impact
miHoYo, the studio behind Honkai Star Rail really came into the picture with Genshin Impact, once a self-proclaimed Breath of the Wild clone, now one of the most beloved and played free-to-play titles of all time. I'm not very keen on Genshin, even though I have tried to get into it a couple of times, more so because of peer pressure from my mates who religiously play this game to date.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly why Genshin Impact didn't click for me. Perhaps it felt too free-to-play if that makes sense. The art style and color palette reeked too much of Breath of the Wild, and the first few free characters weren't that interesting to play as. If I had to go with one thing, I would say it lacked focus. It had little of everything but didn't stand out at least to me.
Honkai Star Rail, on the other hand, feels more of a condensed experience. In fact, the reason it piqued my interest was when I read something about it taking inspiration from the Persona games, a critically acclaimed JRPG franchise that I deeply adore.
I don't claim to be an expert on JRPGs, and Persona is one of the only franchises that I have religiously devoured. Hence, when I say I saw traces of Persona's magic in Honkai's combat, please know that's the first thing that came to my mind.
But Honkai Star Rail doesn't just replicate the turn-based combat system of Persona and other beloved turn-based RPGs, it puts its own spin on it by adding elements that make it significantly different. It may seem like you're just targeting the enemy's weakness and dealing huge chunks of damage, but there's so much depth to everything. Every character has an elaborate skill tree that really amps up their abilities in meaningful ways. There's a card-like system called Light Cones, which provides more ways to upgrade your character's abilities. And this is just scratching the surface.
mIYoHo had made subtle changes that really make a difference. For instance, unlike Persona, every enemy has a shield in Honkai, which only depletes when you hit it with its weakness. That's such a diligent addition that changes how you approach battles.
Learning from the Best
This game also has the most streamlined turn-based combat system I have encountered since Persona 5. One of the reasons why I think modern gamers find most turn-based RPGs off-putting is because they aren't as flashy and stylish as their action counterparts. Honkai smashes through those stereotypes by bringing high production values and a very responsive combat system. Even the transition into the battle is followed by this zipping sound effect that makes you feel like you're fast traveling into space. It's incredibly satisfying.
I can't overstate how many times I looked at the sublime quality of this game and wondered if it's really free-to-play. I mean, it's not. It's a gacha game, and we will come to that later. But it's also worth pointing out how premium this game feels even without spending a single penny.
The character details in this game are jaw-dropping. It's not just about high-quality textures but every tiny detail about the characters, from their clothes to their hair and even the way they walk; Everything feels like a labor of love.
Belobog, the first city in the game, feels so lived-in compared to anything I encountered in Genshin Impact. There's a cute lady strumming her guitar in the corner. A bunch of kids are attentively listening to another lady telling them about Belobog's history. There's a lot going on, and it's nothing like Saint Denis from Red Dead Redemption 2, mind you, but it's still pretty impressive. The high production values of Honkai Star Rail are a reminder of how far miHoYo has come since it launched Genshin. I don't recall any turn-based anime-style RPG with such stunning visuals and accessible combat, free-to-play or otherwise. It's safe to say that the Genshin money has been put to good use.
miHoYo has yet to gain any money from me because I haven't indulged in its complicated monetization system so far. Honestly, I don't think I'll need to anytime soon because even the free characters in this game seem quite powerful, with unique skills and ultimate abilities that I feel are worth keeping around, unlike Genshin Impact. That said, I don't mind spending real money to try and get that fancy 5-star character everyone can't seem to get enough of (yes, I'm talking about Himeko) because Honkai has earned my trust. Plenty of free-to-play games are hell-bent on just squeezing people's money out of their pocks. But the most successful free-to-play games know that a lot of players will willingly spend their money in a game if the game's worth investing in.
Setting a New Standard for Freemium Aaa Role-playing Games
It's worth pointing out that games like Genshin Impact and Honkai Star Rail are slowly yet steadily bridging the gap between freemium AAA games and premium AAA games. It's all about giving players a choice while providing them with high-quality experiences. I wouldn't be surprised if more AAA studios venture into this direction in the future. I mean, it's better to charge more later than charge 70$ in the beginning and provide a shallow lackluster experience (*coughs Redfall*).
I'm very excited to go back and continue my journey in Honkai Star Rail. I'm also aware that soon I'll run into a level wall where the game will urge me to grind for countless hours before letting me progress the story. But as long as the game keeps its momentum through engaging character interactions, a captivating soundtrack, and a robust combat system, I don't think I have any reason to stop playing.