Honkai: Star Rail screenshot

Honkai: Interstellar Railway Review

Honkai: Interstellar Railway Review


need to know

(Image credit: Tyler C./HoYoverse)

what is it? A sci-fi role-playing game featuring anime
release date April 25, 2023
expect to pay play for free
developer Hao universe
publisher Hao universe
Reviewed on RTX 3080 Ti, i9 12900K, 32GB RAM
steam deck not support
associate Official Website(opens in a new tab)

Honkai: Star Rail is supposed to be turn-based, but its combat moves at the speed of an RPG. Plan your moves correctly, and your team will dash and dodge around the screen as if you were in direct control. Sharp tactical decisions will win you quick wins, but the real reward is watching the dizzying anime-style battles.

The camera tilts and pans as characters strum guitars to electrify enemies, tear screens apart with time-bending scythes, cry to their robot dad for protection, and immerse footage underwater for healing. Each character exudes personality, and their battlefield acrobatics are expressive.

In its climactic battle, Star Rail looks a lot like Genshin Impact. When characters use their stylish ultimate abilities, they take control of the entire scene. But the characters in this sci-fi RPG aren’t just keybindings for their signature moves, just like they are in Genshin. Everyone has the chance to be the key to a particular encounter, which means building a diverse roster of characters and understanding exactly how they work together has to be done.

Star Rail’s cast of anime protagonists matches its resilient tone, from the heroic optimism of a space opera to the dark comedy of Nier’s Game, mixed with a lot of Final Fantasy 14’s soapy storytelling. Your protagonist, Trailblazer, and two of her crew travel to different planets, dabbling in local politics and issues. The steady plot pacing and surprisingly crisp writing helps avoid the pain of prolonged world-building that you’re forced to go through in Genshin. Here, these things are hidden in text logs and item descriptions. Star Rail doesn’t waste your time, it plays like a modern RPG – with some free gacha game notes.

Ditching the open-world structure established in Genshin allowed Star Rail to focus on building meaningful side characters through quests and wandering dialogue. NPCs send regular text messages asking for help or just checking in, each with the opportunity to anthropomorphize the Trailblazers in a more interesting and compelling way than the travelers in Genshin. My trailblazer sends emojis and spams question marks to her friends. She’s tired, confused, and pulling out all the stops—a character that really resonates with anyone trying to stay alive and online in 2023.

Star Rail is also really funny, frequently poking fun at your decisions and giving you dialogue responses that shrug off the melodrama of world-catastrophic events–silly responses or actions like telling a violent sentient robot that he The Hairstyles Are Pretty or Sitting on the Teleporting Toilet Star Rail is very aware of the tropes it employs, but balances that with sincerity when it comes to its most important characters and themes.

Once you leave the space station in Star Rail’s intro, which serves as a hub for important characters and side quests, you’re introduced to Jarilo-VI, a frozen planet with the same problems as Trailblazer. (Jarilo-VI is one of two planets available at launch, but, sort of like Genshin’s zone, more will be added over time.) Help civilizations thrive before mutating and damning them for eternity. Trailblazer has one inside her, which gives her the unique ability to figure out how to stop them.

You won’t be trekking long in the snow before being escorted to Belobog, the last living city on Earth. On the surface, the city looks surprisingly prosperous despite being surrounded by a frozen wasteland. Heaters line the stone streets, and townspeople gather around a monument to the ancient people who made the place habitable. But toiling beneath the city is a whole community of miners who keep the lights on.

Star Rail’s depiction of class differences and anarchy in Jarilo-VI doesn’t quite make it to Final Fantasy 7. It’s actually softer than I like in that regard, but the missions there spend a lot of time digging into how extreme instability serves as an excuse for extreme control by those in power. While the planet’s storyline doesn’t end with a complete fix, it suggests that Interstellar won’t have the kind of story where a magical hero uses her magical powers to fix everything. You just get the ball rolling. Jarilo-VI and the second planet—a bright, futuristic China rife with questions about immortality—are distinct locations, with a cast of characters capable of dealing with the planet alone.

(Image credit: Tyler C./HoYoverse)

chain reaction

Your role is to clean up the place so that change can happen. Enemies come in many forms, from humans to hordes of destructive Evangelion-like robots. In Belobog, these metallic monsters patrol the Stellaron-influenced areas. Exploration is like a limited version of Genshin’s third-person traversal: you dash through streets and enter caves containing chests, hacking mini-games, and health pickups, all while avoiding or colliding with enemies. You can sneak up on enemies, see a list of their elemental weaknesses, and start a fight with one of your four characters’ abilities to your advantage, like a team-wide damage buff or a chance to freeze enemies in place from the start.

Star Rail accelerates the tactical edge of the best turn-based RPGs to create an adaptable experience for all types of players.

Combat in Star Rail requires a mix of characters to match your enemies’ elemental weaknesses, with supporting abilities that mitigate incoming damage and debuffs. Each character has basic attacks, skills, passives, and ultimates – tools to stop the enemy’s advance. Attack with the right element and you’ll drain a white bar, causing enemies to collapse weakly, or be exposed to increased damage and delay their next turn. Ideally, you want to starve enemies by chaining abilities together. But you won’t always have the right elements, and will have to deal with attacks that incapacitate, delay, and weaken your party’s actions.

I had a party centered around Seele, a damage dealer with the unique ability to gain an extra turn when she kills an enemy. She pairs well with Bronya, a support who can use her abilities to free allies. When the elements are in my favor, I can fuel my extremely powerful Seele with a critical strike so she can unleash enough attacks in a row to charge her powerful ultimate, which will result in another critical strike. Other characters, like Rockstar Serval, specialize in dealing periodic damage to weaker enemies so the rest of your team can focus on stronger monsters.

You can brute force–even auto-combat–fight weaker monsters without worrying about matching elements, but some difficult encounters force you to use the elemental system. Quests and repeatable encounters, such as Calyx challenges (like Genshin’s Ley Lines), provide you with items to increase a character’s level, their light cones (weapons), their relics (artifacts), and their traces (talents).

(Image credit: Tyler C./HoYoverse)

Story encounters can often get in the way if you don’t have a well-rounded roster. Lower-level characters, like Genshin, can use their elemental affinities in a pinch, but as you level up your Trailblazer, enemies take heavy hits and roll out unique mechanics. The boss in the Jarilo-VI story summons a metal hand that steals one of your characters and traps them until you free them. The boss’s constant barbaric attacks won’t give you time to nerf the health of your hand, forcing you to bring in someone who can nerf your team quickly before it’s wiped out.

By emphasizing each character’s individual skills and their interactions, Star Rail distills what makes a turn-based RPG most satisfying: tactical, team-based decision-making. In the 30 hours I’ve played, I’ve rarely had to go through a ton of basic attacks to recover meaningful abilities–which is usually a sign you’re playing it wrong. Instead, I always have an ultimate or skill that I can use to solve mysteries during encounters.

Star Rail accelerates the tactical edge of the best turn-based RPGs to create an adaptable experience for all types of players. Fights last only a few minutes, but the quick exchanges of powerful attacks intensify every second. Mistakes are sensed immediately, which trains you to adapt quickly and try different team combinations. Your decisions determine the fight, but instead of punishing you for being undervalued (within reason), you’re asked to come up with a creative solution using the tools you have. If Genshin was an astounding open-world real-time service game, Star Rail is an astonishingly clever mix of modern turn-based RPGs, expertly designed to simulate the thrill of playing your cards right without spending 90 hours on the good parts.

(Image credit: Tyler C./HoYoverse)


The characters you have access to can significantly affect how you approach combat, and their individual levels can even determine whether you can try them out in the first place. There are some snags in the story that will take you back to the real world to earn more trailblazers and character levels, and while these breaks don’t last long if you alternate between side quests and daily activities, they do prevent You experience one of the most innovative modern RPGs I’ve ever played.

It’s a tonal chameleon that switches modes so subtly that it makes me cheer for it.

Star Rail’s gacha system is almost identical to the one in Genshin. Star Rail has the power of the Trailblaze instead of virgin resin as an energy system limiting you to farming. Your Trailblaze power refills every three hours, but it’s always faster to buy premium currency to increase it. And the drop rates for its rarest and most powerful characters are still low; not low, but low enough to require weeks of dedicated research or your money.

None of Star Rail’s monetization systems are over the top, but the artificial complexity in its various currencies and reward systems ruins an otherwise smooth experience. This reminds me of the level requirement for the next story mission in Final Fantasy XIV that has to be done dungeon farming. It’s painful enough that someone is sure to pay to have it go away, and of course, that’s exactly where the HoYoverse taunts you with its gacha and energy systems.

(Image credit: Tyler C./HoYoverse)

Star Rail, at least in its initial state, doesn’t sacrifice its smart design by forcing you to participate in its monetization for full satisfaction. Its roster of free characters, top-notch combat, and variety of side quests don’t feel like an excuse to shell out your pocket. A version of Star Rail unencumbered by these commercial intentions wouldn’t be much different, but it would certainly make celebrating its fun a lot easier.

Because when star trails collide, it collides. The climactic boss battle at the end of the first planet is a battle with a god in a blizzard, with electric guitars wailing and drums blaring. Music plays slowly in the background as she raises a black vortex of cosmic energy and threatens your team. The scene ends, her health bar reappears, and the song revives in high-pitched singing. All strategy and complexity is gone, and Star Rail gives your team the stage for the final act.

Star Rail’s unbridled commitment to its characters, worlds, and…

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Bart Thompson
Bart is's List Writer . He is from Houston, Texas, and is currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in creative writing, majoring in non-fiction writing. He likes to play The Elder Scrolls Online and learn everything about The Elder Scrolls series.