Honkai: Star Rail
Turn-based role playing game that’s so good it’s bad
Honkai: Star Rail is a sci-fi turn-based role playing game (RPG) where you join the crew of the Astral Express space-train and help locals deal with disasters caused by mysterious objects called “stellarons”, one of which resides inside your own body. You’ll explore rich and expansive 3D worlds, fulfil innumerable quests for your crew and other friends, and battle against a never-ending stream of enemies.
It’s uncommonly polished for a mobile/tablet-first game, combining some of the genre’s worst impulses (confusing and frequently meaningless battles) with surprisingly good writing and an absolutely gargantuan amount of content, all of which is theoretically available for free.
Here’s a typical 30 minute slice of Honkai: Star Rail:
Select a quest from your log
Teleport to the quest-giver, who’ll tell you what to do. If it’s a sidequest, the dialogue will be in text; if it’s an important quest, it’ll be voice-acted; and if it’s really important, it’ll have custom animation.
Walk to the first quest waypoint and, usually, fight enemies, but sometimes talk to people, take a photo, press a button on a console, or solve a puzzle so simple a five year old would be insulted, etc. On the way there’ll be some treasure to collect or letters or posters to read.
Repeat across more waypoints until you complete the quest and get some rewards.
This is standard for RPGs, but Honkai: Star Rail is what many would consider to be a “Japanese” role playing game (JRPG). JRPGs are usually distinguished from “western” RPGs by these broad characteristics:
Exploration takes place across multiple linked environments rather than a single massive open world
Battles take place in a turn-based arena where characters can’t move freely, or at all
The story is highly linear with few, if any, meaningful choices
Your character(s) cannot be heavily customised and often have specific, detailed backstories
I’ve found it surprisingly hard to write about this game because it changes more in its first seven hours than anything else I’ve played lately. My opinion swung from exasperated confusion to begrudging respect to amused enjoyment. The last time I felt this way was reading the novel The Three-Body Problem which, like Honkai: Star Rail, is Chinese sci-fi that’s similar to western sci-fi but also very different.
So I apologise if this post reads as more disjointed than usual; there are so many systems in this game and they take so long to get explained that I kept changing my mind as I played. I think it’s important to preserve that feeling because reviews often gloss over those frustrating sections or assume that we’re all familiar with the deeply idiosyncratic aspects of JRPGs.
The game begins in media res with two mysterious characters arriving on a space station that’s under attack. You control these characters as they battle through enemies to retrieve a magical stellaron and put into a new body (yours), whereupon they disappear and “you” wake up and get rescued by the Astral Express. That’s a lot for a 30 minute prologue, especially one filled with jargon like this:
She's a member of the Genius Society and an Emanator of Nous the Erudition. She can probably age backwards if she wanted.
The game doesn’t even try to explain any of these terms. Instead, it sweeps players along by sheer momentum. Nothing makes sense, but it seems that few care providing the dialogue and cutscenes are snappy and well-acted. Early battles are similarly incomprehensible to anyone new to JRPGs because none of the user interface elements (e.g. toughness bars, skill points, enemy vulnerabilities) are explained, but again, that doesn’t matter because the game literally tells you which buttons to press to win.
It’s a strange design choice, but one that makes sense if the vast majority of players a) already know how to play and b) trust the story will be explained in due course. And indeed, once the prologue is over, things do get explained bit by bit and you learn what all the jargon means, if only thanks to added context.
While the story is badly paced, the writing is very good: consistently funny, smart, with a zany self-awareness. The silly in-game text messages and descriptions of street lamps and trash cans were so well done, they reminded me of my favourite Sierra and LucasArts graphic adventure games:
Maybe I’m lacking experience, but I was astonished to see writing this good in a free-to-play mobile game. At first I thought it was an indulgence from the game designers, but on reflection it’s a smart, and frankly economical, way to make players bond with the world and characters as quickly as possible – important, because that’s how the game makes money, as I’ll cover later. This is easier said than done because it requires designers to recognise and prioritise good writing, and many do not.
I have to re-iterate here that this is a game made by a Chinese company, which means every single word has been localised to English. To my eyes, however, the story remains distinctly Chinese – overly florid descriptions, lots of numbered lists, mega-engineering projects, references to “scholars”, that kind of thing:
We pick up fragments of the lost symphony to reproduce the feast of a glorious past. We decipher the essence of unknown technologies to glimpse the dazzling gleam of civilizations' crystallized wisdom. Scholars are boats that sail across the vast galaxy toward the ends of its expanse, and the answers silently waiting on the other side are the best motivations for our advance.
It’s also sexist, with too many women being whimpering and forgetful, and everyone in general looking impossibly thin and young – sadly common in this kind of game and in Chinese sci-fi.
(Science fiction and video games might be China’s most successful cultural exports right now, and this game demonstrates why. This is supremely effective video game storytelling and it’s striking people aren’t paying more attention to it.)
Battles usually begin when you happen upon an enemy while exploring the world. If you run up to them quickly while their back is turned you can get the jump on them, gaining a bonus when the battle starts; otherwise they’ll notice you and the battle will begin automatically. As is typical in JRPGs, what looks like one enemy in the main world will become multiple enemies during the battle, an oddity that I assume started due to technical and resource limitations and now has become a confusing tradition.
During battles, your party of up to four characters assembles in a line, facing a line of enemies. Each character gets to perform an action when it’s their turn – either a normal attack or a special skill, which consumes skill points generated by doing normal attacks; special skills might be a heavier attack or adding a shield to another character in your party. Actions charge up characters’ “ultimate” ability, which might freeze all the enemies, fire a devastating orbital cannon, boost all of your party’s abilities, etc. Ultimates can be used at any time, even when enemies are performing their actions, and are accompanied by suitably cool animations. Characters’ abilities are determined by their Path, of which there are seven, corresponding to a focus on healing, defense, brute attacks, pinpoint attacks, and so on.
Winning a battle requires exploiting enemy vulnerabilities. Each enemy is vulnerable to different elements (physical, fire, wind, ice, etc.); and your characters’ attacks are strong in some of those elements. Because there is no concept of movement or things to hide behind (“cover”), this is literally as simple as seeing an enemy is vulnerable to the light blue element (ice) and attacking it with a character who has a light blue attack.
To prevent battles from becoming utterly rote, Honkai: Star Rail, like other JRPGs, layers endless complications on this element-matching formula, like characters that can attack twice in a row, or be temporary invulnerable, or interrupt attacks, or automatically respond to attacks even if it isn’t their turn. This can get really finicky – for example, the type of attack that reduces an enemy’s toughness bar to zero will influence the negative effects it suffers during its “Weakness Break”, such as continued damage for a few turns, or being frozen for longer. And of course you can equip characters with “Light Cone” weapons and, along with levelling up their overall abilities, improve aspects of individual “trace” abilities.
I’ve thought long and hard about why I don’t like JRPG battles, and I’ve decided it comes down to two reasons:
The user interface is confusing. Figuring out what your characters are good at and what can happen in a battle requires recognising dozens of little icons and weird terms spread across endless menus and submenus, most of which are barely explained. Maybe this is solveable but Honkai: Star Rail certainly hasn’t done it.
Arranging characters and enemies in one-dimensional lines (as opposed to a 2D battlefield with movement, cover, obstacles, etc.) severely limits the tactical decisions you can make during the battle itself. Instead, major tactical decisions occur before battles, usually after you’ve been defeated and are trying again, like changing team composition and turn order. This makes the learning process much longer and harder than other battle systems.
Lest you think I am incapable of understanding how turn-based battles work, I am perfectly comfortable playing Into the Breach and XCOM and Hearthstone. These games can get very deep but are much easier to grasp thanks to their better user interfaces and model of the world. I suspect it’s no coincidence that JRPG-style battles have not spread beyond their genre.
Eventually you get the hang of it. In fact, most battles are against enemies so easily defeated the game lets you enable “2x” mode, which speeds up combat, and more damningly, autobattle mode, where it makes all your decisions for you. Enabling both modes turns battles into a hyperkinetic blur of attacks and ultimate cutscenes; a battle that would’ve taken me over five minutes to do manually is over in less than sixty seconds. Fun!
Sometimes it won’t let you autobattle. This is usually for boss battles or when you meet new types of enemies, and this is when your characters’ level becomes important. If they’re significantly higher level than the enemies you’re facing, combat is trivial, but if you’re under-leveled, it’s literally impossible since you won’t be able to scratch the enemies.
In between, there’s a sweet spot where skilled players can succeed in battles even if they’re under-leveled, but that spot seems distinctly small and the decisions required for success seem, to my mind, boring and finicky and time-consuming: comparing different weapon stats, characters, power-ups, trying battles over and over again, and so on. I can see how some might find it satisfying, even soothing, to do this. But I think there are better ways to occupy time, and games like Elden Ring and Breath of the Wild are designed so fairly that highly-skilled players can defeat the toughest enemies with the weakest of characters.
Instead, Honkai: Star Rail stalls players’ progress until they level up their characters some other way, and the game’s enormous financial success relies on what they do when this happens. One might think the game makes most of its money from frustrated players paying to level up their characters or buying special characters so they can progress in the story, but from what I can tell, that’s not common. On the contrary, most players will level-up by completing less-polished sidequests, and those sidequests are so well-designed and well-written that players grow to love those characters so much they buy special, more powerful, variations of those characters.
If this sounds weird, it’s just like Marvel fans buying Iron Man t-shirts because they like him in the movies; except in this game they can’t buy the t-shirt (or special character) directly, they have to buy a treasure chest that merely has a chance of containing the thing they want, meaning they’ll have to buy lots of treasure chests. Games that employ this kind of casino-like monetisation are called gacha games (after Japanese toy vending machines, aka loot boxes), and are widely disliked for being exploitative while, unfortunately, remaining incredibly popular and profitable.
Sometimes you’re so under-leveled for a battle, the game won’t even let you try and fail. This happened to me a few hours in, when my characters were level 6, well short of the required level 10. I duly returned to the space station from the prologue to autobattle my way through a bunch of generic fights with enemies I’d seen before.
I was relieved to return to the main quest, which was starting to get interesting: the Astral Express was stuck at the planet Jarilo-VI until we could recover a stellaron that’d caused an ice age. We’d gone to visit the one human city on the surface with a kind of Morlocks/Eloi situation but with much cooler environments. As I explored the world, chatted to characters, and laughed at the funny writing, I found myself easing into the game’s comforting embrace. What had changed? I’d understood its systems and story better – and I cared about them.
Why shouldn’t I hang out with Dan Heng, I asked myself. He’s a funny lad. And didn’t I have to save the plucky undergrounders and rescue Bronya? I could continue the quest, continue the easy battles, continue levelling up in a satisfyingly soporific way, and if I got bored, return to the space station for some amusing-sounding sidequests.
And literally as I had those thoughts - I’m not exaggerating - the game interrupted an exciting cutscene and told me I had to hit “Trailblazer Level 14” to continue the main story quest. How to do that? Complete my Daily Training tasks and perform those sidequests I mentioned. It was so perfectly timed to my acceptance of the game’s systems, it was uncanny.
My first task was on the space station, teaching a hapless scientist how to make small talk with colleagues, after which point she started texting me her work dilemmas. Then I had to take photos of the railway station; do a short combat mission; reply to a text about dad jokes; answer a text sent to the wrong number; and send some team mates on an “assignment” that’d take twenty real-time hours to complete - meaning I’d want to check in precisely twenty hours later to get the rewards and dispatch them on another assignment as efficiently as possible.
I won’t lie: it liked it! It was so easy to play, much faster and slicker than other RPGs I’ve tried, and because it’s on mobile, you can dip in for just a few minutes at a time. And there was so much of it: I was bombarded with more than enough sidequests and companion missions to get me to Trailblazer Level 14 and beyond.
From a design perspective, these “cheaper” sidequests are a cost-effective way to occupy players’ time and stretch out the expensive, high productive value main quest. Once they’ve set up the story and characters and world and battle system, designers can easily create plenty of sidequests by using existing character models and poses and locations, combine them with unique story (not all the story is voice-acted, remember), and set up fights with generic enemies. This is how sidequests work in all RPGs, of course, but the question is how worthwhile you can make them feel, and that’s where the good writing comes in – writing that’s laser-targeted at making players form parasocial relationships with entertaining characters who always need and reward your help.
In fact, all of Honkai: Star Rail’s interlocking systems – the battles, the texts, the sidequests, the weapons, the power-ups – are designed to make it as easy and rewarding as possible to spend as much time in the game as you can. There’s a whole world in there. Even now, I’m resisting checking in to see what else it’s offering me.
I try to avoid industry talk in this newsletter because plenty of others cover it, but it’s hard to exaggerate how popular and profitable this game is: 20 million downloads on launch day; an all-time daily revenue record at $8.5 million on mobile platforms alone thanks to a new character release; an expected gross of $150 million on mobile by the end of its first month, more than its spiritual predecessor. According to analysts, this is down to:
[Honkai: Star Rail’s] unique system of [character] duplicates, where the character limit is increased by ascension materials that are not gated behind [gacha payments]. Therefore players can max level their character even with 1 copy [without paying]. But, and there is a big but, there is the duplicate system which is another power layer of a character that unlocks very strong permanent abilities locked behind, you guessed it, 6 more duplicates of the same character. This is the real culprit behind that big revenue spike 🤑 that shows the big spend depth of the character progression layer.
In other words, the game rewards players with extra powers if they unlock seven versions of the same character, and they’re only going to be able to do that by paying money. They don’t have to do that, but if they like the character enough, they will. And there’s plenty more ways it monetises players, like limited time “event banner” opportunities to get special characters, or its “pity system” that guarantees players get rewards if they’ve been unlucky when opening gacha/loot boxes. To be clear: I don’t approve.
I started playing this game half-expecting to dismiss it as absolute hackwork, just the shallowest, most exploitative game ever. But games as complicated and deep as Honkai: Star Rail generally don’t become this popular without having something to them, and I was curious to see how my expectations would be confounded.
Here’s how: it’s far bigger, more polished, and better written than I could’ve imagined. It’s a life simulator crossed with soothing busywork crossed with parasocial relationships. As a game, its battle system is dreadful; as a world, it’s deeply engrossing; and as a business, it’s troublingly efficient.
It’s nearly impossible to play Honkai: Star Rail the “right” amount. I’m sure most people who start playing it will end up spending far longer on it than even they’d think is wise, and in doing so, they’ll easily justify spending $10 or $100 or $1000 on something that’s entertained them for so long. I don’t think it’s worth it, but I understand those who do.
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