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Honkai: Star Rail Review (PS5)

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Genshin Impact sent ripples through the gaming industry in 2020, and Honkai: Star Rail has already successfully repeated the same feat. Currently the biggest gacha game on the planet per Sensor Tower revenue rankings, this turn-based RPG takes many of the same systems from HoYoverse’s fantasy open world and bends them into a more bite-sized package. The result is a game that’s more manageable to make progress in, but still utterly life-consuming if you want it to be.

The presentation is exceptional, and elevated in this PS5 port, where it runs at a flawless 60 frames-per-second. While the gameplay doesn’t necessarily benefit from the increased framerate – combat is more tactical in nature compared to Genshin’s real-time gauntlets, and exploration is predominantly linear in the three main environments available so far – the clean visuals and smooth performance enhance the anime aesthetic, which really sings in several key set-piece scenarios.

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You play as a Trailblazer, recruited to an intergalactic organisation named the Astral Express. This squad of special agents rides its space train through the deep recesses of the cosmos, investigating and resolving conflicts relating to mysterious MacGuffins known as Stellarons. While there’s a lot more going on narratively than our short synopsis would lead you to believe, it effectively gives the developer the freedom to explore various different planets and their inhabitants.

As of this review’s publication, there are three main locations: Herta Space Station, Jarilo-VI, and the Xianzhou Luofu. Unfortunately, across these, the developer simply can’t control itself narratively, and a lot of the dialogue is completely overwritten. It doesn’t help that the source material is translated from Chinese, so occasionally you’ll get little bits of Mandarin seeping into the main text, often mispronounced by the English voiceover cast.

While there’s some good narrative content on the first two planets, and generally there’s a stronger sense of personality and humour than in Genshin, the Xianzhou Luofu segment is overwrought with intergalactic politics and it becomes borderline impossible to follow what’s going on. The developer may be taking over the world one gacha game at a time, but we sincerely hope it hires an editor with its unthinkable income, because it really needs one at this point.

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Of course, any narrative concerns evaporate when you’re in battle, and Honkai has a great system. While it’s not the most complicated RPG on the planet, completing some of the more difficult endgame content requires you to build out your units thoughtfully, and mix-and-match them in different ways. At its very core, you’ll effectively be dealing with different classes, from healers to damage dealers, but you’ll also need to consider elemental types, buffs, debuffs, and preservation.

All of this feeds into the gacha system, with rotating banners of characters available periodically, which you can pull for. You can guarantee any given unit by pulling up to 180 times, with tickets purchased using in-game currency you earn from completing objectives. While the developer is relatively generous when it comes to rewards, unlocking every playable hero is not going to happen unless you spend some kind of money, whether it’s on a monthly pass which accumulates additional currency for each day you login – or on big lump sums.

Naturally, you don’t actually need every unit to enjoy the game, and those who spend thoughtfully can save up for the characters they like and have a perfectly fulfilling experience for free. The business model works because, much like with Genshin, HoYoverse invests an enormous amount of development effort into ensuring each playable hero has a unique kit, whether it’s a work-shy mah-jong superstar or an emo assassin who cuts himself to deal additional damage.

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Each character comes with a set of truly gorgeous animations, which you’ll be able to trigger in battle. The novelty of these does begin to thin as you experience them over and over again, but the game’s so colourful and attractive throughout that it never entirely outstays its welcome. Plus, as you start building more and more characters, you’ll find yourself rotating through various different teams depending on what the circumstances demand. This is all part of the appeal.

And there’s a treadmill-like nature to it all you should be aware of. Levelling up units and assigning them the right equipment takes weeks, sometimes months, with a lot of time spent on resource gathering and farming. There are limitations to the number of actions you can take per day, and sometimes you’ll need to wait for materials to recharge. This is the mobile game aspect, and it’ll no doubt irritate console players who just want to get on without obstruction.

But it’s important to remember this is a live service game, with regular events and a constant churn of content. There is no end here, and while there are numerous story-based quests to complete, the real goal is simply making a little bit of progress every single day towards your goals. Whether it’s levelling up a character, ascending them, or simply earning resources to spend on the next banner – it never really ends, and that’s kind of the point to it all.

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Those familiar with Genshin will know that HoYoverse acts on a regular update cadence, which sees new content added every six or so weeks. This means that PS5 players will already have access to an additional third or so of narrative content that wasn’t available in the mobile version at launch, and you can expect the scale of the release to continue from here on out. It means the story isn’t finished – in fact, it’s unlikely to ever be finished. Honkai Impact 3rd, for example, has been going for seven years and is getting a new chapter later this year.

The content that the developer does add is generally great, though. There’s been some obscene variety this year alone, from a tycoon-style museum management simulation to a logistics-inspired item stacking minigame. Everything loops back to the narrative and the core turn-based battle system, but HoYoverse is already finding unique ways to keep things fresh. And that’s without even mentioning the obscenely addictive roguelite sub-mode named Simulated Universe, which takes the team-building aspects to an entirely new level, and was recently reinvented with an alternative, dice-based reimagining.

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All this is to say, you’ll likely get out of Honkai: Star Rail what you invest into it. Those willing to walk the treadmill and engage with the constant churn of content will find themselves organically unlocking more characters, creating better builds, and forming stronger teams. However, those reluctant to engage on a daily basis and commit to the game’s daily demands may find themselves falling behind. The one grace here is that, unlike Genshin, this game is a lot more bite-sized and a bunch more forgiving, so it’s easier to keep up with.

Conclusion

Honkai: Star Rail, already a tremendous success, transfers to PS5 flawlessly – and is almost guaranteed to become one of the most-played games on the platform. In some ways its bite-sized nature means it’s more at home on mobile, but its beautiful anime art style and stunning animations deserve to be experienced on a big screen. While its narrative is occasionally overwritten, and it demands players invest a lot to experience it to its fullest, this is a live service executed impeccably. And the truly exciting thing is that the best is yet to come.

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