Honkai: Star Rail closed beta preview — Slow and steady sci-fi

Sci-fi Trailblazer.
Honkai Star Rail Preview Closed Beta Genshin Impact
Screenshot by PC Invasion

Honkai: Star Rail is an upcoming free-to-play, sci-fi role-playing game (RPG) from HoYoverse, makers of Genshin Impact. From the get-go, you’ll notice a lot of similarities, especially if you’ve been playing Genshin for the better part of two years. It will immediately evoke a sense of familiarity so you know what you’re getting into. However, Honkai: Star Rail does have some notable differences, primarily with its combat system and exploration.

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I was fortunate enough to try the closed beta, spending several hours to see this new world come to life. Still, while it does show promise, certain core gameplay mechanics may prove to be a detriment to the enjoyment of Genshin veterans.

To the stars

I must admit that, among all of HoYoverse’s offerings, Genshin Impact is the only one I’m familiar with, considering hundreds of guides I’ve written since the game launched in September 2020. This also means that I’ve never heard of the Honkai Impact series until recently. Thankfully, while Honkai: Star Rail does have recurring characters or even alternate versions, it’s got a standalone campaign; you won’t need to have played the previous Honkai games.

Honkai: Star Rail is set in a sci-fi universe, one where the gargantuan Astral Express train moves across the stars to reach new worlds. As it reaches the Herta Space Station, a group of enemies from a hostile faction begin attacking. That’s when you see an artificial human, who eventually becomes the player’s main character. A Stellaron, a fragment of untold cosmic power, is pushed into their body, and they are dubbed as the Trailblazer. To be fair, there’s a lot of exposition right from the start, so it did get a bit confusing. It’s somewhat par for the course, especially considering the mysteries in Genshin Impact‘s narrative that are only explained later.

Honkai Star Rail Preview Closed Beta Genshin Impact 1

Well, there’s a redhead 5-star character that uses the fire element. I guess we can call her Lady Diluc. Screenshot by PC Invasion

It all feels familiar – Genshin Impact versus Honkai: Star Rail

Those who’ve played Genshin Impact will likely feel at home when they try out Honkai: Star Rail. That’s because most heads-up display (HUD) elements, materials, and mechanics are similar. For instance, characters are on the right-hand side of your screen, and the top-right icons open various menus. You’ll also notice familiar concepts like character leveling/ascensions, and weapon ascensions (though weapons are now known as Light Cones). Talents can also be upgraded, though the difference here is that the panel is akin to a skill tree.

The same can be said when it comes to currencies and Warps/Wishes, including limited-time banners and pity systems. The terminologies and item names may have changed, but the interface evokes that sense of familiarity that should help you navigate. The art style will also dazzle you, what with its anime-esque characters, flashy moves, and cutscenes.

Honkai Star Rail Preview Closed Beta Genshin Impact 2

The Simulated Universe is akin to an event domain or dungeon, and it’s also got storybook choices that provide buffs. Screenshot by PC Invasion

Corridor worlds

The first major difference, though, is exploration. Genshin Impact is an open-world adventure game, where you’ll visit locations and landscapes as far as the eye can see. Honkai: Star Rail, meanwhile, uses the concept of corridor worlds. Each major location you visit has several areas that are smaller and more compact. You can’t jump or glide either, so you’re mostly running around on foot.

A key to exploration is that areas also have checklists. These tell you if that place has a treasure chest, NPC quest, collectible, and the like. As such, you’re traversing these lands while trying to complete a tally of things to do or find.

Honkai Star Rail Preview Closed Beta Genshin Impact 3

While some areas are huge, the game still uses corridor worlds. Image via HoYoverse

Turn-based troubles

The other important distinction is combat. Genshin Impact has real-time battles. You engage an enemy, then cycle among the skills or bursts of your characters, popping each one while off-cooldown in an attempt to take down your foes. Conversely, Honkai: Star Rail uses turn-based combat mechanics. You begin an encounter by attacking an enemy unit on the overworld map. Then, each party member and enemy will act one after the other based on their speed stat. You’ve got a normal attack that refills skill points, a skill move that uses up that resource, and a burst that can be charged up. Of note is that bursts are free actions, and they can be done even if it’s not yet that character’s turn.

This process works in conjunction with two other concepts: character paths and elemental weaknesses. Character paths are akin to your typical RPG classes, distinct roles fulfilled by your party members. Some tend to focus primarily on a single target, whereas others have multi-hit abilities. Others, meanwhile, have a support role, where they can either provide utility buffs, defensive shielding, health restoration, or enemy debuffs.

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This boss has arms with different weaknesses. You’d have to use the correct elements to break the shields. Screenshot by PC Invasion

As for elemental weaknesses, each hostile unit in the game can have one or more elemental weaknesses. Since they’re all protected by shields, your goal is to hit them with a character of an element that’s their weakness. Doing so deals more damage to help deplete the shield. The target will then enter a break state, where they can suffer additional effects based on the element. However, characters of a different element (i.e., not a weakness) will be ineffective against that specific opponent.

This is, I feel, one of the more glaring pitfalls of Honkai: Star Rail. Early on, I noticed that even my strongest 5-star characters barely made a dent if their element does not match a foe’s. And, because shields get replenished once an enemy’s turn begins, it can lead to situations where you’re just reusing the same abilities over and over. Likewise, it bears mentioning that I have yet to see any elemental reactions, which means most character kits exist independently of others and not co-dependently.

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The game has flashy animations, especially once you activate character bursts. Screenshot by PC Invasion

In a way, I do think that Honkai: Star Rail has the basic mechanics down pat, with a sense of familiarity that would make it more approachable for those who’ve only tried Genshin Impact or those that aren’t big fans of the turn-based RPG genre. Still, I was looking for more tactical depth outside of the “use this character/element against this target” concept, which does get repetitive after a while. Then again, we’re only in the closed beta stage and I’m still progressing through the campaign. Things may improve as we get closer to launch.

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Jason Rodriguez
Jason Rodriguez is a guides writer. Most of his work can be found on PC Invasion (around 3,400+ published articles). He's also written for IGN, GameSpot, Polygon, TechRaptor, Gameskinny, and more. He's also one of only five games journalists from the Philippines. Just kidding. There are definitely more around, but he doesn't know anyone. Mabuhay!