Honkai Star Rail is Genshin Devs’ space fantasy version of Persona

Image: HoYoverse

After a few minutes of Honkai: Star Rail during a live media preview, I liked what I saw the most. HoYoverse’s Space Fantasy RPG doesn’t reinvent turn-based combat, but the performance was smooth. The combat animations were some of the best I’ve seen from anime games in years. The battle’s turn tracker, team combos, type matchups, and battle animations were reminiscent of games like Shin Megami Tensei and Persona 5. But HoYoverse absolutely doesn’t want you to think of it as one of those games. Aside from the apparent identity confusion, my conversation with the developer left me without much optimism about racial incorporation into Star Rail’s space fantasy.

How Star Rail Works: Although you start with a protagonist, most of your squad will come from finding wives and husbands through the gacha system. You use them to explore maps filled with enemy encounters (rather than real-time combat like in HoYovere’s current mainstay, Genshin Impact).

Once you encounter an enemy, you begin a turn-based battle. Each of your four party members has two abilities. Some will be offensive while others will be supportive or healing. Each attack corresponds to an element, and using elemental matchups effectively will allow you to break shield bars. Once an enemy is vulnerable, you can use team combo attacks to kick them while they’re down.

Screenshot: HoYoverse / Kotaku

Despite the relatively simple combat, the game will feature automatic combat mechanics. This should make it easier to fight daily battles for resources, which is a key feature that some modern gachas use to keep the games alive.

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Star Rail will have a main story campaign and regular side quests. While it has characters similar to Honkai Impact 3rd, Fish Ling, a HoYoverse rep, assured me there would be no story crossover with their incredibly lore-heavy real-time action game.

According to Michalel Lin, another representative of the developer, the development of Honkai: Star Rail was HoYoverse’s desire to diversify its portfolio from the usual action games it publishes. Second, HoYoverse felt turn-based combat was conducive to “the story we want to tell.” Its design philosophy was driven by a desire to make turn-based combat accessible to newcomers.

However, things got murkier when I tried to ask who the target audience is. The Star Rail presentation mentioned that the game would feature different cultures. When I remembered how badly Genshin Impact failed in the Sumeru update with the rendering of black people and Southwest Asians, I asked how the developers planned to improve the rendering in Star Rail. What lessons have you learned from the foreign community?

“The game takes place in a fictional world,” Lin said. “What we do depends on how intellectual property grows. As a combination of cultures in our world, there is no specific culture that we target. We’ll continue to listen to fan feedback, but we can’t say for sure what the world will be like.”

Screenshot: HoYoverse

The year is 2023, and Asian RPGs continue to embrace diversity. This immensely disappointing response reminded me of Final Fantasy XVI producer Naoki Yoshida’s response as to whether or not this game would feature People of Color. Her response was that her world is fantasy, so it cannot be held to diversity standards at all. Star Rail features characters that are culturally Chinese, so it feels really crappy that its launch characters appear to be even lighter-skinned than those in Genshin Impact. Once again we need to start keeping Asian RPGs to higher standards.

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I got similarly vague answers when I asked where Star Rail got its inspiration from. “We think turn-based RPGs are very engaging and have an active audience in the market,” Lin said. It took me a few minutes to remember that the Persona series has sold 16.8 million copies worldwide and was probably at least one of the games alluded to. When I pushed for the studio’s creative inspiration, Lin told me that the Star Rail team consists of 500 individual developers. It would therefore be impossible to narrow down certain influences.

I can imagine why HoYoverse is so coy about its Persona 5 game set in outer space. It’s probably because the internet rushed into Genshin Impact at launch for its similarities to Breath of the Wild, to the point where the developer had to reassure players that the game was more than a clone. But Star Rail will likely release sometime this year, and people will be able to see the Persona DNA embedded in the game.

So here’s the honest summary of Star Rail: it’s a space fantasy game that you’ll probably like if you’re a fan of the Persona series or Shin Megami Tensei. Be careful with the gacha system and don’t hold your breath at the improved variety from what we’ve seen so far.