Honkai Star Rail has a clever solution to an old problem: turn-based JRPGs are cool as hell, but they don't always look cool as hell. Text-heavy menus, turn counters, buffs and debuffs and meters, skill descriptions and special attacks – these things are exciting when you play, but it can be hard to convince someone of that if they aren't already into turn-based combat. It just doesn't have the same kinetic appeal of something like Final Fantasy 16.
But Honkai Star Rail, the new game from Genshin Impact developer Hoyoverse, is always cool. It has the most dynamic and reactive turn-based combat of any JRPG I've played in years – I'd say since Persona 5, which managed to hook people who normally don't like turn-based games through its sheer charisma and style. Honkai Star Rail uses the rule of cool and some ingenious twists to make turn-based fights feel tense and action-packed, and I can't get enough of it.
The ultimate weapon
The secret sauce is the way Honkai Star Rail uses ultimate abilities to break the conventions of turn-based combat. Every character has a normal attack, a skill, and an ultimate – a simple kit compared to the many spells and passives you might equip in another JRPG, but the tradeoff here is in application. You use normal attacks to generate energy points you can spend on skills, and you can only use these two abilities when it's your turn. Ultimates, however, charge up whenever you deal or take damage, and they can be used at any time. This essentially lets you extend your combos and interrupt enemies, but that is hugely underselling the power of this interaction.
Let's say I start my turn as March 7th, one of the free characters given to all Honkai Star Rail players, and there's one tanky enemy left with low health. March 7th has her ultimate, an AoE ice blast, but I'd rather save it for the next wave of enemies rather than burn it on this one straggler. However, I'd also rather kill this enemy before he gets to take another turn because I don't have a healer yet, and any damage taken is a real problem. In this scenario, I can go through the rest of my party's turns, using attacks and skills judiciously, hoping to finish off that one enemy. If it isn't dead by the end of my rotation, I can then decide to burn March 7th's burst, chaining it directly to my last party member's attack, to prevent that incoming damage.
couple little clips of Honkai Star Rail's slick combat pic.twitter.com/xJjUTLeEfkApril 28, 2023
Maybe I've pulled Bailu, the adorable dragon healer, and I've got her AoE heal ultimate ready to go. A boss fires off two hard-hitting attacks back-to-back, but after the first one connects, I use Bailu's ultimate to heal up my team and prevent any deaths from the boss's second hit. This kind of stuff brings a real reflex element to combat, which I find refreshing in a turn-based system. If you're too slow with your ultimate, you'll miss the timing and an enemy will start its next move. You have to be ready to respond, but there's a foresight component too. Maybe I don't have Bailu's ultimate in this scenario, but she almost has enough energy for it. In that case, I know that the damage she takes from the first boss attack will top off her ultimate, which still lets me use it in response. It almost feels like trap cards in Yu-Gi-Oh, in the best way.
There's huge offensive potential here too, and every decision adds more depth to Honkai Star Rail's combat. If you have them ready, you can fire off some ultimates before a fight even truly starts, totally skipping the combat queue. I've taken to using Welt's ultimate to slow enemies and Asta's to speed up my team, dramatically tipping a fight's turn order in my favor.
You can set up combos in the same way. If my Trailblazer is close to her hard-hitting ultimate, but far enough away that a normal attack won't get her the energy she needs, I'll be sure to save a skill point for her turn. I might choose to chain her ultimate directly to that skill – especially if it breaks an enemy's poise by hitting its weakness – or I might wait for Asta, who has a high speed stat, to take another turn and grant an attack buff so I can then chain the Trailblazer's ultimate for more damage.
One turn is all it takes
The chain reactions you can pull off with bursts are not only key to winning fights, they're also immensely satisfying to watch because Honkai Star Rail goes all-in on the animations. Amusingly, in a world of spaceships and lasers and elemental superpowers, the main character's ultimate is an honest-to-god baseball bat. That might be kind of lame if that bat wasn't rippling with cosmic energy that mankind doesn't even understand, and if the impact of their swing didn't sound like god slamming a car door. That's what Honkai Star Rail does with a baseball bat, so you can imagine the spectacle of the orbital laser strikes, simulated black holes, and time-bending scythes that make up other ultimates. I will never get tired of slamming the ult button and watching my anime lovelies just atomize a dude for the crime of having materials that I need.
It's not just ultimates, either; Honkai Star Rail's combat is jazzed up by a wealth of follow-up attacks which can further extend and enliven turns. If I shield someone with March 7th and an enemy attacks them, March will shoot that enemy with an ice arrow in response. This is especially powerful if a party member has been marked (sort of like a taunt) for upcoming attacks, because March will get a lot of free hits and energy out of a well-placed shield.
pic.twitter.com/k3diphuikcApril 28, 2023
Likewise, if I exploit enemy weaknesses with Himeko in the party, she'll automatically jump in with AoE attacks. Whenever I bring an enemy down to half health, Herta will do the same. And yes, those follow-up attacks do charge ultimates for you to pile on top. It's amazing what you can do with just a single move in Honkai Star Rail. You can decimate groups of enemies on your very first turn, or time multiple abilities to pack heaps of damage into a short, frenzied window. After a while, you also start to account for the free damage-over-time that comes from breaking enemy weaknesses – burn from fire, bleed from physical, and so on – to get each target just low enough.
In Honkai Star Rail, my turns almost never look like this: "Characters one, two, three, and four use one ability each and then pass." That is what a lot of turn-based games look like most of the time, which isn't inherently a bad thing – it's a tried-and-true formula, after all – but it does demonstrate how active Star Rail really is despite its simple character kits. There is always some Rube Goldberg combo going on, and the energy from the resulting domino effect carries over into future turns and battles.
Even when you don't enable the fast-forward setting – a great quality of life tool for grinding – Honkai Star Rail is a turn-based game that regularly looks and feels like an action game, all while layering and never sacrificing strategic depth. I haven't been this smitten with turn-based combat since the grind for my Bravely Default 2 review in 2021. So as was the case with Genshin Impact, I have to regularly remind myself that Honkai Star Rail is free, because it's a standout in its genre.
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