I can pinpoint the moment I realized I'd had enough of Honkai Star Rail – an unquestionably great JRPG, per our updated Honkai Star Rail PS5 review – and that it would never replace Genshin Impact for me. I've been playing both games since launch and have grown familiar with the playbook of shared developer Hoyoverse. But while I like Genshin more than ever, I've officially had my fill of Star Rail and shelved it. This has inadvertently made me unpack how and why I enjoy JRPGs and live-service games, and it's ultimately made me more motivated than ever to play Genshin.
A tale of three characters
Both games have released several new characters in the past month or so, and I pulled for all of them. I got Neuvillette and Wriothesley in Genshin, as well as Jingliu in Star Rail, ultimately quitting the latter before the recent release of Topaz (who I wasn't very interested in anyway). The very first time I used Neuvillette's charge attack, which is just straight-up Hydro Pump from Pokemon, I busted out laughing and pulled him, plus a duplicate for his first Constellation, immediately. No question: I want this character. The exact same thing happened with Wriothesley's combo attacks. Finally, a fighter who uses gauntlets! Both characters are immensely fun to play and let me use some of my years-old favorites, like Beidou and Shenhe, in new teams.
Yet when I got Jingliu in Star Rail, nothing really changed. She's just a new DPS carry, making her my third alongside Seele and Kafka. I leveled her up, got her geared, brought her into end-game dungeons, and promptly destroyed everything. But I didn't feel anything. Jingliu has a stance-changing gimmick, but it doesn't significantly alter the flow of combat. Her optimal teams aren't meaningfully different from the Seele teams I've been playing for months, and this is largely true of other DPS units like Imbibitor Lunae and Blade as well. They have slight quirks, but damage is damage.
Genshin Impact is a third-person open-world action RPG, while Honkai Star Rail is a turn-based JRPG. I guess you can only make taking turns feel so different, whereas characters like Neuvillette and Wriothesley have immediate and bespoke play styles with a kinetic wow factor. Jingliu is just another character dishing out bigger numbers, and her teams generally play the same as other hyper-carry teams: DPS, support, debuffer, healer or tank.
This gulf in combat also ties into difficulty, which is a deal-breaker for a lot of games for me. Genshin and Star Rail are both fundamentally easy. Once you're leveled and geared, you can steamroll both games pretty effortlessly. My Genshin characters are optimized beyond the bounds of reason and nothing is a challenge anymore, but I still enjoy the combat system, which is frankly lightyears ahead of the rest of the game, for the punchy, element-mashing feel of it.
But Star Rail is only fun for me when it's somewhat difficult, because the strategic satisfaction of any turn-based combat system evaporates without a genuine challenge. Tension and danger are likewise essential to games like XCOM, Into the Breach, Marvel's Midnight Suns, or turn-based JRPGs like Shin Megami Tensei, Etrian Odyssey, or Octopath Traveler. A sense of difficulty pushes me to make my characters stronger and think harder in combat. I don't need to think harder if I can literally auto-play my way through any fight, whereas Genshin's moment-to-moment action always feels good even when I'm bullying weak enemies.
What makes JRPGs fun?
This got me thinking, because a lot of JRPGs are like this. I'll follow the same basic team archetype for the whole game, and quite often outpace the difficulty curve, but still happily play for 60 or 90 or 150 hours or more. What's different in Star Rail? Is it a function of how long I've played this game? It's not like I've put in 500 hours or something wild, but time is surely a factor. I think this just isn't a forever game for me. Maybe it's because of how grindy it is? That's also part of it, but I think the underlying problem is character progression.
If I had to pick one thing, that sense of progression would probably be what keeps me coming back to JRPGs. I love building characters. Unlocking new skills, combining classes, obtaining new weapons, and adjusting my party to suit them. That sentiment ate up roughly half of my Bravely Default 2 review, and it's true for more recent favorites like Xenoblade Chronicles 3 and Sea of Stars, too.
Honkai Star Rail doesn't really have that. Each character only has three core abilities – a normal attack, skill, and ultimate – and you don't have any control over them. There's no customization; instead, you 'complete' a character by leveling them up and unlocking all their passive abilities. Everyone's Jingliu, for instance, is identical. I mean, obviously. These characters are the game's primary selling point, so of course players can't just customize them how they'd like. I understand why, but over a longer period, I think this is where gacha rules start to butt heads with my own tastes in a way that Genshin never really has.
Miss me with that grind
Without customization, progression would have to come from new characters who could change up team-building, but unlike in Genshin, Star Rail characters haven't altered the feel for me. I'm not interested in any tanks, healers, or DPS characters at this point because my roster feels well-rounded already. This means the only motivation for me to pull would be obvious power creep, which is an infamous gacha hangup I don't want to deal with. Genshin has done a remarkably good job of minimizing power creep – sometimes too good a job by releasing garbage characters – and that's one of the reasons I've stuck with it so long. Star Rail's element-matching damage system could also push me to pull new units, but once you get two or three of each type, that loses its luster too because it's honestly just Simon Says. Simon says ice weakness? OK, Jingliu, I choose you.
I suppose I could get my hit of progression from the process of gearing the characters I have, but Star Rail's relic system is so flagrantly unfair that I haven't wanted to engage with it. The odds are stacked against you even more than in Genshin: you have to get six ideal armor pieces per character as opposed to Genshin's four (plus one mercifully flexible off-set piece), and the correct stats drop far less frequently. I'll min-max Genshin builds to an absurd degree, but I quickly settled for any half-decent setup in Star Rail because trying for improvements felt like praying for a heatwave in the arctic. The loot system makes Diablo 4 pre-Season 1 look like Diablo 4 Season 2, and I don't need more toxic RNG in my life.
The weird thing is that Star Rail does a few things demonstrably better than Genshin. A lot of the usual gacha trappings feel more polished thanks to several quality-of-life niceties, and its roguelike end-game beats the pants off Genshin's rote Spiral Abyss dungeon, but the core doesn't have the same lasting appeal for me. I'm a bit sad to drop the JRPG, but in a way this experience has been a relief. It makes it even easier to recommend Star Rail as a fun game you can play for free, clear the main content, and drop like you would a non-gacha JRPG. After all, that's now what I've done, albeit with some light spending along the way (probably less than the price of a normal JRPG altogether).
It's also proven to me that I can have some real fun with Hoyoverse's upcoming games, like Honkai Impact 3rd Part 2 and Zenless Zone Zero, without signing up for a long-term commitment. Genshin just hits different. I reckon I'll be here until the servers go dark.