HoYoverse dropped two trailers for its upcoming games Honkai: Star Rail and Zenless Zone Zero, and there's a rumor that's its got yet another one coming soon. Both of its newest games look like third-person action RPGs featuring a bunch of hot anime characters. They're basically Genshin Impact but grown up and set in more modern and sci-fi settings.
I've played several hours of the Honkai: Star Rail beta and it made me want to leave Genshin behind. It turns out that HoYoverse's unparalleled combat animations wrapped up in a turn-based format is, for me, way better than anything the open world fantasy game offers. And Zenless Zone Zero might persuade me to try it too.
Genshin Impact killer
Honkai: Star Rail is anime Mass Effect but with thematic and potentially direct ties to Honkai Impact 3rd, the developer's pre-Genshin action game. Characters from that game return and talk about world-ending disasters that sound a lot like the Evangelion-esque chaos that unfolds in Honkai Impact 3rd. But even though I only get my Honkai lore info from a friend, nothing about Honkai: Star Rail's space exploration story suggests that you need to understand what came before.
The beta has tons of Genshin Impact DNA in it outside of its turn-based combat. You have a nameless main character and a team of friends with unique abilities that you can swap to while you explore. Each character has upgrade paths tied to their abilities, weapons, and overall character level—it's still, unfortunately, a gacha game where money will shortcut grinding.
Unlike Genshin, Honkai: Star Rail isn't really open world. There are big cities and sections of planets to explore, but you don't pick up berries and activate towers to reveal a massive world map. Instead, the game's focus is on its turn-based combat. You and the robotic enemies you're up against throw elemental abilities back and forth and try to exploit each other's weaknesses. It's kind of like Pokémon, but the Pokémon have white hair and catchphrases. Every character has an ultimate ability that comes with completely ridiculous short animations that, frankly, rule. One character, a tall lady named Himeko, calls down an laser strike from outer space while sipping from her drink as the beam comes crashing down behind her.
That's the best part about Honkai: Star Rail. Genshin is fun to look at when everything goes right. You correctly swap your characters in time to create a tornado of over-the-top abilities. But without a lot of time investment and practice, the game's combat can get dull. Honkai: Star Rail, probably because it's turn-based, turns the dial up on the extreme animations and lets you sit back and watch them fire off. And the short battles in the beta were a good mix of tactical ability usage and smashing the ultimate buttons to make things go boom.
I'll play that too
Zenless Zone Zero looks incredibly similar to HoYoverse's other games. A bunch of characters whacking robots with streaks of color rippling out from each strike. It's loud and kinetic in the same ways that Honkai Impact 3rd and Genshin Impact already gesture at with their combat. Zenless Zone Zero, like Honkai: Star Rail, seems primarily interested in underlining the developer's signature combat animations, injecting it with more cute characters to roll for, and set in another sci-fi universe.
It's nice to see a game that looks more adult than Genshin too. The fantasy game struggles sometimes to make some of its storytelling gel with its Saturday morning cartoon art style. It's especially egregious when a character like the Raiden Shogun, despite being an incredibly powerful force in the game's Inazuma section, looks and moves like a teenager instead of the 2000 year adult that she actually is. Obviously that's also a widespread anime problem, but HoYoverse has shown it can have a larger variety of character designs in games like Honkai Impact 3rd.
Zenless Zone Zero could be going in a different direction given what I saw in the trailer. It has a wolf man with nitro-boosted legs. You simply can't say no to that.
There's only one catch
The tragedy of HoYoverse games is that they're pretty much guaranteed to be gachas. It'd be nice to play its superb action games in a genre that isn't designed to exploit you. It makes playing and talking about them hard because if the endgame loot and character-rolling systems suck, they're going to require a lot of time or money—or both.
Early impressions from the Honkai: Star Rail beta make it sound not particularly better than Genshin's artificially confusing and scarce endgame progression systems. Genshin spoils me with its slick combat and pretty character designs, but it's hard to keep up with it when my daily activities are a grind to make the numbers go up. There's no reason Honkai: Star Rail and Zenless Zone Zero will be different, but I really hope it's possible to play them casually without feeling like I'm missing out by not putting my credit card info in.