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Honkai: Star Rail has a big balance problem that 2.0 needs to fix

Off the rails

Honkai: Star Rail’s Pure Fiction is here, and with it comes a glaring reminder that Star Rail’s balance is totally off-kilter. Without a handful of characters, some of whom only function well in specific circumstances with the best set of Relics, there's just not much chance of clearing every challenge in the allotted time. It's a far cry from Genshin Impact's Spiral Abyss, a set of endgame battles that, despite having a central theme that usually ties in with the latest characters, gives you a strong chance of winning with creative party combinations.

The difference comes in part from time, namely, three years of polishing and improving Genshin Impact compared to Star Rail's eight months. However, Star Rail also has some general structure issues that Genshin Impact never did.

HoYoverse didn’t do a stellar job distributing paths and elements in Honkai: Star Rail’s first year. We’ve got eight allies on the path of Destruction, but only three are 4-star. Two of those launched in Star Rail 1.0, and it shows in their lackluster kits. Attacking multiple foes at once quickly became a key part of any strategy in the Hall of Memories, but Erudition characters are few. Only four Preservation characters – Star Rail’s shielders – exist, and while we have plenty of options for healers, they’re pretty uneven. 

HoYoverse decided near the end of 2023 that debuffs would suddenly become a key part of most battles. Only three healers can cleanse debuffs, however, and one of them can’t do it until her ultimate charges.

I get it, Star Rail exists to make money. If you want these new characters with cutting-edge abilities to handle the latest challenges, then you need to cough up. Considering Star Rail made $659 million in 2023 – almost 50 percent less than Genshin Impact in the same year – HoYoverse probably wants to squeeze every drop of profit that it can from the turn-based game.

That’s not a problem – well, it is a problem, but one that plenty of free-to-play games share and a topic for another time. The issue in this case is that you could have every limited 5-star character in Star Rail and still have some pretty big gaps in your teams.

Say you face two enemy groups in the Memory of Chaos trials with ice weakness. Only the team with Jingliu will have the kind of advantage you need to land the highest score by completing the trial quickly. Yanqing is too focused on single targets, and Pela’s not sending anyone to the scrap heap.

Honkai Star Rail's Hanya is shown standing large above a row of blazing blue flames.

Even supernatural forces won't help if you don't have the right character

Honkai: Star Rail’s combat and character interplay are more complex than Genshin Impact, with more stats, combos and strategies that rely on chains of actions and turn orders, and no elemental reactions to help move things along. The limited number of characters and HoYoverse’s vision for the battle system only just coming into focus means you don’t really have the tools to take full advantage of its most exciting and enjoyable parts. I think HoYoverse realizes this as well, to an extent anyway. 

Star Rail 1.6 added a new feature that lets you claim full rewards for previous challenges in the Forgotten Hall if you beat any subsequent challenge with full marks, so you’re not penalized anymore for not having the right character combinations.

Having a set of challenges that you can’t complete without a specific combination of characters is a questionable design choice anyway, and HoYoverse’s practice of introducing just one new 4-star character every six weeks isn’t helping. Fewer than half of the currently available Star Rail characters are 4-star characters, and half of those suffer from first-try syndrome. March 7th makes perfect sense for Arlan and almost no one else. Hook takes too long to set up, even in story battles, and Yukong’s unique skills won’t get a chance to shine until turn order manipulation becomes more of a thing.

I’m surprised the situation even exists. Some of the best Genshin Impact characters are 4-star characters, fighters who expand how you build your parties and approach situations, including Xiangling, Xingqiu, Kuki Shinobu, and, even Collei. Chevreuse single-handedly fixes on of Genshin Impact’s oldest problems, and with Navia on the scene, it’s worth bringing Ningguang back out again. Star Rail just locks you into set party combinations most of the time and slowly discards older characters.

Honkai Star Rail's Misha is shown standing in a dimly lit room, his face lit by happiness as he accepts a small token from a patron

Me when HoYoverse gives us a new 4-star

The most recent 4-star additions in Star Rail encourage experimentation and special playstyles, though. Take Hanya, for example. She manipulates speed, buffs attack, debuffs a single target, and even helps regenerate skill points. It’s the first time since version 1.0 that you’d want a Harmony character who isn’t Bronya or Tingyun.

HoYoverse has a chance to adjust that balance in Star Rail 2.0, and it looks like the first round of characters might be heading in that direction. Black Swan and Sparkle might get most of the attention - and rightly so, with how many new party combinations they'll allow for. However, I'm more interested in Misha, the 4-star Ice Destruction character whose skills power up when a party member uses skill points. It's another step forward along the same path that Hanya blazed, one that rewards creative thinking and even shakes up the usual Path combinations. 

It'll probably be a long while before Star Rail has enough characters - and enough confidence in its own battle system - for the kind of flexibility we see in Genshin Impact. With the number of sweeping changes HoYoverse has made to the RPG since launch, though, maybe they've got a few surprises up their sleeves that'll prove me wrong.