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Honkai: Star Rail update 2.0 impressions – Penacony lives up to the hype

What a start to the next big story arc
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Advisory: These Honkai: Star Rail update 2.0 impressions may contain light story spoilers, so read at your own discretion. We won’t reveal any big details, but better be safe than sorry.

HoYoverse has earned nothing but praise for Honkai: Star Rail in basically every department – only the game’s main story has left something to be desired with the Xianzhou Luofu arc being regarded as a little bit of a disappointment. It feels like the writers really wanted to live up to the challenge with Penacony, the Astral Express’ next stop. For me, at least, they were right on the mark.

I won’t go into what Honkai: Star Rail is here – you can check the original review for version 1.0 to get caught up on the basics – but it’s worth mentioning that consistent version updates have not only greatly expanded the game’s content since release, but also made the user experience friendlier and enhanced its gameplay through the introduction of additional character mechanics and some very creative modes. HoYoverse’s live-service support has been exceptional.

Honkai: Star Rail 2.0 artwork showing Black Swan, Sparkle, and Misha.

Enter Penacony, a whole new world to explore.

With all that out of the way, let’s talk about version 2.0. It takes place on the world Penacony, a former prison planet that has been transformed into a renowned luxury hotel called The Reverie after it was discovered that people could enter a life-like dreamworld at this location. Guests at The Reverie go to their rooms and use a special pool to enter one of twelve locations of the Dreamscape, all under the watchful eyes of The Family – a clique of five clans ruling this world. We are told that these dreams feel and look realistic, but that nothing bad can happen in them: Even if you’re injured or die, you simply wake up back in your room.

In terms of visuals and music, the Dreamscape is stunning – in version 2.0, players can enter areas called Golden Hour and Dream’s Edge. The first is essentially Space Vegas, a city full of lights and life that never sleeps, is full of entertainment, food trucks, and partygoers. You can play with slot machines and other devices there or enter dreams within the dream, which have been donated by previous guests. Like in other cities, there are lots of fun interactions to be had here with the environment, from trashcans to public phones letting you peek into the dreams of other characters.

The second is a surreal construction site, where a new part of the Dreamscape is being built. Unfinished highrises and rooftop gardens dot the landscape, with the Golden Hour’s lights on the horizon, a shower of falling stars in the sky, and the sun eternally coming up from the other side – the mood in this area is spectacular.

There is a different side to Penacony as well, though: The Dreamscape version of The Reverie as well as the Child’s Dream area have another feeling to them – almost as if you’re underwater, drowning. Furniture is floating around, you can walk on walls and roofs, illusory fish swim around, and the blue glow of Memory Bubbles is omnipresent. This is much deeper inside the Dreamscape, feels less tamed and artificial than the carefully sculpted experiences we visited before. This contrast is well done, especially as we discover the dangers of this Eldritch place.

The soundtrack reflects both of these versions of Penacony. On one side you have light, jazzy music, perfect for a never-ending night of partying, but with a melancholic undertone giving it a fleeting and sad note. Then there is the surreal counterpart for the Dreamscape’s primal areas, which has unnaturally stretched and dampened sounds, as if you’re hearing them through water.

Penacony’s enemy types are interesting, too, representing this duality in their own way. Some look super janky and support the whole fever dream aesthetic of the place: There are robodogs transporting soda, humanoid TVs that change their channels when you attack them (potentially making them give you Energy instead of attacking), and robotic t-rex chefs – yeah. But as we get deeper into the Dreamscape, the nature of our enemies changes – they are constructs of gold and darkness, with countless eyes staring at you, like the early evolutionary stage of an Eldritch horror.

Honkai: Star Rail Penacony screenshot.

Surreal areas and enemies await players in Honkai: Star Rail's latest region.

Just like the other regions, Penacony has some unique puzzles to spice up exploration. These include literal puzzles that require you to correctly place pieces to create new environments, a mini-game that has you maneuver around blocks and a mirror to create paths, and a game of perspective, using a bird’s eye view to allow you to traverse the level in a new way. There is also a “I got sucked into the TV” mechanic and one that plays with emotions, allowing you to tune the moods of NPCs. All of these feel very appropriate for the Dreamscape.

Penacony has mystery and wonder, betrayals and twists, fascinating characters, a little bit of romance, fever dream surrealism you’d expect from something like Alice in Wonderland, and death – though I’m suspicious about how permanent that’s going to be. It’s a full package that manages to set up the overall story arc while itself being a wild roller coaster worth the ride.

Even before we arrive on Penacony, there is this underlying sense of dread about what awaits us there. It’s certainly not the vacation the Astral Express’ crew hoped for, let me tell you as much. We meet characters from some of the galaxy’s most important factions there and everyone has their own agenda – it’s a viper’s nest and the Astral Express crew struggles to maneuver among all the groups as it tries to make sense of it all. Who can they trust other than themselves?

Aventurine, a ruthless gambler who made it into the highest ranks of the IPC, wants to enlist our support for his goal, but that man screams “shady” from ten miles away. Black Swan seems to be helpful enough, but can you trust someone who could manipulate your memories? Acheron isn’t saying anything about herself or her goals, though her heart seems to be in the right place. Firefly wins the Trailblazer’s heart by storm, but by her own admittance, she harbors more than one secret.

Honkai: Star Rail Black Swan screenshot.

Black Swan became playable in update 2.0.

We’ve worked with the Stellaron Hunters before, but always uneasily, and this guy Sam doesn’t seem very diplomatic. Sunday and Robin have been in the background mostly, but since they’re part of The Family we can’t exactly count on them. And then there is the greatest wildcard of all, the Masked Fool Sparkle, who comes across as a Joker-like “let the world burn” type, down to the “Why so serious?” catchphrase (she seems like a problem; she’s even too wild for our boy Sampo). There is also the boy Misha, who seems to have some special powers related to the Dreamscape.

Character drama and interactions are a focus in update 2.0, and it serves the narrative very well as different viewpoints and agendas clash.

As we begin to unravel what’s going on in this world of dreams, we experience beauty and loss, get betrayed more than once, and absorb some hefty lore reveals – but we should never forget the meta layer to it all: It’s a world of dreams. Everything we experience may be nothing more than an elaborate ruse, carefully crafted to steer us in certain directions.

After we’ve had the best story arc of Genshin Impact yet, it looks like Honkai: Star Rail is following suit. With this story unfolding over the next two versions and an epilogue being planned for the next patch after those, Penacony is going to stay with us a while – and after update 2.0’s cliffhanger, I’m more than ready for half a year of mind-bending dream-diving.