If there’s one game that I didn’t expect to top my 2023 ‘must play’ list, it’s Honkai Star Rail. As someone who never really got on with Genshin Impact and isn’t typically a fan of the whole ‘gacha’ thing, Hoyoverse’s games have always felt a little out of reach for me despite their absolutely stunning open worlds and expansive casts of colorful characters. However, having been confronted with a seven-and-a-half hour flight to Boston with only a book and dodgy plane WiFi to keep me company, I picked up Honkai Star Rail and have been hooked ever since.
That’s not something I can say of either Starfield or Baldur’s Gate 3, though. While the former failed to grab me from the jump, the latter feels like an RPG game that I should be sinking my entire life into. I love Dragon Age, but there’s one thing about Baldur’s Gate 3 that makes the entire experience a bit of a grind – something that Honkai Star Rail just does better.
You might have guessed it: it’s the turn-based combat. I find Baldur’s Gate 3’s combat so mundane, and it has put a consistent damper on my Faerûn experience. While I want to explore the game’s glorious, sprawling universe, every side quest requiring combat becomes a slight drag. Sure, maybe you can shove a few people off of cliffs or into lava pits, but the often sluggish pacing of these battles makes many of them blur together for me – Guiding Bolt this, Karlach rage that. It’s just a distraction from the elements of the game I enjoy: the overarching narrative, the characters, getting sidetracked by some weird and wonderful occurrence off the beaten track.
When I do make progress through actual story content, I do so in tiny chunks, which hurts the narrative pacing – I’m somehow still not at Baldur’s Gate despite over 40 hours of gameplay. How long is Baldur’s Gate 3? Thanks to the combat and lack of reliable autosaves, a lot longer than I have time for.
Honkai Star Rail, by contrast, feels fast-paced and exciting because it cuts out a lot of Baldur’s Gate 3’s temporal bloat. Attacks are quick and snappy, with fights ranging from half-hour affairs to a few minutes at a time, meaning you can progress through the story at a reasonable rate. Each enemy is weak to different element types, challenging you to prepare the best team ahead of time, constantly varying up the combat and the characters you play as. Graphically, they look great, too, with each character’s ultimate bringing something new to the table (Natasha blowing up a teddy bear is my personal favorite).
Most of all, though, the combat is relatively simple. You have three different attacks, you can learn character synergies easily, mix and match your party (and their elements) at the click of a button, and everything feels fluid. Baldur’s Gate 3, by comparison, is very stop-start, and there’s so much you need to know and consider. For the avid strategy fan, that’s great, but Honkai’s combat is much more approachable, and – for me – it’s actually fun.
What’s even more fun, though, is the exploration. I’ve already written about my love for Honkai Star Rail’s various sassy trash cans, but the more I progress the more I want to explore. The abandoned, ruined streets of Rivet Town give me that Bloodborne-esque feel I raved about in our Lies of P review, while the upper echelon of Belobog reminds me of Frostpunk if it was an anime game and its people were actually slightly happy. With treasures to collect and silly encounters with inanimate objects around every corner, Honkai’s world feels alive in a way that, while Baldur’s Gate 3’s does, Starfield’s doesn’t.
We’ve already discussed how the sheer number of Starfield planets actually hinders exploration instead of encouraging it, but for me I was put off by just how clunky Starfield feels. While cruising in your ship gives you a stellar (pun entirely intended) view of the vast expanse of Bethesda’s virtual universe, the characters you’ll meet and the places they inhabit too often lack soul.
Where Starfield feels rooted in the past, Honkai is what I imagine a space game to look like in 2023. It’s clean, it’s polished, and it’s absolutely gorgeous, yet it isn’t sterile – it celebrates ordinary lives across the breach of the never-ending cosmos. It proves that less is oftentimes more.
As a side note to all of the praise I have heaped above (echoed in our Honkai Star Rail review), it’s also worth remembering that Honkai Star Rail released globally on both PC and mobile without a hitch – and it’s one of the few PC games in 2023 to do so. Diablo 4’s servers played havoc with both the beta and official launches, and, most recently, Payday 3 was rendered effectively unplayable due to recurring server issues.
Some of the best PC games in a long, long time have launched in 2023, but Honkai gets extra points for its smooth release and well-structured updates. Hoyoverse honed its skills with Genshin and has created a game that I can see myself playing for years to come. As Baldur’s Gate 3 gathers dust on my digital shelf and Starfield’s launch fails to inspire, Honkai Star Rail takes the worst elements of both and perfects them. It’s stylish, soulful, and sassy, with fast-paced combat that’s perfect for both the casual and strategic mind.
So sorry (not sorry) to Baldur’s Gate 3 and Starfield, Honkai Star Rail is the best RPG of 2023, and you won’t change my mind.