No game captured what it’s like being online in 2023 like Honkai: Star Rail

Personal Pick

(Image credit: Future)

In addition to our main Game of the Year Awards 2023, each member of the PC Gamer team is shining a spotlight on a game they loved this year. We’ll post new personal picks, alongside our main awards, throughout the rest of the month.

My Steam folder is stuffed with screenshots of Honkai: Star Rail. Every time I log in there’s a new text message from one of the characters that I immediately have to share with everyone I know. Usually they message me to say hi and update me on what they’ve been doing since I last ran into them. One of the characters called me “Fam” and then asked me for career advice. Another one entered a group chat to greet everyone in full, grammatically correct sentences, and then signed off with a GIF of sparkling roses like a mom on Facebook. 

I get to respond to all these messages as Star Rail’s main character Stelle, who might be the most me a videogame protagonist has ever been. She lives to annoy her pals with deadpan humor and non sequiturs. She’s the kind of girl who will say your photos look nice before you’ve even sent them just to see your reaction.

Star Rail is more goofy than its dramatic, sci-fi trailers make it seem. Right now, there’s an event where Stelle meets a streamer, Guinaifen, who is going ghost hunting. “High risk, high reward, high view count,” she tells you before recruiting you as her social media manager. You investigate ghost sightings and make posts with the sort of sensationalist titles I see on YouTube all the time, like “MIND BLOWN!!!! Check out this cosmic horror that can duplicate itself!” And each post gets comments from people with Reddit-style usernames like “Chicken_Dinner” and “GuinaiFAN_Truther”. 

When they’re not an excuse to learn about new characters who you can also roll for, Star Rail’s limited-time events experiment with the game’s turn-based combat. Earlier this year, there was an event that was basically a big homage to Pokémon. You’d run into “trainers” (your friends) and get thrown into duels with them. Strategies from the regular game didn’t quite work because your team of monsters had a limited set of abilities, and the enemy team would use the exact same stuff. Every battle felt like rock paper scissors with elemental weaknesses until you could start equipping monsters with powerful items to bend the rules. The whole thing was essentially a distillation of Star Rail’s combat with a bigger emphasis on planning out your moves. By the end, I had a unit who could repeatedly take turns with their ultimate and prevent the enemy from making a single move.

It’s events and interactions like these that keep me logging in every day. Star Rail oscillates between being a comedy and a serious sci-fi story about people in power making poor decisions that last centuries. It’s able to balance these two extremes with sharp writing and a tone that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but without going full “Well that just happened” Marvel movie mode. Even something as ridiculous as a narrator who goads you into dumpster diving is written in a style similar to Disco Elysium with little morsels of worldbuilding tucked underneath a bizarre tangent.

(Image credit: Tyler C. / MiHoYo)

Star Rail is the only game this year that felt like it was genuinely modern, hyper-aware of the absurdity and occasional hopelessness of living in 2023.

In a year full of massive RPGs, Star Rail repeatedly convinced me it was worth fitting into my schedule. I remain thoroughly impressed by how satisfying its combat is after writing our Star Rail review. In fact, it’s only gotten better as MiHoYo has released characters who can dramatically change how it works.

My current team has Silver Wolf on it, a hacker who can replace an enemy’s elemental weakness with one that matches my team—a fundamental part of the combat system that I now get to ignore most of the time. Fu Xuan, one of my newest characters, transfers damage my team takes to herself and then heals at half HP, effectively becoming a self-sufficient tank and healer if you build her right. While it’s difficult for me to fully endorse a gacha game with the option to gamble with real money (a system I’d prefer to do without), I appreciate how each character comes with skills that feel like you’re breaking the game.

Live service games, especially gachas, rarely let you have that much influence on the balance of the game. There are still hardcore combat challenges I can’t just smash through, but it’s nice to play a game that is willing to let me have my fun even if it means it trivializes the majority of the normal experience. Combined with a writing style and sense of humor that reflects and satirizes what it’s like being online these last few years—in this sci-fi future cryptocurrency is still a joke—Star Rail is the only game this year that felt like it was genuinely modern, hyper-aware of the absurdity and occasional hopelessness of living in 2023. I needed that, and will continue to share every painfully relatable text message and line of dialogue with everyone I know.

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