Honkai: Star Rail’s 2.0 update forms another glittering jewel in Hoyoverse’s already illustrious crown of achievements. The new patch takes the already impressive base game — which pairs stunning animation with zippy turn-based combat — and kicks everything up a level. It introduces Penacony, a region that pairs an intriguing story of a dream world set on a former penal colony with an artistically ambitious world design that’s like a golden fever dream of a place, somehow capturing the feeling of a theme park and casino rolled up in one. Even smaller details, like the update’s minigames, show a level of polish and consideration not seen in previous Honkai: Star Rail versions or in Genshin Impact. The patch represents the culmination of years of Hoyoverse’s experience in game development, but there’s one problem: You’ll have to play a ton of quests to get to it.
Honkai: Star Rail is a free-to-play gacha game that follows a group of explorers called the Nameless who travel from planet to planet. Prior adventures have sent its protagonist, the Trailblazer, to desolate snowy worlds and to spaceships the size of entire cities. Now, with Penacony, you’ll be able to explore an entire city that you visit by going to sleep and connecting to it through your character’s dreams, Matrix-style. Overall, this dreamscape has the look of a gaudy, packed city that marries futuristic aesthetics with a sort of 1920s retro vibe. Its streets tower with giant, bulb-lit billboards and bustle with automated, floating transportation that looks inspired by a brass horn. Stroll down its mall and you’ll be treated to sights like human-sized champagne glasses and a ceiling covered with glowing celestial frescoes, and treats like floating ice cream and self-playing musical instruments.
The world appears to contain nods to Disney. Penacony’s mascot is an anthropomorphized clock that looks like it’s from a Fleischer animation and has a voice that’s eerily similar to the nasally tone of Mickey Mouse. What’s more, the creator of this world, a man known as the Clockmaker, is celebrated as a person who was able to bring imagination to life — a value echoed in various Disney attractions and marketing.
Penacony’s overall setting looks like if you combined a decadent party from The Great Gatsby with a casino, but then reimagined all of that as an anime game with sci-fi elements sprinkled in. Once you have that, infuse that entire concept with the same feeling that you get while walking through a Disney theme park and you have Penacony. Weirdly enough, all these elements come together in a way that makes it feel surreal, rather than overwhelming.
Once you dive into this world, what you learn about it makes everything even weirder. Before it became a go-to interstellar tourist destination, Penacony actually used to be a giant prison. So we basically get a scenario of this perfect but ominous dreamland that’s hiding its darker undercurrents. From the get-go, this sets us up to think about what’s being hidden in this seemingly perfect world, and sets up the story for a delicious sense of tension where we’re cautiously exploring a prison-turned-Disney World-type place.
Rather than feeling like ways to waste time and maximize how long people play the game, each minigame feels thoughtfully crafted. There is a beautiful isometric puzzle game where you arrange blocks to create a path for a toy to walk. There’s a noir minigame where you explore as a tiny detective. Exploration puzzles, where you can alter the scenery by zooming out and taking a top-down view of the city and your character, work and don’t burden players with overly complicated rules. Moments like these really make 2.0 feel like the best version of Star Rail we have gotten yet, and highlight the refinement of ideas from Genshin Impact. I remember fiddling for hours with finicky perspective puzzles from Genshin Impact’s 2.8 Golden Archipelago event.
Developer Hoyoverse has hit its stride with Penacony and flexed a game that far exceeds my expectations. In this sense, Honkai: Star Rail’s 2.0 update represents a key turning point for the game toward the better. However, it’s been about a year since the 1.0 game came out, and 2.0 marks a time where the game hits an issue that so many live-service games do. The really great bits come just a bit too late in the story.
If you’re a new player, going to Penacony will be locked behind the mainline quests for two entire worlds that we explored in the 1.0 patches. It’s hard to say just how long reaching this point will take if you beeline it, but you definitely won’t be wrapped up in a matter of hours. It’s just too long of a time commitment to recommend to folks who aren’t already interested in the game. Whereas some living games have introduced quality-of-life features to help players get to the best content, the Honkai: Star Rail developers haven’t announced anything along these lines at this point. All in all, I’ve been incredibly impressed with this latest iteration of Honkai: Star Rail, but it’s a massive bummer that it comes after everything else.