Exploring Penacony in Honkai: Star Rail is like having the keys to Disneyland for a midnight party, but all the visitors are sleazy film noir extras, and Mickey Mouse has taken the night off to allow an anthropomorphic clock with the capacity to control people’s emotions to take over. It’s a morally problematic artificial paradise in which everyone tells you how much fun they’re having while the cheerful facade crumbles around them. Yes, this does sound like regular old Disneyland, and it was this unexpected criticism on packaged ‘pleasure’ that startled me the most about the game’s major version 2.0 update. However, this is far from the only noteworthy innovation.
Penacony is said to be the “Planet of Festivities” where people stay at The Reverie. This is a massive hotel with special Dreampool beds that provide shared experiences for all visitors throughout twelve created zones, including the’real’ Penacony, where time pauses in a never-ending dreamscape. The Golden Hour is the main hub location within this connected dream, and it’s where you’ll spend the majority of your time exploring at the start of Penacony’s journey. It’s by far the best Honkai: Star Rail has ever done at immersing you in one of its worlds.
While Herta Space Station, Belobog, and the Xianzhou Luofu are all environmentally representative of their respective civilizations, the massive Golden Hour area truly captures what it would be like to traverse one of Penacony’s bizarre landscapes. The time is always one minute before midnight, so the party never needs to end. So, temporarily halted, you explore the brilliant lights of the New Vegas-inspired streets, avoiding ads that chase you into shady alleyways, past expensive retail complexes, and visitors tossing up rainbows. Floating, translucent whales replace clouds in the night sky, a volcano spews toxic orange fizzy drink in the distance, and payphones tell you about your friends’ dreams while ignoring the morality of such an intrusion. There’s also a large park with slot machines where you may spend tokens for the chance to win in-game rewards. That’s right, the gacha game has incorporated gacha games into its commentary on the artificial enjoyment that money can purchase.
I enjoy exploring The Golden Hour, but its sneaky charm would be far less appealing (or shady) without the presence of the soundtrack, the HoYoverse’s unwavering MVP. Alluring jazz and barbershop styles keep the streets alive while running away from the ads. Mysterious, distorted piano notes and woodwind humming accompany you as you navigate dreamscapes. Epic drum beats accompany difficult boss bouts, while touching pop tunes underscore private chats. Penacony is the best Honkai: Star Rail has ever sounded – and it sounded pretty darn good already.
The bizarre landscapes you explore in other regions of Penacony feature their own distinct music, as well as smart environmental traversal mechanisms that allow you to walk over walls in certain areas and shift the camera perspective in others, allowing you to cover enormous distances in a matter of steps. It’s a fantastic use of space that perfectly complements Penacony’s dream motif, but the novelty quickly wears off. It is the first victim of Star Rail’s brief existence when contrasted to its older sibling, Genshin Impact. Genshin’s new locations can be intimidating with so much to do, but it won’t take long to unlock all of the new maps, collectibles, and finish the few side tasks that accompany this brief new plot chapter. That’s still a lot! A lot more than any previous update, and I’ll always prefer quality over quantity, but when it comes to exploration outside of The Golden Hour, it doesn’t take long for these new puzzle and traversal mechanics to lose their shine when not spaced out with other distractions like they would be in a Genshin Impact update. It’s such a Catch-22 because the easier Honkai is to play, the more I want out of it.
This also applies to the new tale chapter. It is the most disappointing addition to Penacony because it ends with a “to be continued” card shortly after introducing a whodunit mystery. Because this is the first chapter, we’re still getting to know Penacony’s large cast of individuals, therefore there’s not much action in the plot until this point. It’s interesting to learn more about the planet’s inner workings and history, as well as insights into other mysteries such as Penacony’s possible phony origins, missing visitors, and the questionable intents of new characters Acheron, Aventurine, Sparkle, Firefly, and Black Swan. However, the pacing suffers as we are repeatedly presented to riddles, only to have a blockage appear just as things begin to unravel.