Exploring Penacony in Honkai: Star Rail is like having the keys to Disneyland for a midnight soirée, but all the guests are sleazy film noir extras, and Mickey Mouse has taken the night off to let an anthropomorphic clock with the ability to manipulate people’s emotions fill in. It’s a morally dubious constructed paradise where everybody tells you what a great time they’re having while the cheery facade is crumbling around them. Why yes, this does sound like regular old Disneyland, and it’s this unexpected commentary on packaged ‘happiness’ that surprised me the most about the game’s big version 2.0 update. But it’s certainly not its only impressive addition.
For those not familiar with it yet, Penacony is supposed to be the “Planet of Festivities” where people stay at The Reverie. This is a gigantic hotel with special Dreampool beds that invoke shared experiences between all guests across twelve constructed areas – the ‘real’ Penacony where time stops in a neverending dreamscape. The Golden Hour is the main hub area inside this connected dream, and it’s where you’ll be spending most of your time exploring during the beginning of Penacony’s story, and it’s by far the best Honkai: Star Rail has ever been at immersing you in one of its worlds.
While Herta Space Station, Belobog, and the Xianzhou Luofu are all environmentally representative of their individual cultures, the huge Golden Hour area really aces what it might actually feel like to wander one of Penacony’s surreal landscapes. The time is always one minute before midnight, so the party never has to stop. And so, temporally stalled, you explore the bright lights of the New Vegas-inspired streets and run away from billboards that chase you down dodgy alleyways, past extravagant shopping malls and guests throwing up rainbows. Floating, translucent whales replace clouds in the night sky, a volcano spits out toxic orange fizzy drink in the distance, and payphones tell you what your friends’ dreams are while waving away the morality of such an intrusion. There’s even a huge park with slot machines where you can spend tokens for the chance to get in-game prizes. That’s right, the gacha game has added gacha games as part of its commentary on the fake happiness that money can buy you.
I adore exploring The Golden Hour, but its shady charm wouldn’t be half as charming (or shady) without the presence of HoYoverse’s constant MVP: the soundtrack. Alluring jazz and barbershop styles help the streets feel alive while running from those billboards. Mysterious, distorted piano keys and woodwind humming accompany you while weaving through dreamscapes. Epic drums play over intense boss battles, and heartfelt pop songs highlight intimate conversations. Penacony is the best Honkai: Star Rail has ever sounded – and it sounded pretty damn good already.
The surreal landscapes you navigate in other areas of Penacony have their own distinct music, along with clever environmental traversal techniques that let you walk up walls in some areas, and change the camera perspective in others, to cross large distances in only a few steps. It’s a very smart use of space that excellently applies Penacony’s dream theme, but it doesn’t take long for the novelty to wear off. It’s the first victim of Star Rail’s brevity when compared to its older sibling, Genshin Impact. New regions can be overwhelming in Genshin with so much to do in those vast new areas, but it won’t take you long to unlock all of the new maps, collectibles, and complete the few side quests accompanying this brief new story chapter. It’s still a lot! A lot more than any update before it, and I’ll certainly take quality over quantity, but when it comes to exploration outside of The Golden Hour, it’s just that it doesn’t take long for these new puzzle and traversal mechanics to lose their sheen when not spaced out with other distractions as they would be in a Genshin Impact update. It’s such a Catch 22 that the more manageable Honkai is to play, the more I want from it.
The same applies to the new story chapter too. It’s the most disappointing addition to Penacony only because it ends with a “to be continued” card not long after a whodunit mystery is introduced. As it’s the first chapter, we’re only getting to know Penacony’s huge cast of characters, so there’s not a lot of movement happening in the story until this point. It’s nice to get a deeper understanding of the inner workings and history of the planet, and to catch glimpses of other mysteries surrounding Penacony’s possibly fake origins, missing guests, and new characters Acheron, Aventurine, Sparkle, Firefly, and Black Swan’s suspicious intentions. However, the pacing loses so much momentum when we’re constantly introduced to mysteries only to have a roadblock pop up just as things finally start to unravel.
I get that live service games have to operate differently to entice us back every update, but stopping at this particular part in Penacony is just a bit jarring when the previous worlds had all – or a huge chunk – of their narratives available from each of their introductions. I guess it’s a compliment that my only issue with the story is that I want more, but it’s a shame that we don’t get to solve Penacony’s many mysteries at our own pace because of business practices, rather than creative decisions.
There is one upside to Star Rail’s staggered release schedule, and that’s its constant improvements to just about every aspect of the game. In version 2.0, the most deceptively helpful addition is actually Fate’s Atlas, a timeline of every major story chapter, side quest, event, and companion mission you’ve completed so far. It may not sound that impressive, but with a winding story as big as Star Rail’s, with years of updates still to come, it’s a quick and easy solution to remember your decisions when facing their consequences later on.
So, with handy updates, enticing detective work, and extravagant dreamscapes to sleuth around, is Penacony worth returning for? Despite some repetitive environments and a disappointingly short story chapter, yes, the big ideas and murky streets of Penacony are absolutely worth your time. Just watch you don’t slip on any of that rainbow vomit while looking for things to do until the next update.