Few genres in video games are as timeless as the JRPG, whose fantastical stories have captured the imaginations of fans in Japan and abroad for decades. Dragon Star Varnir might not go on to be as well-remembered as it would like, but it does have enough going for it that it might be worth your time – depending on what you are looking for, that is.
One could go so far as to say that the JRPG is an art form unto itself, often combining brilliant storytelling, gameplay, music and visuals to create a well-rounded and immersive experience. Varnir tries to do all of these things, and while it shows promise in some areas, it falls flat in others.
Compile Heart has been in the JRPG game for over a decade now, and while the company might not have the massive multinational resource pools of better known companies, they have put out some unique and interesting titles over the years. Dragon Star Varnir is one of their most recent and adventurous titles when it comes to the storytelling aspect.
Varnir initially released on PS4 back in 2018 followed by a Steam port in 2019. This better-late-than-never Switch port is available for your regional pricing, complete with additional armor and weapons only available for purchase on other platforms.
Story – An Enchanting Adventure
This title puts you in the shoes of Zephy, a Knight of Requiem involved in a literal witch hunt. In this story, the witches are not simple magic wielders but rather cursed beings doomed to either feed the dragon growing inside them by consuming dragon meat or go mad if they don’t. Either way, the result is the same – a mad witch will turn into a dragon, and she only delays the inevitable violent death by eating dragon meat.
The story kicks off with Zephy being chased by a dragon, separated from his unit. Eventually cornered, he turns to fight the beast and comes off second best. Fortunately for him, a pair of witches happen upon the scene and take down his assailant. Their healing magic proves to be ineffective at healing his wounds, so they opt to give him some dragon’s blood in the hopes it will save his life. It would work for a witch, but they are not sure what effect it will have on a human.
Zephy is revived, and before long starts to change – the dragon’s blood that has saved his life has now also turned him into the very thing he has spent his life hunting. He can no longer return to his old life, and has no choice but to side with his captors and try find a way to lift the curse.
It Takes Character
Any story-driven game is arguably only as good as its characters. I am happy to report that this is one of DSV‘s greatest strengths. Alongside Zephy and his captors turned comrades, Karikaro and Minessa, are other witches named Laponette and Charlotta who are more or less well-tread archetypes. This aside, they are well written enough and don’t rely too heavily on these tropes lest things get too predictable.
There are several antagonizing entities, such as the Knights of Requiem and the Holy Empire they serve, as well as another group know as the Ravens who are more or less mercantile bounty hunters. You will butt heads with these factions along the way – the Knights of Requiem raison d’etre is, after all, to hunt and kill witches, while the Ravens are all about hunting and killing dragons. They then use the dragons to create magical devices that will give them an edge in battle.
There are also some other minor characters, such as the “little sister witches” – a group of younger girls who live in the Den with the main characters with the same unfortunate curse. They have not yet learned or grown enough to fend for themselves, so it’s up to Zephy and the gang to look after them. They are all quite cute and have unique, compelling designs. One of them even has a slight resemblance to Neptune of Hyperdimension Neptunia, one of Compile Heart’s better known franchises.
A Matter Of Choice
One of the mechanics in the game that influence which ending you will get is known as your “Madness Level”, which is essentially a meter telling you how collectively Mad your party is at any given point in the game.
There are a few things that will influence this level, which can only increase as the story progresses, meaning that it’s in your best interest to try and prevent it from increasing as much as possible. One of the biggest influencers here are the choices you make throughout the game.
This all sounds quite good; however, the choices that you are presented with sometimes seem quite arbitrary. Perhaps this is due to a less-than-optimal translation, but nevertheless the game gives you a choice of 2 dialogue options at various points in the game. Depending on which one you choose, your Madness Level with either increase or stay the same at the end of the chapter.
Gameplay – It Takes A Spell
If you have played any of Compile Heart’s games, Dragon Star Varnir might seem quite familiar to you from the start. The turn-based battle system might be all too familiar, but this title does bring some unique mechanics to the table.
This is a text- and menu-heavy game; you could almost say it’s a visual novel with a battle system. This does have a charm to it, giving Varnir a somewhat old-school feel. Aside from that, you will find yourself exploring dungeons and fighting dragons alongside your magical companions.
Much like the rest of the game, some things are done well while others feel either incomplete, unnecessary or unpolished.
Finding Your Way
For the most part, I found exploring the dungeons somewhat unsatisfying. While they were designed quite well for the most part, they felt quite empty – each dungeon contained respawning enemies, some generic breakable objects, same-y chests and not much else.
I liked the sense of scale; the dungeons did not feel linear despite the fact that the whole point of them was to go from the start to the exit with a few story events in-between. It would be easier to ignore the disguised linearity were the environments less barren.
You can choose which character you use to explore; however, the game ensures that you will be changing between them periodically by placing obstacles in your path that require a specific character’s ability to overcome. These obstacles mostly felt unnecessary and contrived, as if they exist purely to try and add some color to an otherwise bland experience.
One thing I did quite like was the Flying ability, which allows you to zoom through the dungeon at a much faster rate than walking. This addition makes the dungeon crawl a little more exciting to the point that it’s bearable.
A Fighting Spirit
The combat system is a unique 3-tiered affair that will either delight you or leave you scratching your head. Depending on where your character is, they will receive various buffs and bonuses. This also enables some characters to avoid sweeping attacks that would otherwise damage the entire party by positioning themselves accordingly.
The enemies are placed on a 3-tiered grid that they move around, and you can take advantage of this using abilities that either strike in columns, rows or a square area of effect. While this is novel and interesting, one can’t help but feel that the grid-based mechanic has more potential that will hopefully be explored if there is ever a sequel.
The witches are armed with an arsenal of magical and physical abilities, with a familiar rock-paper-scissors elemental setup. There are also unique “devour” abilities which enable our protagonists to consume the enemy dragons and acquire their abilities.
Each character also has a Dragon Meter, which once filled will cause them to transform into a rather badass-looking, if a little fanservice-y version of themselves. This transformation, as you might guess, comes with a fairly significant power spike and a flashy signature attack. Not only that, it also fully heals the character, and can be something of a godsend in the more challenging encounters. That said, it does happen often enough that it doesn’t feel all that special after a while.
Willing And Able
Acquiring new abilities is done through the “dragon core” menu where you can spend Factor points earned through battle to unlock mini skill trees for each successfully devoured enemy dragon. It can be a bit of a pain unlocking each ability piecemeal, but fortunately the developers thought about this and included an option to unlock the entire tree at once if you have enough factor points.
Similarly, it can also become a bit of a drag watching battle animations over and over, especially if you’re grinding for whatever reason. The developer was also prudent enough to include the option to skip any animation, which I really appreciated especially when it came to the Dragon Awakening and special attack animations.
Back At The Ranch
Between dungeons, you will find yourself at the Witches’ Den, where various character interactions will play out between the main cast and the younger witches. It’s essentially a menu where you can either buy items, report in on quests, and even spend time interacting with the characters.
The simple, yet effective gift-based affection system unlocks new cutscenes, giving you more character development with your favorite witch. If you get full affection, depending on the ending you get, you will even unlock a special end-game cutscene
You can also interact with the younger witches, but this is limited to feeding them like a trio of hungry digital pets. Feed them too little, and they will succumb to madness and disappear. Feeding them too much has a similar result. It’s a careful balancing act, so it’s prudent to check in from time to time and make sure they aren’t getting out of hand.
Graphics and Audio – A Work Of Contrasts
When it comes to visuals, Dragon Star Varnir is kind of all over the place. On one hand, you have the terrific character designs and visual novel elements, while on the other the 3D dungeon crawling leaves a lot to be desired. Not only are the dungeons themselves quite bare as I have already mentioned, the movement of the characters and particularly the enemies can be uncomfortably janky.
This doesn’t take too much away from the game, if you can look past it. Things are somewhere in the middle once you’re in battle, where the character and enemy animations are quite a bit better than what you will find during exploration. The visuals in battle can have a slightly grainy quality to them, particularly if you are playing in handheld mode. I did also encounter some framerate dips in handheld mode, but it was barely noticeable.
The voice acting is, for the most part, quite decently executed. Some fans might be pleased to know that you do have the option to play this game with the original Japanese voice acting, too. The music is pleasant enough as well, and gets the job done even if it does get a little repetitive at times. Overall there isn’t much to complain about here – a solid effort.
Dragon Star Varnir was reviewed on Nintendo Switch with a review key provided by Idea Factory.