Developed by Compile Heart Published by Idea Factory International Reviewed on PlayStation 4 (also will be available on Steam)
Dragon Star Varnir roars its way to western audiences on PlayStation 4 and will be available soon on PC via Steam, too. The Compile Heart and Idea Factory International title is based in the world of Varneria. In Varneria, dragons are born from the bodies of witches. Witches can harness the power of their dragon but can go crazy or become a dragon themselves. The Holy Empire’s Knights of Requiem also hunts witches since dragons are the enemy of their god, Varnir. Their worry is compounded by an insane and powerful rouge witch as well as the need to hunt dragons to thrive.
Dragon Star Varnir follows Zephy, a former knight, and his party. Zephy unexpectedly becomes a witch after a witch, Minessa and Karikaro, revives him with dragon’s blood given by witches. With no where else to turn Zephy, quickly dubbed “manwitch”, ends up adventuring with the witches he once hunted. Even though the ex-knight and witches start off uneasy, it allows Zephy to see the real world of Varneria. It also answers his true mystery, his past. He help searches for a solution to the curse between witches and dragons.
While knights, witches, and dragons are nothing new in storytelling, Dragon Star Varnir uses the theme to its advantage. It provides a new spin on the JRPG genre by mixing dungeon crawling with turned based strategy elements for gameplay. This makes this game both familiar and unique.
Most RPG fans will have experience with dungeons: explore, find loot, and fight. Here dungeons are areas on the world map players must complete to progress through the game. They consist of simple mazes and puzzles that use your characters’ special abilities to pass through obstacles. Zephy’s unique ability can destroy magical barriers while Karikaro’s finds hidden treasure. However, all of the party’s unique abilities are available as players can freely swap the active party characters. The only limit is which party members are available and their respective SP. The ease of swapping is a nice change of pace. As many others games would have the player fuss within the game menus or specific party setups in advance. Another benefit is that each witch has a full character model that can interact with the world. That gives the player variety in who to wander in Varneria with.
Enemies can spawn and free roam. Since monsters are visible, the player can give Zephy’s party the jump on monsters for first strike or, in turn, enemies attack first instead when a battle initiates. This is not a new element to gaming but what does stand out is combat itself, the Dragon Gauge, and Devour.
Strategy RPG players will recognize the combat area’s traditional grid. The grid is 3 vertical layers; a top, a middle, and a bottom field that can be visualized as an active cube area. Players must be wary as enemies can be in any position. Enemies can have heights that take up one to all three vertical layers. The three layered field makes a visual statement when boss dragons take up the whole battle space. With their abilities, it utilizes the layers with multiple parts to target. The field also makes fabulous use of the space for characters’ spells and physical attacks. Some skills allow the witches to set trap among the layers or push smaller enemies around. That give players room to experiment with chaining for damage and devouring. This setup also takes advantage of the witch theme by having the characters fly in combat.
While attacks follow the grid format, movement is not as traditional. For example, witches do stay on their end of the field as they take their turns, but have vertical movement as a free action. This again accentuates the variety of spells and physical attack as character position does matter for successful battles. While the player can set up their party formation before battles for various bonuses, that free movement can be used for advantageous battle formation changes. This effects the monster’s fear gauge, allowing the trigger of a weak point rush. Weak point rush only triggers when the fear gauge is at 100%. Once the meter is full, the player can use three characters in the attack and can end with a Devour action.
Devour is noteworthy because that is how characters obtain their skill trees in game. Dragon enemies with a higher fear level will have an easier chance of being subject able to your devour ability ; luckily that fear gauge goes up with attacks. When you successfully devour an enemy, a dragon core drops, and gives the character who receives it a skill tree for the monster. Points can be spent in the menu to gain access to spells or abilities that the dragon has as well as gain SP and HP. Bosses will drop cores for all the characters, but regular monsters are single drops for individual characters. Collecting all the cores for characters is almost a game with in itself and a fun challenge for completionists. While the skill trees are powerful, there is a limit to how many spells and abilities are on each party member. Dragon Star Varnir uses a restrictive point based system that forces careful character set ups. Even though the skill tree is a little bit of a grind, the devour to capture skills concept alleviates some of the repetitiveness of battles on the map.
Dragon Awakening is another battle related feature worth mention. Each witch and Zephy has a Dragon Gauge that, when filled, triggers the Dragon Awakening state. This state boosts stats, heals, refills SP, and makes special skills including a special Devour available. It also surrounds the characters in special armor that is the game’s equivalent of a magical girl transformation. The special Devour has a cut-scene unique for each character. The gauge fills during battles and carries over until it activates from being full.
Dragon Star Varnir has features beyond the dungeons and battles. The Witch’s Den is a base of operations and almost a town of sorts. Players can shop for equipment, engage in a simple relationship mini game by gifting the witches items, and turn in quests at the Huntery. The Den also includes a workshop where you can create elixirs. Elixirs summon special dragons who when defeated rewards players with drops of equipment and loot. Insanity is another mechanic players should be wary of. Insanity can build through player choices. When it builds to a high level, it can alter the story and even cause death. The gauge is easy to monitor on the menu page.
Story progresses well in game, too. Player progresses not only by unlocking dungeons on Varneria, but by chapter titles. Key plots and people are introduced right away, with hints of Zephy not being ordinary to start. Players are given just enough to keep interest and fill in details without being overwhelmed. While there is a lack of cutscenes, the localization’s voice actors make up for it. Not all scenes are voiced, but the vocal depth and talent helps round out the characters dynamic personalities. The music helps add depth to story scenes and would make a great addition to any gamer’s soundtrack collection. Dragon Star Varnir has a few interesting art details, such as each main characters being designed by a different artist and some dragons being a collaboration with Nihon Falcom. Details can be found on the official site for Dragon Star Varnir.
This game will nestle happily into the libraries of many gamers as a truly enjoyable mashup of RPG playstyles. Regardless of familiarity with other Compile Heart titles, the battle and skills systems alone make Dragon Star Varnir worth a try.