Recently, it seems Compile Heart has been trying new things with their RPGs as they explore new IPs and battle systems. This also seems to be the case for the developer’s newest RPG to come west, Dragon Star Varnir. While the game holds true to that classic Compile Heart style, it does present some interesting mechanics both through its gameplay and story that proves they are masters in this craft. However, their environment designs could definitely use some work.
Dragon Star Varnir begins with a knight named Zephy at the edge of death at the hands of his enemy, a dragon. In a desperate attempt to save their captured friend, a pair of witches, Minessa and Karikaro, which come from a race who is at war with humans, end up saving Zephy. However, not everything goes as planned as the knights turn their back on Zephy and he is forced to stay with the witches.
Another issue is that during his time at death’s door, Minessa was forced to save Zephy with the power of dragon blood which turned him into a witch. In this world, witches are what give birth to dragons, an untamable creature that kills its host and anything that stands in its way. Forced to now live his life as the thing he despised, Zephy joins the witches in an adventure to stop the birth of dragons and bring an end to the war.
While the story focuses on scenes of discrimination through the power of “becoming what you hate”, it also has some great moments of political injustice told by a rather strong supporting cast. The game itself seems to really hope that players enjoy the story because there is a lot of it and it shifts from various perspectives. Even though this is a new IP, I felt immersed in this world and its characters. It was delightfully easy to follow along as the characters as they explained their history and what they’ve had to go through as witches throughout their lifetime and their ancestors. Interestingly, I also enjoyed the villains in the game who each had their own reasons for being a part of the fight.
Aside from the main witches and villains, there are a group of younger witches who play a pretty large role in the flow of the game along with its ending. Throughout the game, these three witches will need to be cared for and fed using dragon meet obtained through battle. Feeding them too much will give birth to a dragon, but feeding them too little will make them go crazy. There’s a balance to be found in this system, but it tests the player by giving them rare items the more full the girls become. If they end up turning into a dragon you can expect a nice item reward. However, this will change the story in various scenes because the witch will die if the character becomes a dragon.
As far as the branching narratives go, I was impressed with the way the story handles these relationships and the incentives that players receive for possibly doing something terrible, like killing a harmless witch. Depending on the level of difficulty that you’re playing on, these rare items might be just what you need in order to progress. It all just stems from the player’s greed and which path they choose to take during the story.
Additional features include hanging out with the older witches and giving them gifts. This unlocks event scenes with the girls that can get romantic. Each character has a favorite item that will make their romance level with Zephy increase faster, but it’s a slow climb to the top so expect to be returning to this screen many times, especially if you want to romance each of the girls.
Battles are completely streamlined in this game to a few actions that become more advanced throughout the game. The battle stage is divided into three levels that the characters can ascend or descend during their turn. While I thought this feature was interesting, I felt that it didn’t change up the turn-based battle mechanics too much, which makes it feel familiar to other games in the developer’s line up. Aside from attacks and magic, players can devour certain enemies and doing this could potentially end a tough battle a little faster. Devouring a dragon also gives players some extra power that can also be customized.
One of the more interesting aspects is the game’s party formation system that has the characters perform unique attacks together that could cause an insane amount of damage. Furthermore, characters in the support role who don’t appear on the map also play a role in fights as they attack and guard whichever character they are attached too. Utilizing enemy weaknesses and strategically planning during battles is key to get through some of these tougher sections.
Additionally, during fights, characters can evolve by using their Dragon Awakening power which is represented by a gauge that fills as the character attacks. This will ultimately transform the character for a few turns and grant them higher strength, but their defense will suffer as a result. As for the battle system as a whole, I thought it was a fair attempt at creating something fun and intuitive, but I ended up using the auto-battle feature throughout most of the grunt battles in the end. However, the boss designs and some of the other dragon designs look awesome.
Exploration follows the familiar-yet-new approach that the battle system has. In the game, players explore various places on an overhead map. The environments aren’t anything special, and players will notice plenty of copy and pasted textures. What’s kind of neat, though, is that certain characters have their own special action in dungeons, which Neptunia fans will be familiar with. However, these actions can pop up close together meaning that the player has to constantly change their character throughout dungeons, which gets a little annoying over time.
Dungeons themselves get larger throughout the game as the player is asked to return multiple times on missions. Most of the time, the character’s only real goal is to fight a dragon and return to base. The pacing is hurt by this because I often was left confused about why I even came to a certain area. With that said, there are some truly unique missions, such as searching for a young witch who might turn into a dragon or testing a witch’s power to fight against powerful enemies.
Speaking of unique, Dragon Star Varnir has beautiful illustrations and 3D visuals. I loved the lush look of the entire cast of characters who reflected the respective Compile Heart artist who drew them. Although the entire game doesn’t have voiced audio, the important scenes do, and the English voice audio is pretty great. The voice actor’s nailed the more emotional scenes in the game and perfectly portrayed the characters throughout the entire story. I’d also like to add that the game’s soundtrack is stellar and doesn’t have one track that falls short.
Dragon Star Varnir fits in well with the Idea Factory International catalog. Where it falls short with its environments, it definitely makes up with its customizable systems, story, and battle system. Players can spend hours farming materials to strengthen their party along with hanging out with a cool group of witches as they get closer to them.
There are some key points in the story that can get surprisingly heavy overall and it’s these moments that make this a must play for fans of niche JRPGs. Sure, the battle system is interesting enough to hold your attention for a little bit, but ultimately it’s the characters who will keep you playing through until the end, which is why I enjoyed the auto-battle feature so much.
In the end, Dragon Star Varnir is a fun and deep JRPG to fly through that fans of the genre should not miss out on. Rather than shove the player’s face in fanservice, which there is plenty of, the developer took a chance on a politically-charged story full of choices and consequences that steals the show. The game’s deep customization features add another layer of complexity. Thanks to its innovative new systems for gameplay and storytelling, a fantastic cast of characters, and familiar Compile Heart style that I love, I can definitely recommend Dragon Star Varnir.
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