Compile Heart and Idea Factory International are well known for their immensely popular Neptunia series in addition to the Fairy Fencer and Mary Skelter titles. As such, these high profile games often overshadow other releases that slip under the radar of the JRPG market. Their latest release is inspired from the gameplay mechanics and key learnings they’ve acquired from their other titles to craft none other than Dragon Star Varnir.
You begin as Zephy, a young warrior and member of the Knights of Requiem tasked with hunting witches who are shunned by the world for giving birth to evil and malicious dragons. As luck would have it, he is separated from his squad during a hunting mission before falling prey to a deadly dragon. On the verge of death, Zephy is unexpectedly saved and revived by two witches, the same people he is tasked with hunting and killing on sight, after he is fed the blood of a deceased dragon. Branded by an outcast by the Empire he once served, he reluctantly joins the two witches, Minessa and Karikaro, in a bid to rescue other captured witches and save himself from the evil dragon curse.
The battlefield is comprised of three layers: top, middle and bottom levels for which you can move freely. Instead of simply defeating the enemy, you have the basic “devour” ability that earns the respective party member the opportunity to acquire a dragon core by, you guessed it, devouring the enemy. Your chances of devouring them are higher with a percentage rate of success tied directly to how low their health falls in the midst of battle. Physical and Magic attacks are prevalent with 4 types of physical attacks: Slash, Hit, Shoot and Pierce. As there are three layers in combat, physical attacks can only be performed against foes on the same level whereas magic attacks are useful to reach the enemy on a different layer. Six magic attributes can be used to strike your foes down: Earth, Fire, Water, Wind, Light and Dark.
Setting formations and party tactics in advance is the best way to ensuring the battle tides turn in your favor. The group can all begin on the same level or be repositioned among the three levels for a competitive advance or to cover as much airspace as possible. As you continually attack your enemies, the character’s Dragon Gauge will gradually fill until it is completed full. Once it is maxed out, the respective party member undergoes a Dragon Awakening that significant boosts their abilities and grants them special skills. Be warned that triggering the Dragon Awakening may lead to dire consequences if the character’s health is dangerously low. Should they go berserk, they will enter the Rogue Dragon Awakening state where their attack power is boosted at the expense of their defensive stats.
Along the way, you will encounter the Witches’ Den where three little sister witches await your return as a home base. Bearing the witches’ curse, you must feed the little sisters dragon meet or blood that you find or obtain as spoils during your missions and side quest explorations. A satisfaction meter displays how satisfied each little witch sister is and gradually fills up by consuming dragon blood or meat. Once you have reached a certain point, the little sisters may gift you rare items in return. If they are given too much dragon blood or meat, their dragon growth gauge will fill up and if maxed out, a dragon will erupt from their womb. In that event, you are given a choice between putting a voluntarily end to their misery or devouring them to obtain powerful skills at the expense of their life.
Much of the battle spoils in the game include items like dragon claws, skin, eyes, bones and livers. At the Witches’ Workshop, you can throw these items together in a large pot to create an elixir to summon an elite dragon. The elixir is dependent upon one catalyst that you use and can be made at any time within the workshop itself. After your respective character drinks it, the elite dragon can be fought and defeated to acquire rare equipment. If the elixir offers a weapon in question, the party member that consumed it can equip it after successfully defeated the elite dragon. You are free to challenge the elite dragon again if you fail to defeat it the first time around.
Charming your favorite witch is done by gifting items to her obtained from the shops or dungeon crawling. Each of the witches has their own tastes and preferences and if you buy them the right gift, their affinity level towards you will increase. After the affinity level reaches a certain point, special events will occur between you and your chosen witch. In between romancing your favorite witch is the Huntery, a place you can assign yourself various side quests from the enigmatic Zuba. The more quests you complete, the more numerous the special rewards will be throughout the game.
Visually, the character designs are colorful and aesthetically pleasing in contrast to the more dull and bland environments. Special attack and summon animations are enjoyable to watch and fans of previous games released by Compile Heart and Idea Factory International will not be disappointed. There are instances of the same background art used for character dialogues and conversations that quickly become apparent. During my first playthrough, I noticed the soft and relaxing piano melody music while exploring the forest and other open areas, despite the dark and somber narrative from the main storyline.
Dragon Star Varnir is an RPG with a lot of interesting elements that really shines when it comes to the combat and character artwork. The game is held back from its true potential by its steep learning curve as the gameplay mechanics that can easily overwhelm players at the initial start. As for the open world, the bland environments can feel repetitive in nature after a short time. Regardless, Dragon Star Varnir is a unique and enjoyable RPG to pick up this summer and considering it’s from Compile Heart, that’s a hefty bonus.
PROS (+): Engaging Combat, Intricate Character Artwork
CONS (-): Steep Learning Curve, Bland Environments
SCORE – 7.5/10
This review is based on a digital copy of Dragon Star Varnir on the PlayStation 4 provided by Idea Factory International.