Knighthood can be a Real Drag
I’ve reviewed my fair share of Compile Heart JRPGs during my time as a reviewer. Enough that I’ve gotten to the point that I pretty much know what I’m getting myself into when I boot up one of their games, even if I’ve never played it before. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that such ended up being the case with Dragon Star Varnir as well. From the way the game sets up its story to the gameplay itself, the very core (hah!) of this game has Compile Heart’s name written all over it.
Same-ness isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. In fact, I’ve cozied up in some ways to the formulaic way in which Compile Heart constructs most of their games. With that being said, however, I (and I’m sure many others as well) appreciate it when a series attempts to — appropriately, of course — experiment with things. And Varnir? It did a nice job with that. Does it go out of its way to be wildly different from the rest of its ilk? No. But it does mess around with things (in a good way) just enough that it feels fresh, despite still being a traditional Compile Heart game at… um… heart.
The Enemy of My Enemy is Myself
Dragon Star Varnir takes place in a wondrous world filled with chivalrous knights, magical witches, and powerful dragons. It must be cool, right? Well… not so much. I mean, they all basically hate each other — especially the Knights of Requiem. Working as the sword of justice for the Holy Empire, the Knights of Requiem ruthlessly hunt down any and all dragons and witches that they can find. And, as luck would have it, Varnir‘s own protagonist, Zephy, just happens to be a part of them! At least until he almost gets killed by a dragon, is saved by a witch who uses dragon’s blood to keep him alive, and becomes the first-ever male witch, that is. And things only get worse from there when he learns that all witches are destined to either go mad or have the dragon living inside of them hatch and eat their way out of their stomachs. Sounds like life as a witch is anything but magical, eh Zephy?
Even by JRPG standards, Varnir is very dialogue-heavy for its size. There are plenty of narrative-pushing conversations to be had before, during, and after each of the game’s exploration segments. Normally, this is where I’d make a joke about spilling into the visual novel territory, but I don’t actually think it would be a joke if I did. Although Compile Heart JRPGs have always been generous with their storytelling elements, there seems to be an even bigger push toward making the narrative the epicenter of the game — something which Varnir fits into comfortably.
Not only does this game approach its own narrative with intent on telling an in-depth story, something which is at the core of every VN, but it even goes so far as to change the ending based on certain (incorrect) dialogue choices that the player makes, with the sum total of the player’s choices reflected in what the game calls the “Madness Gauge” . Personally, I do think that it gets to be a bit much sometimes. But that doesn’t mean that I think any of it’s bad. Quite the opposite, actually. There’s legitimate plot progression and character development in every scene, and, most importantly, it’s all done well. It’s easy to form a natural bond with each of the game’s characters thanks to the generous flow of conversation, and that makes the story one worth actually caring about.
A New Take on an Old Favorite (Sort of)
When you aren’t in one of the game’s many cutscenes (and I say that with love), you’ll be exploring the world around you via classic dungeon crawling. And it when it comes to said exploration, there isn’t much that I can say about it that I haven’t already said in a review of one of their other games, like Megadimension Neptunia VII, or Fairy Fencer F due to the similarities between them. I suppose that there is a modicum of credit that needs to be given, though. While Dragon Star Varnir doesn’t differ much from its Compile Heart predecessors in terms of how its actual dungeon crawling plays out, the level of presentation is definitely higher this time around. Each area is diverse in both aesthetic and layout and, while what you actually end up doing doesn’t differ in between each area (i.e. run around, kill monsters, get loot), it’s nicer to have things touched up. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the game’s controls, which, though not unforgivable, are way too stiff for something released in 2019.
Chewing Through the Competition
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that battles are where this game separates itself from the rest of the pack the most. Abandoning the usual Neptunia-style combat system that Compile Heart games are known for, Varnir instead opts into classic turn-based combat. Well, okay, maybe “classic” isn’t an appropriate word to use here. You see, all of Varnir‘s combat takes place in the air. Because of that, characters — both enemies and allies — are able to adjust their altitude during their turn, thus creating a unique “tier-based” battle mechanic. By adjusting your altitude in order to hit enemies, or evade anticipated attacks, Varnir adds an extra layer of strategy to the fights — one which has enough of a presence to matter but manages not to overshadow the entirety of combat.
Varnir also has something known as the “Dragon Core” system for players to take advantage of. In a style incredibly reminiscent of Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga, players are able to consume weakened enemies (or get lucky with healthy ones) by using special Devour commands. Once an enemy is consumed, the character who consumed it will then acquire their Dragon Core, which contains nodes that can be unlocked in order to teach characters new skills and permanently power them up (although they do level up normally as well). The Dragon Core system can be a little maddening at times for completionists such as myself, but it’s honestly one of the best additions that I’ve seen in a Compile Heart game in a while. The sheer number of consumable enemies means that there’s noticeable overlap going on in the skill department, so it definitely isn’t perfect, but I’m very happy with how things turned out. It’s amazing how something as small as this can have a huge impact on both how players play the game and the longevity of the game itself.
Home Again, Home Again
If you feel like taking a break from exploring, the witches’ den, the hub world, also offers plenty of things to do. Aside from the staple shop and quest area, players can also try their hand at alchemy in the witches’ workshop. By using recipes that they find while out and about, players can synthesize special elixirs using monster materials in order to summon dragons which, if killed, drop extra-powerful weapons and armor. Because RNG plays a role in this, elixir-making can be a bit random, but it’s ultimately very rewarding once you get the hang of it. And, best of all, elixirs are never wasted. If you lose your battle, you can head straight back in to try it again!
Then, of course, you also have your visual novel mechanics. In true Compile Heart fashion, players are able to cozy up to their fellow witches as Zephy by giving them gifts. What’s that, you ask? Does this mean that the game has character endings? Of course, it does! And this, of course, means that you’re going to ultimately end up spending a bunch of extra time and money in order to make sure that the witchy waifu you like the best will whisk you away (or something like that) at the end of the game. None of this is necessary, of course, and it even feels a touch out of place in Varnir. However, given who made the game in the first place, I can’t say that I’m terribly surprised that it made its way in here.
If wooing waifus isn’t your thing, Varnir also has newly-introduced… um… I’m not sure what you would call it. “Child-feeding mechanics?” Well, regardless of what you want to call it, that’s literally what it is. Remember when I mentioned that witches are destined to either go crazy or get eaten from the inside out by a dragon? That’s exactly what’s going on, here. Monet, Chiquita, and Pio, the three witches who are too young to fight alongside you, hang back at the den and wait to be fed. But feeding them isn’t like feeding normal children. Not entirely, anyway. Feeding them too much or too little can kill them, and kill them quickly, in one of the two aforementioned ways. However, there’s a catch — the more you feed them, the more rare goods you’ll get from them. As annoying as taking care of them can be (there’s a lot of backtracking on the player’s part), I won’t deny that, from a mechanical standpoint, it’s very clever. Pitting the player’s sense of morality as a person against their desire for power as a player is always one which I find fascinating, and, while it once again isn’t perfect, Varnir does it in a way that makes it entertaining.
Witching You the Best of Luck
I applaud Compile Heart for taking the steps that they did with Dragon Star Varnir. While the game may still be a “traditional Compile Heart game” without a doubt, it isn’t so cookie cutter as to get lost in the fold. The steps that it takes to ensure its own autonomy work well, both as individual game mechanics, and as a part of the overarching story, and I think that anyone who fancies themselves a JRPG fan will have fun with this one. It may not be the most unique title out there, but, if you’re anything like me, you’ll enjoy it all the same.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed) ; Publisher: Idea Factory International ; Developer: Compile Heart, Idea Factory ; Players: 1; Released: June 11, 2019; ESRB: T for Teen ; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Dragon Star Varnir given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.