Review: Dragon Star Varnir

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Developer: Idea Factory / Compile Heart
Publisher: Idea Factory Intl.
Platform: PS4, PC(Steam)
Price: $59,99 USD
Release Date: June 11th, 2019(USA/PS4), June 14th, 2019(EU/PS4), TBA 2019(Steam)

Idea factory is perhaps one of the most active Japanese developers/publishers in creating, localizing, and porting their games. The newest title coming out this week is the latest in their recent brutal things happens to cute girl trend. From the same people that brought us “cute girls are falling in despair because their world is ending“(our review here), this time we have “cute girls are falling in despair because their world is ending AND they are going insane AND everyone wants to torture and murder them“. Absolutely adorable. Let’s dive in it.

Story

The gist of the plot in Dragon Star Varnir is that you have a prosperous Empire that is plagued by the existence of Dragons. They are huge mindless beasts that live only to kill and feed, being a huge problem for everyone. Dragons are born from Witches and so everyone hates and despises them.

Why do his ears gotta be so large?

Our protagonist this time, Zephy, is a knight in the corps that is tasked with hunting and killing witches. The first scene in the game shows Zephy getting stranded and mauled by a dragon to the brink of death. A pair of Witches save him in order to interrogate him about the whereabouts of another Witch that had recently been captured. They give him dragon blood and that turns him into a ManWitch, something that is totally unheard of in this world.

Being a witchhunter that has turned into a Witch himself, he has nowhere to go and becomes a target of interest for the knights corps to which he once belonged. He aids his two saviors in rescuing their friend and then begin living and working together. Turns out though, Witches are not wicked and diabolical creatures as he was taught they were, they are just girls who are born cursed.

I am sure they would be proud.

The running theme for Dragon Star Varnir is learning that the teachings he was given were lies intended to fuel his hatred for Witches. The origins of those doctrines and the truth behind your curse are revealed as you travel with your new Witch companions to discover a way to lift the curse.

The few plot twists in Dragon Star Varnir can be seen coming from a mile away and the overall event progression is extremely linear. Out of all aspects of the game, despite having quite an interesting premise and story, the writing in Dragon Star Varnir is by far the weakest part of its overall composition. Thankfully, the character interactions and actual gameplay are more than enough to make up for the subpar narration.

Gameplay

Compile Heart is continuing to experiment on new, innovative ways to unlock new skills throughout their games. Their system in Death End re;Quest was quite interesting but ultimately made collecting skills a pain in the ass. Dragon Star Varnir’s system is far simpler and less painful.

Most of the time monsters are not defeated by reducing their HP to 0. Instead, it’s in your best interest in most situations to Devour dragons. Devour skills deal damage while applying a chance of instantly killing the enemy. Successfully devouring a dragon gives that particular party member its core, which is how you acquire skills in this game.

Om nom nom.

Factor Points are earned in battle and spent to unlock nodes in a dragon’s core. Unlocking nodes can give base stats(such as HP, SP, DEF, etc), a passive skill or an active skill. Therefore, every time a new enemy is found, it also means a new core is available for your party, with its corresponding skills.

The major issue with this system is that, other than for bosses that you only fight once, only the character that actually devours gets the core. This means that each of your 6 characters has to devour each enemy once. Furthermore, there is no visual indicator for whether or not you’ve devoured this enemy or not, meaning you have to keep track mentally of which party member needs to devour which enemy to keep unlocking all skills. I figured out during NG+ that there is a small check mark next to the success chance number that shows whether or not you’ve devoured that enemy or not.

Basic Battle interface.

Varnir’s most distinct feature is its battle system. Unlike most RPGs, battles are fought entire in the air, both by you and the enemy. The playfield has three layers and you may go up and down freely between them in your turn. The enemy’s side is more spacious and, unlike the player’s side, has depth as well as layers. Skills may target particular enemies or do area damage, sometimes in rows, columns, one or multiple layers.

The option to see the tiles and layers can be toggle on/off.

The battles are very difficult. My first playthrough was on Hard but you may unlock a harder difficulty through a free DLC. I have to admit, beyond a certain point in the game, I was getting my face shoved in even by regular monster battles. The level scaling in this game is very severe and equipping the right skills and passives is absolutely a must. I must say, this is Idea Factory’s hardest game since Fairy Fencer F. That game was one of my favorite JRPGs this generation precisely because it was hard as balls, something that I hope continues to be a trend coming forward.

Aerial view.

Regrettably, FFF was a much longer game compared to this one. On the other hand, Varnir has a much deeper battle system. There are three more layers to the battle system that I feel are important to bring up.

The first significant layer is the flight formation. This refers to the initial position your party has when entering battle. Changing this formation not only helps avoid having all your party members being hit by large area-of-effect skills but also provides stat boosts to characters in a given layer. New and improved formations are unlocked by questing.

You unlock quite a few more throughout the game.

Secondly, the itemization in this game is leagues above and beyond what I’d expect from a budget RPG title. This is not something I ever talked about on my reviews previous reviews but I felt was important to this case.

Usually in an RPG, you want to equip the best possible items you have access. Games do this by giving tiers to equipments, making each tier better than the previous. The lazy way of doing this, and the way most RPGs do anyway, is to just make higher level items objectively better than lower tier ones. By upgrading, you are basically letting for a status-giving stick in order to hold a bigger, better stat stick.

Games with good itemization break this logic by making lower-tier items useful even after the player gains access to new gear. Varnir does this by making certain tiers of equipment exceptionally good for one given purpose, often times obfuscating general-purpose items available on higher tiers. Several times during my playthrough I found myself hugging my old weapons and armors because I wanted a given character to focus on a particular stat, and my old items simply had better numbers in that stat compared to a weapon one or two tiers above.

While still on the subject of items, let’s touch up on the item crafting. Other than store-bought and found items, crafting items was balance in quite an interesting way. To craft, you must concoct a potion using dragon parts found in battle and have a party member drink it. Doing so will summon a battle that will give you an item that the party member that drunk the potion can equip, but only if you can win the battle. This is important because you can only really craft exceptionally good items if you can withstand the battles, something I found myself unable to do many times.

Item crafting battle.

Finally, the last layer of depth is the character swapping. This has become absolutely standard in RPG for a long time but Dragon Star Varnir pulls this off better than any game I have previously played. By only having 3 out of 6 characters on the field at once, swapping becomes extremely important because you are limited in how many skills you are able to equip at once. Enemy variety is huge, meaning that you must use several different types of elemental magic, physical attacks skills and support skills at all times and the only way to possibly do this is by switching characters over and over. The game lets you swap freely and quickly, making the process painless and intuitive.

Every time I wanted to swap out a character’s equipped skill I had to consider my team’s overall composition. Otherwise, I’d find myself fighting enemies without being able to target their particular weaknesses, a problem that became progressively bigger the deeper I got in my playthrough.

There are plenty of small details when it comes to battles but, other than that, it plays identical to each and every Idea Factory game ever. Symbol Attacks, event icons, map movement, selections, menus, everything.

Sound

Compile Heart games are hardly musical masterpieces. The musical direction has a long way to go as well and, unlike their gameplay and graphics, it has hardly improved game-over-game. Dragon Star Varnir as well, it has one or two good compositions while the rest remains forgetful. You spend a huge amount of time browsing menus and micro managing your skills and party while the same music plays on loop, certainly not adding positively to the experience.

The voice cast was pretty stellar. They do a good job of showing how much these characters are atop a thin line between sanity and utter despair.

Graphics

Quite a few different character designers worked on this series. Other than Tsunako(who has often times done designs for CH games), Kei Nanameda(Death End re;Quest and Mary Skelter) and Katsuyuki Hirano(Agarest games) have worked on Varnir.

The 3D characters models look very smooth, both on cutscenes and during actual gameplay. This contrasts heavily with the beastly enemies spread around the fields. While not as grotesque and other-worldly as the enemies in Death End re;quest, it still feels like a lot of effort went into each and every enemy design. There aren’t even any color-swapped enemies or anything. This is a huge change from when they Compile Heart was putting out Neptunia games with essentially the same enemies and areas copy-pasted over and over.

The maps themselves also look great. Overall, it’s on the same level as Death End re;Quest, a game which I had already noted on how good the textures and environment look. Completely non-interactive, but very pretty.

Map design wasn’t half bad either.

When it comes to graphics, the worst part of this game are the character portraits. They’ve been doing these lightly-animated portraits for over a dozen games but it has already gotten old. In Varnir’s case it feels extra lazy from their part because the variety in positions and expressions is very poor. Even during relaxed talks at home the portraits are stuck on the same pose holding their weapon because it’s the only pose the game has for them.

Downsides

My first immediate issue with the game was that the menu when first booting up has no Configurations menu. Given this, I was forced to listen to the game’s English dub all the way until I was first allowed to access the pause menu and change it to original Japanese voices.

The character portraits having no variety and the writing being poor are quite significant bummers but don’t detract much from the excellent gameplay and balance. Bigger than that though is the fact Dragon Star Varnir is shorter than I would’ve wanted it to be.

Overall

A much better experience than I was expecting. I intend to keep playing Dragon Star Varnir to 100% completion, hopefully my opinion on it will continue to improve. Despite a few shortcomings it was certainly one of the better JRPGs I’ve played on the PS4.

It’s on this section where I usually touch upon the topic of censorship. Varnir was lightly censored for its Western PS4 release where one CG image was cropped to hide a nopan shot and another fogged up image was further fogged up. The coming Steam version will have the images restored to its originals.

Throughout this review I brought up comparisons to previous Compile Heart games quite often. I feel that this is unavoidable considering how similar to one another these titles tend to be. On the other hand, I see this in a very positive light. Idea Factory games improve consistently with each successive release. We’re able to see exactly how much they’ve come as developers this way and gives us an insight on how these games are produced.

More screenshots below.

Dragon Star Varnir

Dragon Star Varnir

8.6

Final Grade

9/10

    Pros

    • Excellent combat
    • Good itemization
    • Very challenging
    • Fresh gameplay systems

    Cons

    • Music is okay at best
    • Lots of menu browsing
    • Weak storetelling