Dragon Star Varnir (PS4) Review
Release Date: June 11, 2019
Publisher/Developer: Idea Factory International/Compile Heart
Platform: PlayStation 4
In the world of Varneria, it's rather terrible to be a witch. Witches are cursed at birth with the seed of a dragon inside. There are clans of warriors whose sole purpose is to destroy witches before the dragon rips it's way out of their body. Whilst running from these clans, the power of the dragon slowly drives the witch insane. They can stave off the insanity by eating other dragons or drinking their blood. Unfortunately, eating too much will cause the dragon to grow faster, hastening their destruction. Recently one witch went particularly insane and killed most all of the witches, leaving only about ten in the entire world. While the witches mean no harm to others, they are constantly fighting for their lives in the hopes that they don't become a monster themselves.
One day, a particular Holy Knight is severely injured by a dragon. Seeking to use him to save one of their own, the witches try to heal him by giving him dragon blood. Surprisingly the blood awakens the witch's power within him. Zephy is now one of the "things" he used to hunt. He fears the witches, but they are the only ones willing to let him in. If he returns to his friends, he is guaranteed to be excommunicated or killed. A new mysterious witch arrives on the scene with rumors of a cure to their curse. Together, the witches decide to take the chance and seek out the cure.
Much like the Neptunia series and other games from IFI/Compile Heart, Dragon Star Varnir is a story first and foremost. A large percentage of gametime is spent listening to or reading the story. Each character has a single, slightly animated 2d animated sprite that slides back and forth on the screen to show conversations or general movement. This is quite literal: there's a scene where characters are making dinner and they just kind of hop around for a bit as if a child had paper dolls and was telling a story. There are a scant few scenes where 3D character models talk to each other I felt they could have used more often, but I supose that this was a cost-saving alternative. There are plenty of voiced lines near the beginning and at key story points to allow you to stretch your imagination and make the tale more "real."
Where the game shines is in combat. While the maps are simple mazes that you traverse finding treasure and slaying enemies on the way to the goal, the game takes traditional, turn based combat and adds many extra dimensions to it. Actions may happen instantly but delay your next turn. Basic attacks can come in combinations up to three, and you can tailor the number of hits to balance damage with turn order. The biggest change is the three-level play field. Combat is aerial, and covers three levels of battlefield. To do a physical attack you must be on the same level, but magic can cross levels. Positioning within your party can change stats as well. Each character also can have a teammate that can help defend or even swap out, basically allowing you six characters at once on the field. Finally, the witches "consumption" power can be used during a battle. All enemies are some form of dragon, which the characters need to survive. Depending on the damage already done to the dragon, your odds of consuming (and therefore ending the battle) go up. It's a neat little addition that lets you take a risk that might net a big reward.
The third part of the game is some extreme micromanaging of your characters. There's traditional levelling and armor management, but it goes deeper. Each individual dragon that each individual character consumes Using Factor Points earned in battle, players can add permanent attributes or new powers to their team members. Each team member can only assign a certain amount of powers to be accessible in battle, so you have to get the right combination of offensive and defensive abilities assigned to maximize your party's efficiency. Back at the Witch's home, you manage the relationships with your teammates by giving them presents, or even feeding the three younger witches their dragon meat/blood to stave off (or encourage) the dragon within.
Some of the micromanaging feels frustrating. For example, in the beginning I was regularly getting new Dragon Cores but finding I had enough Factor Points to maximize every node on their board at once. I had to manually activate each node, which entails going to it, selecting, confirming, and receiving an update. Stretch this across ten or so nodes and it can get frustrating. Monitoring and maintaining these nodes are imperative to character growth, and you'll find yourself falling behind if you don't do it for each and every character on a regular basis. There are also quests to take on back at camp, but most of them involve finding X number of items and bringing them back or such.
On the world map, each character has a special ability, be it to create a bridge, knock down a barrier, or open a particular chest. I found this a bit silly as it's a one-button tap to cycle through characters who otherwise were similar on the world map just to use a particular power. Some of my biggest complaints about this game with such depth of choice is the parts I couldn't choose, like the overdrive power you get from dealing and taking enough damage. Characters will call on the power of the dragon and become superpowered. Unfortunately this happens when it happens, so you may end up wasting it on a low level grunt's last hit when you needed it for the upcoming boss. Also, if a teammate is knocked out, you can't swap to the other one in that slot unless you revive them. In a game with such depth of battle tactics, it was frustrating not to be able to do things I felt would be logical.
Gamers should come into this title with a "visual novel" mentality, as entire play sessions can be taken up by a few cutscenes. The battle system makes up for it though, with a lot of fun dealing with the multi-level battlefields that get even more crazy once you start learning how to set traps and shove enemies around for maximum damage. Overall though, Dragon Star Varnir weaves an interesting tale, even though it relies on some tropey attitudes (the first ever MAN to have witch powers, once hated by the witches, now joins their all-female troupe and leads them to victory whilst winning their hearts, the super power moves that focus a bit too long on how skimpy their outfits get and what gets exposed, etc). As a whole the micromanaging is overwhelming but fun when you get it right. Dragon Star Varnir offers a different take with new depth added to the traditional turn-based RPG. If you like RPGs and visual novels, Dragon Star Varnir offers a wonderful combination and a hearty length story that makes you genuinely care for the characters involved.
-Wonderful visual novel/RPG hybrid
-Extreme depth to the battle system
-Risk/reward challenge with consumption power
-Restrictions in battle, such as swapping out KO'd characters
-Micromanagement can be annoying but it's necessary
-Paper cutout hopping about is a little corny
Special thanks to Compile Heart and Idea Factory for providing a code for review!