Dragon Star Varnir sets out to prove two things: That family is everything… and that you are what you eat.
Genre: Action, Adventure, RPG,
Visual Novel Hybrid
Developer: Idea Factory, Compile Heart
Publisher: Idea Factory International
Release date: 08 Oct, 2019
Dragon Star Varnir came out about a year ago now on Steam and even before that on consoles, so we know we are a bit late to the party. However, since Idea Factory is one of my favourite companies for JRPG Visual Novel Hybrids we just had to visit this title. I should probably put in one of my trademark praises for our purple goddess of Planeptune but I think Neptune is having her pudding break right now. Dragon Star Varnir is not a Neptune title, but it is one directly developed by Idea Factory/Compile Heart and it shows exactly how wide of a range the company has when it comes to storytelling. While Neptunia is about waring nations that came together and now work with each other to save the world from enemies that are often more cute than threatening (looking at you Dogoo), Dragon Star Varnir is set in a far more dark, bleak and unforgivingly cruel world… at least for the witches.
I have to say this game is far more interesting than I expected. I tend to play the Idea Factory/Compile Heart games and have come to expect certain core elements to be there. Those elements are: enjoyable story, interesting characters, heavy visual novel elements and light gameplay. Idea Factory/Compile Heart tends to favour telling a story that lets you beat up some enemies in the act breaks. Usually the standard gameplay, while still enjoyable, is not that in depth like you would find in a pure JRPG, however, the gameplay here was far more involved than anticipated.
As anyone who has read my reviews before knows, I have an aversion from spoiling stories especially in visual novel style games. With games from Idea Factory/Compile Heart being around a 50/50 split between time spent in gameplay and story, it is important not to ruin it. The story here is an interesting one and has a few things I can talk about without risking any spoilers. The story revolves around three main groups, the witches, the dragons and the humans. First off, Daenerys Stormborn from Game of Thrones cannot hold a candle to the witches in this story. She calls herself the mother of dragons because she hatched three dragon eggs and the hatchlings imprinted on her. Well the witches in this story all have dragons growing inside them… which oddly enough need bloody dragon meat to grow… so I guess dragons are kind of cannibalistic when you think about it. Plus, the fact they will eventually come into the world by eating their way out of their mother’s abdomen… yeah dragons are kind of sick creatures. The poor witches have a hard life. Not only do they only live long enough to birth their dragon, if they refuse to consume the dragon blood needed to develop their dragon, they go insane and turn into a twisted shell of their former self. On top of all that, the humans hunt the dragons and the witches because the dragons terrorize the land, and the witches incubate more dragons. The only consolation the witches have is that thanks to the dragons inside them they have the ability to fly and use magic. That is the basic premise of the game, nothing there spoils anything the game itself does not share with you very early on.
Before we talk about the combat, let’s talk about some of the other elements in the game. There are multiple endings that are impacted by the choices you make, how often you get defeated in battle, and how you treated your little sisters. This game has a few side-elements to it that are quite interesting and serve as a nice distraction to the combative gameplay. First off the witches and their sisters can be interacted while at the Witch’s Den. You can give gifts to the witches in order to unlock little events for you to enjoy. They do not really do much in terms of push the story forward, but they do flesh out the characters a bit more. The little sisters on the other hand have more impact to the game itself and adds an interesting anti-grinding mechanic. Eventually they will need attention given to them regularly. If you choose not to give them attention or do not treat them properly odds are good that they will die. This will not stop you from finishing the game, but it will lock you out of the true ending. If you are like me who likes to grind every once in a while to unlock new things or find all the hidden treasures that you will store in your inventory forever and never use because you just never know when you will need it, well then you will be punished due to ignoring your little sister’s needs for too long. Here is the thing, you cannot even buy yourself extra time by overstuffing the little sisters because that will work out to be just as bad for you. You need to maintain that fine balance that keeps them healthy and happy while allowing you to explore the world and possibly save witchkind from their dragon curse. The last thing I will mention about the Witch’s Den is that you will get side quests there as well as have the ability to craft elixirs that allow you to enter special battles for useful equipment.
The last non-combat thing I would like to talk about is each witch having a unique ability that can be used while exploring a level. It is an interesting gimmick although it gets a bit tedious after a while. For example, one witch’s ability allows you to find hidden treasure. It is a very handy skill to use frequently. Another witch can break barriers, another can make small platforms over gaps, yet another can get items out of objects you encounter. There are other witches and abilities we could discuss but you should get the idea. You must press a button to rotate which witch is currently on the field until you encounter the witch you want and have them use their ability. It is probably advisable to rotate your witches once more then until you have the one that can find hidden treasures again because the skill wears off. These hidden treasures restock every time you revisit a dungeon even though the main chests do not so revisiting the area does not preclude the need to keep using that ability.
It is time to talk about combat which is one of the more surprisingly complex elements of the game. Since you are flying witches the combat takes place in the air. There are three levels you can fly in and depending on your formation or where the enemies are located, there may be advantages to moving between the levels. Your witch will automatically move between levels when you do an attack that requires it, so you do not have to worry about attacking the air accidentally. The regular array of attacks are found in this game such as the standard hits, area of effect, magic use, group tactics, etc. and while those are fine to talk about they are not really anything new or unique so I will not waste your time talking about those in detail. What I will talk about in detail though are the dragon abilities. The dragon abilities come in two forms, unleashing the dragon and feeding the dragon within. As you battle enemies your dragon gauge fills until eventually the draconic power overwhelms the witch and she partially transforms. It is kind of like HDD in a Neptune game but you cannot control when it happens as easily. The witch gains new abilities as well as becomes much stronger. Eventually the dragon’s power will wane, and she will return to normal. The other dragon power to mention is the devour ability which is worthy of its own paragraph.
You Are What You Eat
Enemies that are weakened can be consumed more easily than those that are not. Consuming an enemy successfully heals you up a little bit as well as gives you the core of the enemy. The witch who consumed the enemy is the only one to benefit from its core though so each witch will either have to eventually consume a particular enemy or go without. The core unlocks new abilities for the witch to use so getting the core and then spending points on it will grant her newfound abilities and stats. Those of us who like to ensure they get everything might be tempted to farm enemies so that each witch not only consumes each enemy at least once that she also has enough points to spend unlocking everything. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your point of view, the little sisters mechanic puts a stop to that endeavor pretty quickly. This leads you to needing to be tactical on who consumes what to ensure you get a good balance over the characters you are using and to rotate your teams fairly often to ensure even distribution of cores. Special cores fortunately are automatically granted to all characters though, so you do not have to worry about those going to the wrong witch.
I have to say this way of leveling your characters up is quite refreshing. It is definitely more interesting than the typical RPG way of giving you experience points and improving your character with predefined perks at level up. You can shape your witch’s growth however you want simply by what you feed her. It kind of reminds me of Final Fantasy IX where the equipment you used was how you gained new abilities. If you used the gear long enough it would become permanent for that character but until that time it meant you would be potentially using outdated gear well beyond its usefulness and despite having better gear already available to you. Mind you it was far better than the draw system of Final Fantasy VIII so I am not complaining too loudly about that. I think the devour system Dragon Star Varnir was a wonderful idea that really helped make this game more unique and interesting. The only thing I would like to see improved is some kind of indicator which shows if you go to devour an enemy that particular witch has already devoured that type of enemy. That way you can leave it for another witch to have a go at it.
The graphics of Idea Factory/Compile Heart never seem to disappoint me. The detailed backdrops and meticulous character designs are always a pleasure to behold. Despite how easy it would be to copy characters and just recolour them a bit and change their hair or clothes a bit, each character has their own unique style. Even characters that are just NPCs have a lot of details to them and look different from others you will encounter. Some of these details have humour to them such as Emperor Pharisaeus having earlobes that would make any Ferengi proud, to Nyamo the shop keeper which is some kind of strange and oddly cute cat-bat hybrid.
The characters are interesting both in their 3D versions and in their 2D versions. For example, subtle movements occur when in 2D such as the lips moving when the character is speaking. Some of the motions are little silly but they still get the point across, such as when you and one of the little sisters are outside watering the flowers. The two characters just kind of slide around the screen for a bit, not really changing pose or anything, just moving left and right. It only makes sense that when in 3D, of course the characters are able to show their actions far better.
The level designs are well thought out and have enough features to them that they are interesting to look at. It can be a bit easy to get lost especially with enemies respawning but spotting an already opened chest usually helps correct your course though the level. Each area you visit has its own features to it although there is commonality between them. To help you move through an area more quickly you can actually fly short distances. This can really help if you are backtracking or trying to make your way to an item you missed collecting or to an enemy you want to devour.
This is the only place that I have any real complaints. The complaint is not with the music, sound effects or voice acting though as those are all fantastic once again. Idea Factory almost always does a great job in this area. The complaint I have is about the balance between the music and voice track. At the defaults, the voice track is almost inaudible over the very loud music. The music is energetic and is doing a wonderful job to support the visual spectacle going on but unfortunately it is way too enthusiastic about it. You do have the ability to adjust the sound balance in the game yourself, and I had to turn down the background music to single digits (out of 100) and pretty much max out the voice track to be able to hear it over the music. Even then the voices were sometimes way too quiet to hear properly. Fortunately, the game does display the text on screen too. I thought it might have been an issue with my system, perhaps some kind of compatibility issue with my sound card but trying the game on another system lead to the same results.
With that out of the way, the voice acting for the game is English, which is always welcome to me and also available in Japanese for those who prefer that language. Each of the character’s voice actor performers captures their character wonderfully. While not all dialogue is spoken, it was always welcome when it was. The music, as mentioned, is delightful to hear and does a great job setting the mood and the tone, although sometimes the transitions between tracks can be a bit awkward. I have to say though despite it being a good sound track, it is not really one I can see myself listening to outside of the game.
Controls and User Interface
The controls and user interface works well here. You do not have to worry about memorizing complex button inputs to do anything important in the game. Sure, I sometimes confused the attack button with the jump button when navigating an area but that was on me and I eventually stopped doing that. Everything is labeled for you so it is not hard to know which button to press to do whatever it is you are trying to do. Did you just get a new core and you want to level it? You can either manually move around the core leveling what you want, or you can just press one button and level it completely automatically (assuming you have the points for it). All the important elements have icons displayed on the screen to help you understand what the game is trying to tell you. Do you forget how to switch characters? Lower left of the screen tells you the hotkey for it! Not sure how much longer before the dragon within is unleashed? There is a gauge for that! Are you trying to trigger a weakness triple team attack? There is a bar for that too! Is the little sister showing a red angry icon? Well you better do something about it fast! You want that icon to be more friendly looking… unless I mean you are going for the madness end and are deliberately torturing the little sisters… you bully.
So, should you pick up Dragon Star Varnir? If you are a fan of the other Idea Factory games in the JRPG Visual Novel hybrid style, then you will more than likely enjoy this one. It has a far more serious tone than the Neptunia series but not quite as horrific as the Death End re;Quest series. It is a good middle ground. The sisters (who are not actually sisters) are a group of witches who work together to try to care for their family as best they can before they meet their predisposed fate either at the hands of the Knights, birthing a dragon or going insane. Despite knowing that their best efforts will be for naught they still persevere the best they can. It is a compelling story of a family trying to overcome the odds and finding a way in the world when the deck is heavily stacked against them. If that sounds like something you would enjoy, then you should definitely consider Dragon Star Varnir. Unlike what Zephy suggested in the image above, it is a game I will definitely be Saving.