Dragon Star Varnir
Dragons, Witches, And Knights (Oh My?)
Dragon Star Varnir was originally released in 2018 on the PlayStation 4 as one of many Compile Heart titles during that time. A year later it was released on Windows and in the Summer of 2021, it was released on the Nintendo Switch. Best known for the Hyperdimension Neptunia series, Compile Heart had branched out into other one-off RPGs with varying degrees of success. Cult classics including the Mary Skelter series, Fairy Fencer F and Death Re:Quest.
The producer of these titles, Norihisa Kochiwa, had also worked on Dragon Star Varnir, giving familiar players that distinct "Compile Heart" style. With little to no information on the game compared to other Compile Heart titles, I wasn't sure what to expect with Dragon Star Varnir. What stood out for me was its battle mechanics, offering a traditional RPG experience that plays different from the likes of a Neptunia game.
The One And Only Flying RPG Around
A "Flying RPG" is the best way I can explain Dragon Star Varnir's gameplay and I'll admit, it's one of the most unique takes on a turn based RPG. Unlike most Compile Heart games, the player can't move their character around the battle grid and give themselves "advantageous" positions. Instead, there are three levels a player can place any of the characters.
There's the ground level, the mid level, and the higher level. Enemies can be located in any of the levels, for example, dragons are usually flying in the middle level, yet toads for example are located on the ground level. Lesser dragons that are smaller in stature can exist in the higher level due to their nimbleness.
Instead Of Being A "God Eater," You Devour Dragons
This means that party members will need to adjust in order for their attacks to land. Some attacks hit multiple levels while others hit horizontal or vertical. Certain attacks will miss altogether if the height differences are too great, adding a layer of strategy. After the first match, it's easy to get the hang of things, which leads to the second mechanic, devouring.
Each party member has a chance to "devour" a dragon, absorbing their core, and using it for themselves. Think Final Fantasy X-2's Garment Grid and how each Grid gives a party member different abilities. These Cores are the main way for party member to gain passive stat increases and skills. Whoever devours a dragon is treated with the Core, meaning it takes planning in order to ensure everyone is balanced and not hogging all the cores.
And Now, The Circus
The explanation behind eating dragons and fighting dragons via flight is the core plot surrounding Dragon Star Varnir. The game begins with Zephy, a knight who has spent his life hunting dragons and witches. Zephy wounds up separated from his group and is forced to face a dragon on his own. Unfortunately it doesn't go as planned and the dragon almost kills him until a pair of witches arrive. Minessa and Karikaro are both witches on a mission to save their sister, Laponette, who is being held captive by the knights. Realizing that a knight is more useful alive than dead, Minessa saves Zephy in hopes of using him as a bargaining chip to get her sister back.
Unfortunately this backfires, by drinking dragon's blood Zephy turns into a witch himself, which is revealed that he may have had the potential to do so all along. Regardless, the knight is now a witch and the trio seek out Laponette while running into a group of bandits called the Raiders. The apparent leader is known for killing tens of thousands of dragons and has no interest in hunting witches, only dragons. Oh, the witches also hunt dragons too, even though it is also revealed that dragons are BORN from witches by eating them from the...inside?
But Wait, There's More
Eventually the trio meets with the leader of the Knights, Corberia, who reveals she has no interest in keeping Zephy alive. It isn't until a dragon appears and seeing Zephy fight that she understands he became a witch. She now swears to hunt him and all of the witches because of her "duty" as a knight. Oh and a girl with a red eye appears who may or may not be the leader of the Raiders? The chapter ends with Zephy passing out after the boss fight and is taken to the Witches hideout.
I want to commend the story writers for somehow condensing five hours of exposition in less than an hour, but unless the player has been paying attention, it can be difficult to follow. Characters come and go just as quickly as they are introduced, no one knows each other, and it's unclear who are the bad guys. The Raiders are thugs, but they seem to want nothing with the witches. The witches and the knights are all hunting dragons but the knights are hunting the witches because they did something to the knights in which the witches have no recollection of? One thing that's clear, however, is how distrusting the witches are of men. It's understandable because when one think of a "witch," they don't think of a man becoming one. Of everything the plot threw at me, this was the most relatable thing I captured.
Dark Star Varnir Has Potential For Chaos But Not On The Switch
There's also an introduction of a "Madness" meter, which increases depending on the choices Zephy makes as well as how the player performs. Using forbidden dragon skills, showing signs of dishonesty, dying and receiving game overs will increase the "madness" meter until it reaches "Bad Ending" territory. This may be the biggest way to discourage players from, well, dying and instead "git gud."
Overall, Dark Star Varnir impressed me with how chaotic everything was. The pacing went everywhere, the combat and animations are varied from "really good fanservice" to "stiff as cardboard," but it had a distinct charm. I recommend not playing this on the Nintendo Switch as a jarring framerate persists while travelling and even in combat. It's off putting considering larger games had ran well on the Switch. Maybe if I play on PC it will perform better.
Dragon Star Varnir is available on the PC, Nintendo Switch, and Sony PlayStation.