Overview – developed by Compile Heart and published by Idea Factory International, Dragon Star Varnir is a dungeon crawling JRPG set in a world of Witches and Dragons, with a cast of charmingly cute yet deadly characters. This version of the game contains all of the additional content that was available for other releases of this title, making for the most complete version of the Dragon Star Varnir. Links to the Nintendo Switch version of the game will be at the bottom of this review.
Disclaimer: before I get into the review, I would like to thank Idea Factory International for providing the copy of Dragon Star Varnir that was used for this piece. The provision of this software has not influenced the contents of this review, all thoughts and opinions contained within are my own.
Now with the introductions out of the way, let’s get into the review, starting with the story (taken from Nintendo eShop page).
Story – In a world where the bones of an ancient beast tower over the land… The Knight Zephy is part of an order whose role is to hunt down witches – people seen as cursed beings for giving birth to dragons. He is brutally mauled by a dragon on one mission, but as he gasps his last breath, two witches save him by feeding him dragon blood – a death-defying magical substance that also grants him new witch powers.
Their fates now intertwined, Zephy reluctantly joins the witches against a slew of enemies: an Empire out to destroy his kind, ruthless dragon hunters, and a witch more powerful than any in existence. Can they fight all this and save themselves, or will his new allies succumb to the dragon’s curse…?
Gameplay – Dragon Star Varnir is a 3D dungeon crawling JRPG, featuring large explorable areas, hidden objects to discover and intense turn based combat. The story takes place over several story driven chapters, taking place in Varneria, a land of magic and monsters, where death is inevitable for those who are unprepared to fight the dragons. I will be breaking the core elements of the game in their own segments, like my coverage of Mary Skelter 2, which can be found (HERE).
Exploration: the core of the gameplay, takes place in the various dungeon environments throughout Varneria, which can be explored in a roaming third person perspective. While inside the dungeons, players can find treasures, hidden objects to obtain and enemies to fight. The enemies that can be encountered will appear roaming around the open spaces, when these dragons are interacted with combat will be initiated (explained further below).
During the story, event markers can be found in the dungeons which will push the narrative further, playing out in either animated cutscenes or visual novel style segments. Events can also initiate combat encounters, pitting the player against bosses and regular enemies during key points of each chapter, which can also function as tutorial segments to teach the player the combat mechanics.
A good way to tell if there is a battle incoming is the save beacons that can be found, allowing not just a way to record progress but to heal the party. These points are scarce so it is important to be prepared with items and to know when to pick battles wisely, as defeat in the dungeon will lead to many negative effects for the player in the future.
Alongside the treasures, combat encounters and event scenes are special magic objects that can be activated by the characters in the player party. Each of the playable characters that can be used in the game have their own unique skills, allowing new areas to be accessed and hidden items to be revealed. The skills use skill points also called SP to activate these skills, meaning that magic is unable to be used if the player has exhausted their SP points so use skills with caution.
Combat Encounters: throughout the game, combat will occur often with the dragons that inhabit the world of Dragon Star Varnir. As the player roams the dungeons, enemies can be encountered with four possible outcomes when combat is initiated. If the player can strike the enemy from behind they will get to attack first, but if the enemy can hit the player from behind the dragons will gain priority.
If the player makes contact head on, combat will start, but if the party is leveled enough, they can defeat the enemy instantly and skip combat entirely gaining all possible rewards immediately. Now with the combat initiative variants explained, it’s time to get into the details of how combat flows during each encounter with the dragons. The basic mechanics for battle in this title are as follows;
- Tiered Battles – this is one of the special mechanics that lets Dragon Star Varnir stand out on its own. The battles in this game are fought in mid-air, with the battlefield split into three levels: Top, Middle and Low. Party members can move between levels when selecting a command, but selecting an action will move that character to a level automatically, giving additional flexibility to combat.
- Physical Skills – physical attacks can only be used on enemies that are on the same level of the active party member, with attacks having the potential to cause critical damage and even cause enemies to faint. Physical attacks allow for up to three consecutive hits without depleting SP points.
- Magic Skills – magic attacks can target enemies on different levels, this is useful when enemies are spread across the battlefield, allowing for attacks on multiple targets. Magic can fill a variety of purposes, from dealing damage, to healing party members and even boosting the stats of active party members. All skills use SP points to activate them, so effective management of SP levels is important.
- Devour – this is a special skill in which the character consumes the chosen enemy, with a higher chance of success the weaker the enemy has been made. If this is successful, that character will earn a dragon core for the specific enemy as well as healing a small amount of HP and SP. Remember that the core will only go to the character that succeeds in devouring the dragon, so try to devour dragons with all characters.
- Weak Points – the enemies encountered in battle will have their own weaknesses and resistances, taking more or less damage depending on the type of attack being used. Successful strikes against the weakness of an enemy dragon (and other forms of damage) will increase the fear level of the enemy, with a special rush attack occurring if the onscreen meter is maxed out.
- Dragon Awakening – each party member has a special meter called the Dragon Gauge, which is filled during battle from dealing/taking damage and using devour skills on the enemy. When the meter is full, a Dragon Awakening will be activated, powering up that character to a huge extent and giving access to special cinematic skills. The Dragon meter will deplete over time and when empty or the battle ends Awakening will end, also the dragon meter will carry over between battles if it is not used.
Alongside the core mechanics mentioned above, there are also support skills where inactive party members can help their partner witch, items that have a variety of effects and skip turns to defend. The active party members can also switch with their support character if they wish, giving greater strategic options in battle.
When a battle concludes rewards are given to the player, which are experience used for leveling, gold used for buying items/gear, materials for crafting and Factor points for dragon cores (discussed further below).When characters earn enough experience, they will level up which increases their base stats and strengthens each character.
The last thing to discuss with combat is the giant dragon battles, large scale multi-level battles that pits the party against a single giant enemy. These battles occur during key events and are usually boss battles, creating for a tense and dynamic battle experience. The giant dragon in addition to their core also has parts that can be attacked, which will seal away an attack when destroyed and stun the dragon. When the giant dragon is defeated, a special core is given to the player which all characters can use.
Dragon Core Management: the Dragon Core system allows new characters to learn new skills from each dragon they have devoured in battle. The cores function similar to skill trees with new abilities, buffs and bonuses that can unlocked by using the Factor Points earned in battles. The abilities in a core will be locked unless the adjacent skill has been activated, increasing the possible approaches that can be taken with multiple branches of a dragon core.
There are five different factors that can unlocked through the core menu, they are as follows;
- Physical – the physical attacks that can be used in combat against enemies.
- Magic – new magic skills can be obtained, with some depending on the type of dragon that was devoured.
- Devour – new skills for obtaining dragon cores, including single and multi-target devour skills that can be used in battle.
- Passive – one of the most important things that can be unlocked. The passive skills give boosts to all of the stats that a character uses, with effective use making characters excel in different roles.
- Bonus – these small additions give little bonuses to all the stats that a character uses. These bonuses may seem insignificant to start, but over time they build up and provide solid boosts.
When skills have been unlocked, they can be added to the characters arsenal, but there is a caveat to unlocking skills. The skill set system allows five abilities to be added to the character for use in battle, but there is a limit to what can be used. Each of the four skill categories has a point system attached to it with a total of 20 points for each category, as each skill has its own cost attached to it so be careful when setting skills to maximize the effects of skills.
Witches’ Den and Menus: outside of the dungeons, there is a Witches’ Den that serves as the home base for the player with a shop, quest/crafting services and special mechanics (which I will leave to be experienced first-hand). The shop is simple enough, you can buy and sell items in the shop to Nyamo, the little cat bat that runs the Dens Curio shop.
Next is the Huntery, the main place to get quests from the witch Zuba, who will give special rewards for completing her requests such as collecting items, crafting specific Elixirs (discussed below) and more. There is a crafting system that can be accessed later in the game, which lets the player mix special items called Elixirs which have special properties.
The Elixirs that can be crafted require a catalyst and ingredients to be made, with each catalyst providing a different level of effect depending on the rarity of said item. It is also possible for crafting to cause accidents, with the outcome leading to a wildly different item being created so experimentation is advised.
The Elixirs themselves are very useful, as they allow special combat encounters to occur by using an Elixir, a character must be selected to summon the dragon which increases for weapons specific to that character to be dropped. If the battle is lost, worry not as the potion will not be used up and can be re-challenged freely.
Last thing to discuss is the menu system with party management, equipment/item management and access a library of knowledge that can be accessed freely. These menus can be accessed in and out of the dungeons, but it is advised to make sure that all things are managed before entering a dungeon to make sure that you are prepared.
In this area, players can equip new weapons and armor that has been obtained, use items to heal their characters and set up the party. When leaving the dungeon, all party members both attacking and supporting are healed, so be sure to take advantage of the dungeon escape skill to heal quickly if needed.
Now with the gameplay covered, I will be moving into the other aspects of the game, starting with the controls.
Controls – the controls for this release are comfortable and balanced for the most part, providing an enjoyable experience when exploring the different dungeon areas. However, they can be a little complicated during combat and menu navigation, due to the way that different buttons are used for various on-screen functions. But these are minor complaints that can be adapted to quite easily in both handheld and docked play.
Difficulty – there are three standard difficulties available from the start, with a fourth much tougher difficulty that can be activated from the add-on menu. All four difficulty settings are balanced in regards to the challenge that they offer, as each subsequent option will make the game tougher by increasing the overall strength of the dragons encountered, but will provide better rewards for success.
There is also the option to make the game a little easier by using the special bonus content, which will give the player more powerful equipment right from the start, decreasing the overall difficulty of combat. It is not advised to use the content at lower difficulty settings, as it can make the combat so easy that there will be no challenge for the player.
Presentation – visually, Dragon Star Varnir is aesthetically pleasing but it does have its flaws. The artwork used for the character portraits and cutscene events is beautiful, which is a hallmark of titles created by Idea Factory and Compile Heart. However, the game suffers a little in the 3D department as there are some minor issues with resolution and framerate that can be encountered.
These flaws are most evident when playing the game in handheld mode, due to the way that the game pushes the Switch Hardware to the limit. Unfortunately the resolution can drop in handheld mode, making textures and models look fuzzy around the edges, alongside occasional frame drops and screen tearing while moving around the dungeons. These little issues aren’t as prominent when the system is docked, with the gameplay being smooth and the animated cutscenes performing very well.
The sound design is of the usual high quality, featuring an English/Japanese vocal track, a catchy opening theme and a fantasy soundtrack that really brings the experience to life. The music makes extensive use of classic fantasy sounds, including the use of strings, panpipes and piano which are accompanied by solid drum beats. The English vocal track is of a high quality, featuring the talents of Sarah Anne Williams (Berserk), Laura Post (One Punch Man) and Erika Harlacher (Demon Slayer).
Final Thoughts – when I started this title, I was unsure what to expect as I had seen very little and wanted to go into the game blind, but I can happily say that this is another excellent outing by Idea Factory and Compile Heart. The story, characters and action are all done very well, with a narrative that really pulled me in and at times elicited an emotional reaction from me.
The artwork and character designs are stunning which really added to the experience for me, which made up for the few shortcomings in regards to the performance of the 3D capabilities given the limitations of the hardware the game was ported to. That being said, even though there are some frame drops and screen tearing, the game works well as a handheld experience.
I do have to point out that there was an unfortunate and rare quite bug that occurred only once during my time playing the game to write this review. Due to the fact that I had received the software before the day one patch was released, a sequence break occurred, causing important story and game content to be skipped and made unavailable. So please take note that if you purchase this game, it is important to obtain the version 1.0.1. patch to prevent this from occurring.
With all of that said, I can still recommend this title to fans of JRPG titles, dungeon crawlers and those who enjoy the output of Idea Factory in general. The amount of content that is included, the story that is presented and the unique gameplay elements of combat are all worth experiencing, making Dragon Star Varnir a title that more than justifies a purchase.
In the end, I give Dragon Star Varnir a final score of 4/5. This title is another excellent release from Idea Factory and Compile heart, yet again creating a fresh and exciting JRPG experience that can now be played on the go. The story, characters and gameplay all have their own unique charms, and although there are a few shortcomings in regards to the graphical capabilities due to the limitations of the Switch, the quality of gameplay and storytelling more than make up for it.
If you want to check this game out for yourself, links to the Nintendo Switch version of this game will be available below. Be aware that I have only linked the Nintendo Switch version of the game as it contains all bonus content from the other releases, as well as a physical Switch version of the game that will be available from Limited Run while stocks last (Idea Factory International’s online store has already sold out).
Link to Nintendo Switch digital version (HERE)
Link to Nintendo Switch Physical version (HERE)