- Developer: Compile Heart
- Publisher: Idea Factory
- Release Date: 03/08/2021
- Price: £26.99 / $29.99
- Review code provided by Idea Factory
Introducing: Dragon Star Varnir Review for Nintendo Switch
I do love a good JRPG. The outlandish plots, the turn based battle systems, the methodical balancing of a party to resist all attacks and exploit the weakness of your enemies. Dragon Star Varnir has all of the above, so in theory it should be a winner hands down. In theory. Unfortunately for these elements to work in practice, they have to executed well enough to keep the player engaged from start to finish. The plot has to have twists and turns, but not so much that the player loses track of what they are doing. The battle system has to be multifaceted, but not to the extent that the player struggles to comprehend a strategy that will ensure victory. Making a good JRPG is in itself a balancing act that requires careful consideration for every single design choice. Many have gone on to achieve greatness, receiving sequel after sequel to appease their devoted fan bases (Pokémon, Final Fantasy, Xenoblade, Fire Emblem, Persona, to name but a few). Others have been lost to time immemorial. Keep reading our review to discover whether Dragon Star Varnir is worthy enough to be ranked amongst the greats or if it should be condemned to languish in obscurity.
The dragon, the witch and the wiccaphobe
If you’ve watched the overview trailer above, you’ll already be familiar with the somewhat usual plot that is Dragon Star Varnir. Witches are real. However, these witches are not cackling, warty crones but rather, the easy on the eye, busty, anime variety. Dragons are also real, but these dragons don’t hatch from eggs. Instead they grow within the womb of a witch, nourished by the dragon blood they are forced to consume, until one fateful day when they burst out and start terrorising the human population. Understandably, the humans are none too happy with either the dragons or the witches, which they blame for the dragon menace. For this reason they created the Knights of Requiem, who are tasked with hunting down and eradicating both dragon and witch alike.
You take on the role of a young knight called Zephy who succumbs to fatal injuries from a dragon attack at the beginning of the game. He is discovered by three witches that save his life by slaying and then feeding him the blood of the dragon that attacked him. Not only does this revive Zephy but it also transforms him into a witch (which he is not particularly thrilled about). From that moment onward, you are propelled along a bizarre but interesting narrative that is mostly centred around Zephy adjusting to his new life as a witch, avoiding the persecution of his former comrades and a quest, set by a mysterious ally, to eradicate the curse of the witches so that they might become human once more.
As video game plots go, this one certainly has potential. On booting up the game for the first time, most of the backstory is delivered in what I can only describe as a really cheesy, movie voiceover. Notwithstanding that however, the plot is probably the best thing about this game, for reasons I will get into shortly. It is compelling enough to make you want to see the ending but unfortunately, the rest of the game is so bad that I’d rather just see how it pans out on a YouTube video somewhere.
Thar be dragons here
The biggest issue the game has is the battle system. There are just far too many combat rules and nuances to keep track of. To the games credit, it does go to some lengths to introduce each one gradually, accompanied by a few pages of explanations for you to read through. Problem is, that this gets old very quickly and after the twentieth or so new combat mechanic I’d been forced to read through, I’d just about had enough. I fully accept that there are those people who relish this level of detail in a turn based JRPG, but I am not one of them. The first couple of chapters of this game proved little challenge as I hacked away at the dragon enemies. However, the difficulty sharply increased when the training wheels were taken off. At this point, it quickly became apparent that I had not mastered the subtle nuances of the battle system. The game had not, in my humble opinion, done a good enough job of teaching me what a good battle strategy was. As a result, I was left frustrated and bored by my sudden inability to progress the story further.
The unique selling point of this game is the three level battle system, which I have not seen implemented in a JRPG before now. Since the witches can fly (broomsticks init) they can position themselves at one of three levels to engage the enemy from. This can provide quite a useful tactical advantage. For example, you may wish to stick your healer up high, out of range of your enemy’s sweeping attacks. It also adds a third dimension to the battlefield in terms of enemy positioning. Enemies can be arranged in columns, rows or even vertical stacks, and there are corresponding AOE attacks you can chose between, to hit multiple enemies at once. This does add a little extra challenge to the gameplay. There are the standard magical type attacks synonymous with JRPGS (fire, ice, wind etc.) that enemies with be either vulnerable, neutral or resistant to. The witches move-sets are fairly limited at the beginning of the game, so you have to rely on a combination of luck and perseverance to plough your way through the opening chapters.
One of your options in battle with a dragon is to “devour” them which has a higher chance of occurring once the dragon has reached a lower health or been inflicted with some status aliment (a bit like capturing a Pokémon in a pokéball). Rather than adding them your party however, you use the the dragons powers to improve the abilities of your crew of witches. Yet again however, this mechanic is confusing and poorly implemented to the extent that it becomes a chore rather than a reward for a job well done.
Hubble bubble, toil and trouble
When you are not engaged in battle, you will either be exploring a “dungeon”, reading through a lengthy cutscene or perhaps equipping your party with the plentiful supply of weapons and armour that can be purchased from a shop or found in the dungeons.
Exploring a dungeon is very basic. Curiously enough, despite the fact that the witches can fly, exploration is limited to a 2D plane. There is no climbing of walls nor even a slight incline to add any sort of verticality to your adventure. Flying does speed up traversal of these environments but the controls are so bad that I usually crashed, almost immediately, into a wall or enemy which ironically I’d been trying to avoid. The dungeons are littered with items to pick up from unguarded chests, which are mostly in plain sight.
While exploring a dungeon, you’ll be constantly running into cutscenes, which are represented by glowing spots on the ground. These are far too frequent and far too long, in my opinion, so much so that it feels like most of the game is spent tapping the A button to advance through the text. Some include voice acting but many do not. If you’re just here for the story then this won’t bother you so much, but personally I like a little more gameplay in my videogames otherwise I might as well be reading a book.
The Witches Den severs as a base of operations for your party from which they can accept side quests, buy/sell items, give gifts and save the game (you can also save the game at certain statues in a dungeon). The side quests are laughably basic and usually take the form of “bring me x item from y location”, which just so happens to be on your list of next location to explore. Giving gifts to the witches, raises their friendship level with you, but their personalities do not seem to match up very well with the items on offer so its usually a matter of trial and error (or a google search) to discover what each one likes and dislikes.
The boy with the invisible dragon tattoo
The game is represented in two distinct graphical formats: the blocky 3D animation graphics used in dungeons and battles, and the 2D anime illustrations used in cutscenes. The 3D graphics make the game look like it was developed for the 3DS. In comparison to the PS5 and Xbox Series X, the Switch is already a very underpowered system, so to release a game that looks this bad on the Switch (without pushing for a retro aesthetic) is borderline unacceptable in this day and age. If you’ve got a lot of nostalgia for the blocky polygon graphics of yesteryear then perhaps you’ll be more forgiving than I. The dragon transformations that take place in battle are somewhat impressive, but do get a little stale after the tenth or so viewing.
On the 2D side of things, the art is drawn very well. I’m not a connoisseur of this particular artform but I did like what I saw. The problem is that the characters limited to one or two flamboyant poses, which looks faintly ridiculous as they run through the vast gambit of human emotions. The movement of a character during a cutscene is illustrated by having them glide across the screen, without changing their pose, and they are limited to just the one outfit despite the fact that you have changed their armour. Many events that occur in the story are not animated. For example, at one point the witches were making a big deal over the fact that a mark had appeared on my characters chest, however my character remained fully clothed and there was no such mark visible.
The voice acting is a welcome addition when it finds its way into the cutscenes. However, be prepared for some of the most unrealistic dragon sounds that you ever heard during some of the cutscenes. It literally sounds like a man doing an incredibly low budget lion impression. The soundtrack is ok, not great. All in all a fairly, “meh” response to the audio offerings of this game.
There just isn’t enough going for this game to outweigh the negatives. What could’ve been a competent turn based JRPG, with a compelling and interesting plot, is let down by overly complex battle mechanics, below par graphics and an unrelenting reliance on lengthy cutscenes to deliver the main story beats. I would find it difficult to recommend this one to anyone besides a select clientele with a fetish for dragons or hand-drawn scantily clad ladies with large chests.
- Interesting plot
- Lacklustre presentation
- Too many lengthy text based cutscenes
- Overly complex battle mechanics