- Developer:Compile Heart
- Publisher: Idea Factory
- Genre: JRPG
- Release Date: 11/6/19
- Platforms: PS4
- Reviewed on: PS4
- Game Supplied by: Publisher
Being a game journalist, it’s always really exciting to get to review a new IP from an established developer. The anticipation of what different direction the company is now going to go, mixed with new ideas away from what made them successful in the first place. It really is a moment to savour and the proverbial “life is like a box of chocolates” moment from the film Forrest Gump.
Compile Heart and Idea Factory have built their success around many JRPG games and are a true force in this genre. So the initial impressions of Dark Star Varnir are superb. The opening sequence cinematic is of the highest class, and could well have been the music video for the song.
The story from the start has an excellent hook to it to draw you in further. You play as a Knight, “Zephy” who is tasked to destroy witches and dragons alike. However after being attacked by a dragon and succumbing to near death, he is rescued by two witches. These witches save Zephy to use you for a trade with another witch. However, Zephy discovers he has witches’ powers too. The draw here, without wanting to spoil the story, is that in order to stay alive as a witch, you need to eat dragons. If you don’t and go vegetarian, you go mad and morph into a dragon. However as is the case for all witches, to stop this process from happening, you have to keep feeding the dragon inside of you to stop the dragon morphing from within. Is there a cure for this curse? Zephy now has to change his allegiances, and fight against foes who were once friends,in order to find a solution with the help of the witches.
It’s fair to say that this game is really two types of game in one package. On the one hand there is a lot of dialogue and story to get through: presented in 2D stills with either voice acting or just plain text, it is very much in the style of a visual novel game. The second is the gameplay aspect of the dungeons to explore in 3D.
One of my biggest gripes of Compile Heart games is the inordinate amount of trivial dialogue that pads out an already long narrative into something almost unbearable. To give you an idea of what I mean,
“Lets go left!” said person A
“The left that is over there, that is on the left?” said person B
“Yes that left on the left”
“But going left means we go left towards the thing on the left”
“I know, but we need to go that way. That way being, left”
“So are you sure we can’t go right, we have to go left?”
“Yes, left is the way”
“Left it is then”
“Yes, let’s go left”
“To go left, do I need to start with my left or right foot?”
And so it goes on.
Dragon Star Varnir does indeed have a lot of dialogue to get through, and although these sections are skippable, you would miss a lot of the drama and reason to keep playing the game. Indeed for the most part I actually found most of the narrative tight, enjoyable, and at times very humorous. The character Karikaro, designed by Kei Nanameda, was blunt, frank, but hilarious, always wanting to kill something at the slightest drop of a hat. The voice acting is also extremely good, and for a JRPG, not too over the top and realistic.
The above notwithstanding, not all the game is voice acted, in fact a lot of it is simply reading text. A LOT of text. Now as a fan of visual novel games, I’m used to this and enjoy this type of game and gaming too, but when you sometimes have a lot of text and dialogue to read, with no means to save until you get to the end of the sequence then there is a problem.
Here in my let’s play video, at the end of chapter 2, I defeated a boss fight, but then had a whopping 40 minutes of mainly text dialogue to get through before I could save! With the best will in the world, it does get frustrating to endure this. You do however at times have dialogue choices that will dramatically affect the ending of the game depending on what you chose. This very much fits the mould of how a visual novel game plays out.
The presentation of these narrative moments is excellent though, with stunningly elegant artwork, detailed graphics and clear fonts to read what’s being said.
The same can’t be said for the second aspect of the game – the dungeon gameplay. Here the graphics are bland, simple, and even felt like they had a sheen of vaseline over the camera lens. No detail felt sharp or defined. The worlds were pretty sparse, the animations stiff, and the fonts of the menu systems just a tad too small.
The star of the show is buried in the gameplay: the turn based battle system here is new, fresh, and brilliant.
Have you ever seen the TV series Star Trek, in which Dr Spock would play chess on 3 levels? Well, welcome to Dragon Star Varnir’s combat. As you are a witch you can fly, and as the enemies you face are dragons and sub-species of dragons, all of them can fly too, so the battlefield is set up on a three layered grid, within which you and your party can fly up or down. Normal physical attacks are only on the same level you fly on, but some magic attacks cover different levels too. Some attacks can move enemies around the 3D grid- making for some deeply tactical and fun gameplay!
Added to these standard attacks, are two more types of attack that add yet another layer of thought to the battle process. Devouring enemies’ cores unlocks new abilities for your character. When you batter enemy dragons they start to lose their defence and are more susceptible to being one-hit devoured. There is a percentage chance box above the dragon of the chances of this succeeding. The weaker they are the higher the chance of success. But it gets to the stage on some battles where you are thinking, do I risk using my move now? One false move could mean game over. The devour chance is only 45% but my team is almost wiped out. Do I heal or go for it? The balance of choice is delectable!
Another new attack is a powerful ‘release the dragon inside of you’ attack. This is built up in combat by landing hits, until like the Hulk, eventually you get very very angry and powerful for a short period of time. You can’t control when these moments are unleashed, they just happen when the gauge is full. The below video explains all the combat very well.
Added to all this there is also some exploration to be had in the dungeons, and finding items to bring back to a person in your hub world will reward you with in game buffs, like better armour or weapons. There is a pretty deep RPG element here too. Unlocking new dragon cores gives the player new abilities, but the amount of abilities you can use at once is limited. So it’s useful to know what types of enemies are susceptible to what kinds of attacks, and fit your loadouts accordingly. This level of depth again adds to the tactical side of gameplay and as long as you pay attention to these details, it makes combat a little easier.
Finally, the audio sums up the game perfectly. At times it’s outstanding, others it’s rough and amateurish. The outstanding part comes in the form of the voice acting, background musical scores and opening cinematic. These are excellent. The rough and amateurish comes to the fore when occasionally, there is utter silence during the text reading sections; the dragons’ roars are literally a person going Grrr very loudly, and walking around a dungeon set in a forest, it sounded like the characters were walking on planks of wood?! In short, the game, like its audio, excels in some areas and then in the next breath disappoints.
There is a lot to like about Dragon Star Varnir, but there are some frustrations too. Frustrating in the sense that yet again a Compile Heart game is dogged by a long winded dialogue sections, during which it is not possible to pause to be able to save. It’s also very poor in its dungeon crawling, with severely limited graphics presentation.
However, much like the ugly duckling, if you can see past these two pretty big issues, what lies beneath is actually quite special. You have a great story, that’s well acted and entertaining, based around a dungeon crawling combat experience that is unique, full of tactical depth and with easy to use superb gameplay. All this is mixed around fairly deep RPG elements and dungeon exploring that mean for a new IP, it’s a superb first step.