Compile Heart and Idea Factory made their name with entry after entry into their acclaimed Hyperdimension Neptunia RPG series. What started off as a quirky PS3 game about humanoid versions of real life video game consoles eventually snowballed into a massive multi-media franchise, but with all the spin-off titles and phone games and anime adaptations, the Hyperdimension Neptunia series is starting to look a little long in the tooth. As Neptunia begins to either wind down or shift into third gear, the JRPG power couple of Compile Heart and Idea Factory have been putting out a slew of brand new IPs with fresh faces and interesting ideas, looking to find their next big thing. Dragon Star Varnir is the latest of these experiments, but unfortunately, it isn’t a sweeping success.
The story setup for Dragon Star Varnir is pretty original and a noticeable shade grimmer than the kind of stuff you’d expect from a Neptunia game or any of their other bright and cheery RPGs – Compile Heart and Idea Factory certainly aren’t starving for new ideas. This game takes place in a high fantasy world where mankind persecutes all witches out of fear and self-preservation. Though some witches have done great harm to society, many of them are innocent young women facing their own plight; every witch is born with a dragon in their stomach. As a witch, your choice is to either starve the dragon within you until you go mad, or feed it to keep it at bay until, one day, it explodes from your body fully grown and ends your own life.
Caught in-between the war between witches and humans is a dutiful young knight named Zephy. He’s loyal to the crown and swears to obliterate every witch, but when he’s at death’s door and a couple of witches decide to nurse him back to life by feeding him dragons blood, he ends up becoming the first of his kind – a male witch. Stuck halfway between humanity and witchdom, Zephy is forced to join the witches who saved him and help them fight against the ruthless Empire that he once called home.
The narrative of Dragon Star Varnir presents some really interesting ideas, especially in these opening hours. I especially appreciated the way your party reluctantly comes together, with nobody really trusting each other to start with. Unfortunately, the engaging story is brought down by a needlessly punishing Madness system that can significantly impact the outcome of your game. Picking bad dialogue choices, losing fights and even simply encountering enemies bumps up the madness meter for your characters. Additionally, you’ll need to make sure you regularly feed a crew of minor witches to keep their dragons at bay. I appreciate the way the Madness system plays into the story, but in practice it’s just an inconvenience.
Another area that Dragon Star Varnir does something a bit different is in its combat system. Battles take place in traditional turn-based fashion, but instead of being on a single field together, characters and enemies move up and down a three tiered battle space. Your melee attacks only work on your current tier, but special abilities and magic can hit multiple tiers at once. It’s an interesting way to shake up traditional JRPG combat, but it ultimately just comes across as a gimmick more than anything else. Everything I did in battle could have easily been done in a regular combat field, plus the lengths they go for it to make sense in the narrative why certain enemies can fly up and down these tiers is a little awkward.
The Devour mechanic, though, is much more successful and interesting. Every character in your party can use Devour to try and consume one of the enemies on the field. The lower the health of the enemy, the higher the chance of successfully devouring them. Doing so gives you a dragon core that you can use to unlock brand new skill trees for the character. Like capturing a Pokémon, it rewards you for getting your enemy as close to death as possible without actually defeating them. It’s a fun way to finish fights in style, while also adding new abilities to your characters’ toolkits.
Compile Heart games are usually known for their strong aesthetic, but Dragon Star Varnir just barely crosses the finish line in that aspect. While character portraits are sharp and detailed, the designs of each character are pretty standard JRPG business. Only a few secondary characters have truly unique and interesting outfits that add a unique flair to the style of the game. That style is matched by some thrilling and haunting music, but also betrayed by very basic 3D models. Characters in combat look kind of rough, and enemy designs very rarely stood out to me. Compile Heart gave themselves a big challenge by making a game all about fighting dragons, but unfortunately, they failed to make the dragons look truly unique or memorable.