I don’t think any developer or publisher out there churns out the number of quality JRPGs that the folks at Idea Factory and Compile Heart do at such an alarming rate. Though mostly known on the outside for their hilariously endearing Neptunia series, Idea Factory has graced the PS4 with some excellent stand-alone RPGs over the last few years — Death End Re;Quest, Fairy Fencer F: Advent Dark Force, and Dark Rose Valkyrie, to name a few.
While Idea Factory’s games may not be as robust as something like a Trails of Cold Steel or Persona 5, they always come through where it counts. I’m here for the story and the characters that reside within it, and alongside an incredibly vivid art style, a wonderful soundtrack, and a neat take on turn-based combat, Dragon Star Varnir (predictably) delivers the goods.
Earlier this year, the same team released one of my favorite releases of 2019, Death End Re;Quest, which was a hybrid visual novel/JRPG that successfully juggled two storylines that took place inside and out of an augmented reality MMO game. The storytelling and cast were top-notch, along with the character illustrations and deeply disturbing tale of people missing in the real world being trapped inside of a video game. But while I was fully immersed in the story, the actual RPG elements weren’t equally enjoyable (aside from having a rad combat system). I reviewed the game at length, so if you’d like more information on DERQ then click the link above!
And honestly, I feel mostly the same about Dragon Star Varnir. Like I said, Death End has been one of my favorite games of the year so far, so that’s not exactly a bad thing.
As the story goes, in the world of Varneria there reside humans, witches, and dragons. The humans believe that the witches and dragons are in cahoots to bring about chaos, so the Knights of Requiem was formed solely to erase them from existence.
You play as Zephy, a young member of the Knights who has just found himself on the receiving end of a dragon’s fang and on the brink of death. That is until two cute witches intervene and feed you the dragon’s blood because of course, it has healing properties. And, also, of course, said blood turns Zephy into the only male witch in the entire universe. Whoops.
As the story plays out, young Zephy struggles to accept his new powers and his new home amongst a coven of equally adorable witch girls, while also being hunted by the very Knights he once served. Since RPG stories are never that simple, Dragon Star Varnir spends a lot of its time drip-feeding the truth of Zephy’s past, the world’s fate, and the depressing burden carried by the witches, which never failed to keep me engaged until the credits rolled.
There’s already plenty of text to chew on throughout the game’s 25-hour runtime, but additional (substantial) cutscenes unlock if you’d like to spend time farming items that raise each witch’s affinity rank. Most of them are unlikeable from the jump, but their level of growth is admirable and one of the most enjoyable aspects of the story. That being said, hunting down those affinity items is kind of a snooze and you can always just buy them from the curio shop instead of spending your gold on new weapons and armor.
While the story was the high point for me, there are some neat systems at play that deepen the RPG experience. There’s a unique multi-tiered, mid-air combat mechanic, a “devour” command that absorbs dragon souls and opens up new abilities, and a behind-the-scenes timer that prevents you from spending too much time grinding or completing side-quests. The latter isn’t as bad as it seems but affects the story and endings significantly. More on that later, though.
The combat system takes place entirely in mid-air. You’re all witches, after all, so flying only makes sense! Your three-person party can switch between high, middle, and low positions during their turns, with the same being said for the opposing enemies. You have access to certain abilities that can knock enemies up or down, which can be combined with “trap” spells that deal ample damage to anyone unlucky enough to get bashed into them. This adds a (no pun intended) layer of strategy to the combat system during routine trash battles, but boss encounters are a different story altogether.
The word “dragon” is literally in the name, so it’s to be expected that Varneria’s big bad evils are hulking monstrosities that take up two or three layers on their own. Targeting their head always depletes their central health pool, but you can always destroy their body parts on the middle and (sometimes) bottom tiers to take away from their devastating move-sets. Dragon Star Varnir has a bit of a balancing problem and many of the boss encounters can totally wipe you out in a single turn on the default setting, so it’s always a wise decision to focus on the head last.
For instance, one boss may use its tail for a big healing spell or a tail whip that dishes out punishment to the entire party, but it’ll be unable to use it for the rest of the battle if you take it down first. Targeting a body part tells you exactly which spells will be removed from a dragon’s repertoire if it’s vanquished, and their ability names are fairly clear on which spell does what.
Another key aspect of battle is the use of the team’s “devour” command. Each dragon has a unique soul that can be obtained, which holds passive stat boosts and unlocks new spells and abilities (both melee and magical). The lower an enemy’s health percentage, the more likely your devour attack is to connect and finish them off. And while boss cores are shared between every playable character, routine encounter cores are solely given to whoever landed the attack. This leads to a bit of farming if you want every character to access every core in the game, which was basically me for the first 10 hours, but I eventually stopped focusing on it too much because I just didn’t find myself using everyone available.
You can pick your primary three fighters while pairing the other three with them in a supporting role. This gives them a chance to shield their partner from damage or follow up with an attack of their own, and new support abilities are also unlocked through the aforementioned devour system. So even if I wasn’t using one of the witches very often, I still found it valuable to grab a few dragon cores for them that I knew unlocked new support boosts. Again, the bosses in this game can absolutely crush you in a single turn so any help was most welcome.
Another neat mechanic is the ability to craft elixirs back at the coven that can be used to enter appropriately leveled battles for new weapons and armor. You can find upgrades out in the dungeons, but they’re never as good as the ones you can get from elixir battles. You can even learn new recipes that allow you to repeat boss battles for even better stuff. Of course, if you just want to blaze through the combat, there’s free DLC equipment that won’t be surpassed until the final dungeon.
As a whole, the combat system is a really neat take on the turn-based formula we’re all used to by now. The original Dragon Quest released way back in 1986 so innovation is always a cool thing to see in the genre. However, while the game is vastly enhanced by Idea Factory’s criminally underrated character designers, the dungeons are all super weak from a visual standpoint and have a weird haze to them that’s always jarring to jump back into after viewing storyboard cutscenes that are absolutely bursting with color. I’m not a graphics snob, but these things are worth mentioning, I suppose.
The final mechanic I wanted to talk about is the “madness” system. Narratively, witches all carry baby dragons in their womb and must eat dragon flesh to keep them at bay. Nothing lasts forever
even cold November rain so every witch eventually succumbs to “madness” and becomes a mindless dragon themselves.
There’s a central madness meter that rises with each party wipe or poor dialogue choice, and the higher the meter the more likely you are to experience an alternate story that’s obviously going to head in a crazier direction. Long story short: keep the dragon in the womb and don’t let it eat its way out.
Going a little deeper, there’s a trio of little sister witches back at the coven who also need to have their madness levels kept in check by visiting them and feeding them dragon meat (dropped by enemies or purchased at the curio shop). Letting them slip into madness kills them off and turns them into uber-powerful boss dragons in future dungeons.
Basically, there’s a lot of neat stuff going on within the game and I thought the story was wonderfully done, giving a purpose to going the extra mile and unlocking new cutscenes. Idea Factory JRPGs are notorious for making their various endings a pain in the ass to unlock, but Dragon Star Varnir is very straight-forward as long as you pay attention to the madness meter and raise your affinity with the witches.
Honestly, balancing issues during boss encounters aside, my only gripe is how drab the in-game environments and character models look when held next to the vibrant illustrations that accompany the cutscenes. I had the same complaint with Death End Re;Quest a few months ago, which was less noticeable because it’s mostly a visual novel. Dragon Star Varnir is a full-on JRPG where a lot of time is spent in dungeons, devouring dragon cores, and fighting bosses.
For example, you’ll often go from the vibrancy of this…
…and back to this.
See what I mean?
In the end, this is another in a long list of Idea Factory games that I found myself enjoying. If you’re a fan of their catalog, as well as dragons, cute anime witch girls, and turn-based combat, then this is a worthy addition to your undoubtedly horrendous backlog. It doesn’t require a lot of your time, which is uncommon when it comes to fitting a JRPG into a busy schedule, and it packs a lot of story into its 25-ish hour presentation.
I just hope their future games put a little more oomph into the in-game presentation. The important bits are all there, but a bit more polish in the environments can go a long way in adding to the experience. The icing on the cake is always good, right?
I’m of the belief that review scores are an antiquated, dumb idea and choose to do without them here at Cheap Boss Attack. Hopefully, you found the above review helpful enough to aid you in your decision on whether to purchase the game or not.
Thank you to Idea Factory for providing me with a digital press key that was used for the purpose of this review. Whether or not I pay for a game doesn’t impact my opinion, but these things are always worth clarifying.