Following up on the release of Death end re;Quest, Idea Factory brings us yet another Compile Heart JRPG to PC. This time we get to play as a party of witches with dragons nesting inside of them, just waiting to break out. This leads to some interesting changes to the combat system and a story that’s actually somewhat decent for the studio. However, it does come with many of the same problems plaguing other Compile Heart games.
Great character designs. If there’s one thing that Compile Heart can consistently do really well, it would have to be their character designs. Dragon Star Varnir is no exception, offering up plenty of colorful and detailed character designs that seem to be at that crossroads between Neptunia and Death end re;Quest. They look great in-game, in CGs, and during dialogue scenes, where they’re even animated a bit to give them some life. They also perfectly fit the setting and the type of story being told. These characters are all witches that have dragons living inside of them, and I feel that the character designs did a good job capturing that aesthetic.
Cool combat system. And as usual with Compile Heart games, my favorite thing about Dragon Star Varnir ended up being its combat. This time, they’ve changed up the turn-based formula to include multiple battle levels. Because your characters are witches — and can therefore fly — battles are divided up into three layers, with enemies distributed amongst the three. Attacks can either target individual enemies, enemies in a grid pattern (like 2×2, 3×3, or even a cross pattern), enemies in rows and columns, and in vertical columns as well.
Of course, your position also plays a role. Magic attacks can be conducted from any layer, but if you want to land a physical attack, you have to be on the same layer as the enemy you’re targeting. On top of that, there are also formation bonuses that you can set before battle. I mostly stuck with the default bonus, which gave my party a boost in stats if they stuck to the center layer. There’s a lot of flexibility here, in both how you attack and how your party is laid out.
However, that’s not all that they changed. One of my favorite features was the devour system. This system works by giving each of your party members a chance to devour an enemy. Devour attacks are separate from physical and magic attacks and work based on a percent chance: the lower HP the enemy, the higher the chance of successfully devouring it. Successfully devouring an enemy grants that party member the enemy’s core, which can then be used to unlock special skills and passive abilities. It’s a very cool mechanic and adds a sense of risk/reward to each battle. That, combined with the battle layers system, makes for some pretty fun combat.
Enjoyable storyline. For those not aware, Compile Heart games typically play as hybrid JRPGs. Half of the game is exploring, battling, and customizing your party and the other half is reading through dialogue, viewing cutscenes, and watching the story develop. Generally, their stories are not all that good, but I found the opposite to be true here with Dragon Star Varnir. Sure, it’s not the most well-written story (which I’ll get into later), but it’s definitely better than what they usually put out.
The premise is actually interesting, characters have understandable motives that don’t feel artificial, and the story actually makes some sense and develops in a reasonable manner. I know, surprising given the studio behind the game, but their last game, Death end re;Quest, also had a fairly enjoyable story, so they’ve definitely been improving in this department.
Decent PC port. As with recent Compile Heart PC ports, Dragon Star Varnir is a pretty decent port. I played through the entire game without ever running into frame drops, stuttering, or crashes. As usual though, it’s very light on actual graphics settings, only including toggles for post-processing effects, shadows, and display distance. There’s also the window and resolution settings, the latter of which even includes options for 1440p and 4K native.
As for controls, the game does play best with a controller (which is what I used), but does offer completely rebindable keyboard controls for those that want to go that route. The mouse has some use in-game (like allowing camera movement and switching positions when in battle), but does not appear to be rebindable, so that’s something to keep in mind if you’re not going to use a controller. Although that aspect could use some work, I was pretty satisfied with the overall port. It’s nothing special, but it does its job without any hiccups.
Boring level design. Yet again I am playing another Compile Heart game with lazy and boring level design. At this point, it’s pretty much a trademark. Dragon Star Varnir is full of simple layouts, little texture variety, and plenty of copy-pasted areas. In fact, some later areas in the game are really just reskins of earlier levels. The game’s temples, for example, are copy-pasted a few times, usually with additional rooms and/or floors, but still with the same overall design. It was like they took the assets for these levels and just slapped them into some basic level creator, drawing more hallways and placing rooms and such.
And of course, it wouldn’t be a Compile Heart game without the heavy use of invisible walls, preventing you from moving into areas that look like they can be explored. The game has a set path that it wants you to follow and there’s no straying from it, not even a little. I’ll give them some credit for actually making the jump ability a bit more useful this time around, but it’s still nowhere near the level of quality that we get in other JRPGs. Really, the overall level design is just incredibly lazy and really brings down the fun in exploring.
Recycled game assets. Continuing with the trend of being lazy, Dragon Star Varnir also recycles a ton of game assets from previous Compile Heart titles. If you’ve ever played a Compile Heart game like Death end re;Quest, Omega Quintet, or Dark Rose Valkyrie, you’ll run into many of the same enemies that you saw in those games, usually with just a color or texture change. On top of that, Dragon Star Varnir makes use of some of the same textures and even level layouts present in those games. For those that haven’t played those games (and maybe even for some that have), this may not even be an issue, but there comes a point when we should be expecting at least some effort here from Compile Heart and I’m sure we are already well past that point.
Fluctuating writing quality. So, while the story may be good at times, it unfortunately suffers from some fluctuating writing quality. At times, the writing is very well-paced, doesn’t fluff anything up, and is actually quite entertaining, but at others, it just falls flat and loses its pacing. This is most notable later in the game, where, in traditional Compile Heart fashion, the story becomes too ambitious for its own good. Plot twists are shot out all over the place, important character moments are rushed, and the story just ends up feeling contrived. Fortunately, it’s still enjoyable as a whole, but I’m still waiting for the day that Compile Heart can deliver some consistent writing.
Lackluster English dub. So, here’s the thing. Dragon Star Varnir actually has a decent English dub, pretty much on par with previous Compile Heart games. However, it is nowhere near the “full audio” that it is being advertised as. That is because the game likes to turn on and off its English dubbing. Some scenes may be dubbed, but the vast majority are not, leaving you with a silent cast. In fact, I would say that only about 15% of the game’s dialogue is actually dubbed in English. Considering that the visual novel portions of the game make up about half of the time you’ll be spending with it, this is definitely disappointing for those that enjoy English dubs.
What makes it worse is that the game appears to be fully voiced in Japanese, at least from the few times I checked for scenes that weren’t voiced in English. They either didn’t have the time to do a full dub or simply wanted to cut costs somewhere. Whatever the case, the game being listed as “full audio” in English is rather deceptive.
Dragon Star Varnir, although suffering from some of the same problems as other Compile Heart titles, offers up a fun enough experience to be worth the recommendation. The combat system is an interesting twist on the usual formula, the story is actually somewhat decent given the studio (even if it does run into problems later), and the PC port is pretty good too.
However, you will have to deal with the same recycled assets from previous Compile Heart games, some really boring level design, and an English dub that’s hardly even there. Regardless, I did enjoy my time with the game and do recommend it for those into these kinds of JRPGs.
You can buy Dragon Star Varnir on Steam here.
I was provided a review copy of the game in order to write this review. Read more about how I do my game reviews here.