I’ll be honest, if I hear that an RPG game contains witches – pre-packaged genre characters predisposed to act a certain way in repetitive 100-hour long games – I exit stage left and run as far as my legs will take me. While Dragon Star Varnir does contain witches it’s neither tedious nor stereotypical, with its relatively short story-driven narrative focusing on close family ties and immense tragedy to conjure up empathy for its distinct cackle-free characters.
Our witches, reviled and hunted, live with a curse that forces them to ‘birth’ dragons – which terrorize the world – and die in the process. Ironically, they eat dragon meat to survive but if they consume too much, the dragon in their stomachs gets overexcited and bursts out sooner than they’d like. Eat too little and they lose their sanity. Not the most pleasant existence for our supporting cast.
You play as Zephy, a brave knight who belongs to a group whose sole aim is to eradicate every single witch, only for him to be rescued by some and taken in. Told in a visual novel style, the fantasy-based narrative attempts to follow a logical arc as a whole but resets its boundaries too often to keep up, creating inconsistencies throughout. In short, get out your back scratcher you’ll be needing it for your head.
Perhaps due to its length, this title opts to omit the vast amount of lore most fantasy RPGs include and plays more like an episodic TV drama with broomsticks. There’s a lot that happens during the game’s 15-hour main story and despite it not allowing for much depth amongst its endearing characters, their relationships give the game life and their circumstances pull at your heartstrings.
The biggest offender is a slightly sadistic system for three adorable witches which provides you with a moral quandary – do you save the children affected by the curse or eke out their life for items? Normally, this is a no-brainer; you’d save them – why would you not? Just look at them! Working out how much food keeps them sane while also preventing them from turning into a dragon is a challenge and will make you think you’re responsible for their deaths numerous times. Each progression in the story worsens their condition and it’s heart-wrenching hearing their complaints. Full disclosure – at no point was I ever unaware that I’m a grown man looking at a menu screen, but killing them all to see what would happen is so affecting that I couldn’t do it myself, I had to watch someone else do it on YouTube. Killing the characters as well as choosing certain option-based conversation choices also increases a ‘maddening rating’ that changes how the story develops and ends.
You also have the ability to interact with the 5 older witches through an affinity system that provides a story cutscene with each filled notch. Giving them gifts to improve your affinity acts as a relationship simulator while also adding character depth lacking from the main story.
Keeping the game compact is the fact that there aren’t any open maps to explore other than dungeon-crawling sections, with all story and RPG customization restricted to text and menus. As someone who loves nothing more than to explore an Open-World, I was surprised by how well this addition by subtraction approach works as the visual novel section paints a picture well enough to make an explorable 3D world redundant and the streamlined gameplay systems keep repetition to a minimum.
The battles largely function like many others in the genre and are enjoyable enough with nicely animated scenes for transformations and special moves. One interesting inclusion is the ability to eat the dragons you face in battle, which allows that specific character to absorb the dragon’s powers and is quite the addictive customization option for your favorite characters. Another difference to other standard RPG battle systems is the division of the battlefield into three layers – lower, middle and upper, which is most effective during boss fights with 3 layers of the enemy that must be defeated, removing abilities with each defeated layer.
The dungeons are small and the design of them could have been lifted from any RPG, but you can fly around on your broomstick or use your sword like a hoverboard, which needless to say, is awesome. This is especially true when you’re able to escape the enemy by squeezing through a tiny gap and is now how I wish every RPG game dungeon could be traversed.
After completing the game you are given access to extra story content and another dungeon as well as New Game+ which gives you the chance to attempt another of the 3 main and 5 character-specific endings, so there is a lot of replay value for those invested in the story and characters.
Escaping no one’s notice at this point, I’m sure, is the fact that this game is full to the brim of fan service. I’m not sure why the game feels the need to pour it on so thick especially when considering the quality of the product and how unnecessary it seems based on the game’s tone overall.
Dragon Star Vanir takes on the goliaths of the genre showing that a shorter more impactful punch is just as effective as a 100-hour behemoth, providing an experience both memorable and enjoyable with an adjustable story and addictive systems. While the inconsistency of certain plot points acts as a minor annoyance, the game’s biggest self-inflicting wound is not with the gameplay itself, but rather the game’s presentation handicapping its mainstream sales for potential sequels.