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Deep, divergent, delightful

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Dragon Star Varnir
PlayStation 4

DRAGON STAR VARNIR is far from a typical Japanese role-playing game. In fact, it’s anything but run of the mill, eschewing the notion that demand for releases in the genre is fueled by entertaining gameplay and not depth of narrative. For Compile Heart, in particular, it represents a striking departure from the norm; instead of going for yet another Hyperdimension Neptunia offering that would have been gobbled up by a solid base of loyal fans, anyway, the Tokyo-based developer saw fit to churn out an entirely original intellectual property that calls to mind the dark and gruesome undertones of the early works of the Brothers Grimm.

Dragon Star Varnir harks to a time when dragons populate the world of Valneria. Tasked to ensure humanity’s existence, soldiers of the Knights of Requiem, main character Zephy included, mount a defense that likewise compels them to hunt witches. The latter literally and figuratively carry a chilling curse: They’re vessels for the legendary creatures, whose meat they need to feed on to survive, but which also nourishes those in their wombs. Thusly, they face a dilemma that ensures death either way; they go mad if they don’t eat, but perish from the inevitable birthing process if they do.

Duty and self-preservation make Zephy oblivious to the plight of witches — until, that is, he is one day saved by two. An encounter with a dragon in a remote forest has him at death’s door, but Minessa and Karikaro, initially viewing him as trade bait for a friend held hostage by the Knights, save him by having him drink dragon’s blood. The process unleashes the magic within him and turns him into a witch, which means he, too, is forced to move forth with the cross all his former enemies bear. And as he struggles to cope with the imprecation while being a fugitive as well, he finds himself understanding more and more the plight of his adopted kind, and the need to free it of its twisted fate.

Creditably, Dragon Star Varnir unfolds the immersive story with painstaking care. Zephy doesn’t turn into an ally overnight; even as he acknowledges that he owes his life to Minessa and Karikaro, escape is what first fills his mind. Eventually, his distrust gives way to acceptance, and then to willingness. And, in this light, the engaging interface serves to reciprocate the overarching narrative. Among the most prominent is the “madness” feature, which plays into the party’s predicament; the meter is filled not just as an offshoot of outcomes of skirmishes, but even in the way otherwise-ordinary conversations turn. In other words, character growth and relationship building are just as important as victories on the battlefield.

Which is not to say combat has been relegated to the side in Dragon Star Varnir. To the contrary, it’s critical to success, and certainly to appreciating its uniqueness as a JRPG. Fights occur in the air, and over three different heights; the layering allows gamers to plan their turn-based moves in such a way as to indirectly affect other targets across the grids. Meanwhile, the “devour” mechanic introduces a crucial quirk while also enhancing the plot: Enemies low on health can be consumed, with the imbibed “core” then awarding skill unlocks or stat buffs via factor points earned in triumph. Needless to say, the system incentivizes gamers to eat every dragon they encounter in order to level up characters.




Parenthetically, Dragon Star Varnir encourages equipment upgrades. The completion of quests and opening of treasure chests inside dungeons can provide new recipes for elixirs that can be used to summon dragons yielding specific items after battle. Because the materials required to make the preparations need to be sourced from various locations, however, gamers will have to weigh the importance of the articles against the time limit. Thankfully, the more persistent can earn or purchase “catalysts” that increase the chances of possession of the target gear.

Aesthetically, Dragon Star Varnir offers much of the same anime art style present in most other titles published by Idea Factory. Moreover, it boasts of music tracks and voiceovers typical of JRPGs: competent, catchy, and appropriately enveloping, but not quite memorable. That said, it’s representative of Compile Heart’s excellent body of work, not to mention a collectively skillful exhibition of a distinctive storyline. It manages to show the right tonal changes to convey the game’s progression from brooding to resigned to hopeful to jubilant.

In sum, Dragon Star Varnir flourishes as a decidedly idiosyncratic JRPG. For all its dedication to fanservice, it stands out as a refreshing addition to a seemingly saturated category. It’s deep, divergent, and ultimately delightful, making it a bargain at $60.

THE GOOD:

• Engrossing storyline

• Provides a bevy of customization options

• Unique combat mechanics

THE BAD:

• Completionists will run afoul of the time limit

• Uneven challenges

• Look and feel par for the RPG course

RATING: 8.5/10

PostScript: Songbird Symphony is just what its title suggests: a rhythm game involving a bird in search of harmony in life. Specifically, it follows the exploits of Birb as he searches for his real parents after learning that he isn’t really a peacock like the couple that raised him. An owl promises to help him in his quest, but only after he manages to compile music associated with the breeds of birds he meets along the way.

And therein lies the rub; Joysteak Studios’ initial foray in the business is likewise a platformer, with puzzles to solve and tasks to perform and complete via the formation of tunes from learned notes.

Songbird Symphony’s rhythm sections work like countless other games of similar nature, but with extreme variety; notes will come from any which way and exhibit movement with distinct patterns. Moreover, the speed with which they move through the screen can be exceedingly fast — sometimes too fast for comfort. That said, the game is on the forgiving side, and no death will occur; gamers simply need to keep playing until they get the green light to progress. Which, in light of the generous scoring system, figures to come sooner rather than later.

Songbird Symphony is far from perfect. The puzzles increase in complexity over time, and their completion sometimes requires the performance of other tasks that aren’t quite clearly connected. Moreover, character models are liberally recycled, giving off a been-there-and-done-that vibe on occasion. On the whole, though, it manages to separate itself from the dregs with its strong animation, colorful pixel-art visuals, and excellent audio tracks. Clocking in at around five hours all told, it looks to keep gamers occupied for a light afternoon of fun wrapped in a heartwarming story. (8/10)

And finally: The release of Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III has been moved back a month to Oct. 22. Even as a demo of the game will be out soon, NIS America opted to delay the title’s availability “to guarantee as successful a launch window as possible.” The company had earlier drawn flak for what a number of quarters deemed a mediocre localization of Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana, also a Nihon Falcom title.

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