Divinity: Dragon Commander Review
That's a dragon commander, not a commander of dragons
Posted by David Will (Quill) on Aug 17, 2013 - 10:34pm EST (115 days ago)
Here's a fun game to play on long journeys when your handheld of choice runs out of batteries: write down as many game genres as you can think of on a series of flashcards, shuffle them, pick out a handful, and take turns with your travel partner trying to think of the game that your selection resembles the closest. Dystopian stealth FPS RPG? Easy, that'll be Deus Ex. Retro sandbox survival horror? Er, Minecraft? Casual racing adventure simulator? Sounds like an evening with Euro Truck Simulator. If you're good at this (or easily entertained) this can go on for hours, but eventually your friend is bound to exhaust his reserves of patience and grab a fistful of cards in a last-ditch effort to stump you before the plane lands. Fortunately, as he holds up a hand comprising 'political RTS turn-based strategy action RPG flight-simulator' with a gaping grin, you now have the opportunity to momentarily pause, sip your beverage of choice, and exclaim "Ah, Divinity: Dragon Commander!" Then he hits you for being a smart-alec, but at least you were right.
So, Divinity: Dragon Commander, hereafter known as Dragon Commander thanks to my astonishing laziness and allergic aversion to punctuation in titles. It's steampunk o'clock in the stock fantasy land of Rivellon and the old emperor is dead, stabbed in the back by his own children on the account of him not being a very nice person and them being even less likeable. In traditional fashion they end up squabbling over the throne like a group of seagulls over a slice of bread and quickly escalate their conflict into a full-blown civil war. You - the bastard child of the emperor and a dragon in human form, and the only one among his heirs that didn't plant a knife between his ribs - are contacted by the wizard Maxos and burdened with the task of defeating the odious offspring. Along the way you must manage your armies on multiple scales, solve disputes among your generals and meet the demands of the various groups clamouring for your attention. Of course, many games can make claims to being multi-faceted, but they often just end up being clumsy; a mishmash of gameplay styles that should never have crossed paths, whereas Dragon Commander's various modes - from political dialogue to turn-based strategy, from real-time strategy to action RPG - all seamlessly fit together in one solid gameplay cake. But is it the kind of thing you really want to dig into?
Let's take the first bite. You spend your peaceful hours aboard the Raven, a magnificent steampunk airship, the splendour of which is marred slightly by the fact that you only get to see it from the outside once or twice in the whole game, but never mind that. This is where you do the busywork befitting an emperor-to-be, which usually involves visiting the wizard to upgrade yourself and visiting the cheeky imp in the engineering bay to upgrade your units. As the story progresses, you'll be called upon to consult with the representatives of the civilized fantasy races that the Divinity universe encompasses - elves, dwarves, imps, lizards and undead, with you representing humans - and make political decisions after hearing their thoughts. These decisions will curry favour with some representatives and alienate others, with resulting statistical benefits, but don't worry too much about balancing it: I regularly ticked off the ultra-conservative undead representative and as far as I can tell it never actually became a real problem. If I were to have one complaint about this system - and I do, thank you very much - it's the way so many of the decisions are so inexpertly ripped from current events. Family planning, freedom of the press, euthanasia, even medical marijuana gets a mention, the result being that during these segments Dragon Commander feels less like the distant past in a fantasy and more like a modern day setting where everybody is wearing extremely convincing masks.
One aspect of life aboard the Raven that does feel like it belongs in the distant past is the eventual selection of your queen. Functionally she's essentially a provider of extra abilities on the battlefield from time to time, as well as the source of extra dialogue which can affect your aforementioned favour with the various representatives, but there's something slightly unsettling about the way you have to pick your wife from a pool of four - lizard, undead, dwarf or elf - based on a paltry few lines said beforehand. In a game where the characters are mostly fleshed-out and properly introduced before you have to make any decisions regarding them, being put on the spot all of a sudden feels like a strange change of tack. Perhaps that's the idea. For the record, I ended up with the lizard princess, basing my choice on the fact that she was the only one among them that outwardly recognized how abhorrent an arranged political marriage was. She wasn't all that flirtatious, but somehow I don't think I was missing out on much.
We didn't come here to dally with princesses though, did we? No sire, we are at war! Dragon Commander loves its warfare so much that it isn't happy with just being a real-time or turn-based strategy title: it instead opts to delicately glue the two modes together, with interesting results. The overworld map takes the form of a sort of pseudo-board game, wherein you can manufacture armies and move them around Rivellon on a turn-by-turn basis. Conquering areas grants you more gold, recruits and upgrade points per turn, as well as the occasional extra structure with special attributes, so the game quickly becomes a confused rush to grab land and hold it. When two or more opposing factions occupy the same area, Dragon Commander flips a switch and goes into RTS mode, turning the armies currently loitering on the region into units that can be manipulated from the battle's beginning (although you can create structures and manufacture units during the battle, which you will need to do if they go on for too long). Combining the instant introduction of a truckload of units with relatively small map sizes, the RTS sections are typically fast and brutal, but as a result feel like the shallowest part of the game, becoming not much more than an excuse to mash your hordes of assorted units together and see who comes out on top. There's little else to do, really, what with the upgrade paths being shifted over to permanent RPG elements and the lack of anything resembling an economy system. I have the micro-management skills of a panda wearing oven gloves, so my preferred strategy is to select everything I have and attack-move my way over to the enemy base, and was amazed to find just how often this worked out in my favour, even when partially outnumbered.