Divinity: Dragon Commander Review
With almost a month passed since the release of Divinity: Original Sin, it’s time we wound the clock back on Larian Studios’s fantasy series, about a year will do, and check out Divinity: Dragon Commander. Off the top of my head, it’s difficult to think of a series that mixes up the gameplay formula as drastically as Divinity, unless someone wants to bring up Syndicate. Starting off with top-down RPG Divine Divinity, Larian Studios ticks off third-person RPG with Divinity II, before moving onto the RTS/Civilization-lite Divinity: Dragon Commander. It’s not the best in the series, but it’s certainly got a lot to talk about.
Following the death of the emperor, an empire-spanning squabble over who’s next in the chair begins. From the lowly position of bastard-born child, the player has all bets placed on them for peace to prevail, because, hey, who wouldn’t bet on a leader that can breath fire? Yes, that’s where the ‘Dragon Commander’ part of the title comes from, throwing fantasy dogfighting into an already overflowing pot of mechanics. As the Dragon Commander and would-be emperor, the game tasks you with returning the world to the peace it knew before the war, by way of violently disposing of the opposition. Better put on our strategy caps.
Divinity: Dragon Commander has a lot going on, and to its credit manages to keep its mechanics largely accessible and relevant. Much like Civilization, the overworld operates on a turn-based system, which in itself has two parts. Most familiar will be the war map, which could be mistaken for a Risk board at a quick glance. Here, units can be bought and moved around, buildings can be built, and cards, which provide a wide range of benefits, can be played. Each territory offers different benefits, such as high gold or science benefits, and in a nice touch is occupied by a certain race. If you have a good relationship with the elves for example, you have an increased pool of resources when you fight in a territory they occupy. Unfortunately, the movement around the map isn’t perfect, in that the person who moves second has a distinct advantage, as combat occurs immediately after the second person has moved. Say the first person moves a large portion of units into enemy territory; the second player can see this and direct all their units in the area to defend it, removing any possibility for strategic manoeuvring or surprise attacks. Get used to relying on overwhelming force rather than catching the opponent off guard.
Partnered with the war map is the commander’s ship, where Divinity: Dragon Commander really shines. Split into a variety of rooms, including engineering bay, the bar and royal chambers, the ship is polished to a mirror shine. Accumulating research from the war map, new units, upgrades and dragon abilities can unlocked in tech trees separated into science and dragon skills. There are generals to be found in the bar (complete with busty skeleton barmaid with fruit for breasts), advisors in the throne room, and princess in the personal quarters, all of which have something to say. During conversation, expect to have to make choices that have lasting effects. Do women deserve as much pay as men? Of course, but the money to pay them comes out of your wallet, so if you’re tight for money you might have to turn them down. It’s refreshing to play a game where choices don’t boil down to cartoonish representations of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, but shades of grey where each side of the argument has its merits. Overall, the ship is a joy to look around, thanks to small visual touches and excellent dialogue.
Finally to the meat and veg of the game, combat! Sadly, compared to the the other parts of Divinity: Dragon Commander, combat feels lacking. To win, one person must reduce the other’s resources to 0, capturing bases, upon which buildings can be constructed, as they go. Units placed on the war map contribute to the army on the battlefield, so a reliable tactic is to rush these units from the starting position to grab as many bases as possible, allowing for faster resource generation and unit production. Fail to do so, and it’s very likely the opponent will, forcing the player to play defensively as the opponent accumulates resources and builds units faster and faster. If the balance swings one way or another, it’s very difficult to tip the scales back. Worst of all are the maps with three bases, one controlled by each person and one up for grabs, around which the opening minute of fighting takes place. Imagine if one player fields fewer troops and so starts at a disadvantage, if only a slight one. They lose the opening fight for the middle, and inevitably, because one player has two bases against the other player’s one, the entire match. As a result, the game again falls into the trap of overwhelming force being the only viable tactic. At least you can transform into a dragon, right? Becoming a dragon should feel like the ultimate trump card that can tip any battle, but in practice feels a little underpowered. The player must wait an agonising two minutes at the beginning of each battle to become a dragon, and when finally playing as one it’s hard not to feel a bit useless, with fireballs barely making a dent in the enemy ranks before being torn to shreds in seconds by enemy fire. Being able to win any battle by just becoming a dragon would be silly of course, but making an impact would have been nice.
It pains me to speak critically about Divinity: Dragon Commander, because I so badly wanted to love it. The ideas behind it are superb, and for the most part they are executed well. It’s a shame the outcome of battle feels determined before the fight has even begun, whilst the matches move so fast that directing units to exploit another unit’s weakness is almost impossible. There’s a lot to love here, but it’s countered by a generous helping of frustration.