Divinity: Dragon Commander
There are very few games that let you debate gay marriage with a fundamentalist skeleton and a homophobic dwarf. Welcome to Divinity: Dragon Commander, a turn-based, empire-building, real-time strategy game with role-playing elements, and the most bizarre and colourful sense of humour of any title in recent memory.
Loading up Dragon Commander, you begin to feel a sense of over-familiarity from the first cutscene. You’re the last Dragon Knight, destined to reunite the major races and forge a new empire out of the chaos of war. So far, so familiar, but it’s the fun Dragon Commander has with these tropes that gives it its oddball charm. Few typical RPG’s allow you to marry a skeleton princess with poorly applied lipstick, for example. Or argue with a erudite lizardman in impeccable evening wear, cravat and monocle included. As the ruler of the realms, representatives from the main five races will bring political requests to your attention. The venture capitalist dwarf favours anything that makes him more money, but also prefers traditional values, while the elven diplomat is a pot-smoking hippy liberal. Every decision affects either race relations or the tactical campaign. Introducing conscription might annoy the freedom loving elves, but you’ll get a nice bonus to your manpower resources for a few rounds.
Which will come in useful, because the campaign mode can get very busy. It plays out on a Risk style board, on which you can move your pieces around to launch strikes or defend holdings. Each province can hold only one building type, so micro-management of individual provinces is kept to a minimum, but building and organising your army is a time-consuming business. Maps are huge, which will please fans of grand strategy, but might frustrate those who want a more streamlined affair. Waiting for the various AI skirmishes to finish gets tiresome quickly. Thankfully you can pay your team of generals to take control of battles for you, which saves you from having to fight through every single conflict. Instead you can focus on the more important ones, evening out some of the tougher battles with liberal use of your battle dragon.
Decisions made at every level of the game earn cards which can then be played in order to alter various conditions on the map, by either giving you bonuses or sabotaging the enemy. Different buildings in your provinces add relevant cards to your deck- a gold mine provides a simple boost in cash, while a mage tower will periodically gift you with a new combat skill to use with your dragon. Every now and then a key decision made in the bar of your royal headquarters will gift you with a unique card to play; give the technocratic imps licence to dig up ancient burial grounds in the name of scientific research, for example, and they might allow you to call in a squadron of imp fighter pilots.
Step out of the royal chambers and onto the battlefield, and Dragon Commander isn’t quite so sure-footed. Anyone familiar with real-time strategy conventions will find little to surprise them; there’s the general mix of light and heavy units that counter each other rock-paper-scissors style, as well as a few navy units whose usefulness largely depends on the layout of the map. Tactical combat typically boils down to frantically grabbing the available control points to earn recruits (a strategic resource required to build your armies), and then spamming units to fling Red Dawn-style at your enemy. Most of the ground units, with the honourable exception of the bigger artillery pieces, don’t stand out enough in the midst of combat, and your force quickly becomes an amorphous blob of steam-punk limbs slowly rolling towards the enemy base.
The ability to suddenly become a dragon mid-combat is, as you might imagine, the big draw here. You can blast away at enemy troops with your fire breath or switch to buffing skills to give your troops a much needed edge, although both could stand to be a little more satisfying. Obliterating units is fun, but your offensive attacks don’t seem quite as satisfying to use as they should- your breath weapon functions as a sort of rapid-fire cannon, rather than the roaring vessel of devastation that it should be. Still, the ability to get down and dirty in the midst of a RTS scrap is a welcome one. Even if glueing a jet-pack to a dragon’s backside seems a slightly dubious tactical decision, the resulting boost of speed makes zooming to and fro across the map satisfying. It’s a shame that most fights in Dragon Commander tend to end up as a huge ruck at one single choke-point, as the idea of being able to quickly flip between different combat zones is a good one.
Dragon Commander is a game that takes risks, and they don’t always pay off. There’s perhaps too many gameplay features thrown into the mix, and it suffers from being reasonably good at everything it does, but not spectacular at any of them. For all the fun of zooming around the battlefield as a jetpack wearing dragon, it’s never quite as satisfying to blow things up as it should be. Likewise, the real-time strategy elements feel too functional and simplistic. That said, it’s still an oddly endearing title. Visually it’s lovely, with plenty of colour and invention. Characters are well designed and written, and generally well performed by the voice cast. It’s funny, but in a knowing way that doesn’t force the jokes too hard.
Most of the humour comes from gently mocking over-familiar elements of the fantasy world, like the skeleton barmaid who, in the absence of traditional cleavage has instead opted for two strategically placed pumpkins. A brasher game would make that joke front and centre, but Dragon Commander happily allows it to sit in the background. There’s also a strange pleasure to be had in making major decisions on contemporary political and social issues, and then seeing how this universe’s bizarre collection of characters react to them. If you can look past Divinity: Dragon Commander‘s shortcomings, you’ll find a charming and unique experience.