Hey, gamer! Yes, I’m talking to you! Do you like RPGs? How about strategy? How about dragons? How about jetpacks? How about Mass Effect? How about fantasy? How about World of Warcraft? How about dragons with jetpacks? How about wizards? How about lizards? How about guys with robotic limbs? How about imps? How about Risk? How about videogames? How about technology? How about entertainment? How about being alive on planet Earth? Are you a fan of breathing? Then you’ll love Divinity: Dragon Commander.
I won’t claim that the above was Larian Studios’ actual pitch for their newest role-playing strategy mashup, but it was hard not to feel that way at times while playing it. The concept of a Risk meets Mass Effect hybrid with the ability to actually take control of dragons in aerial combat and command your forces on the ground sounds like any self respecting gamer’s wet dream. In the end, though Dragon Commander is a very fun game, its jack of all trades attitude doesn’t always do it favors in the cohesiveness department. At the same time, it does come impressively close to mastering more than one of said trades, which is certainly impressive and bucks the cliché in question substantially.
The basic premise of Dragon Commander isn’t terribly original – you play as the bastard son of a dishonored king who was once the ruler over a prosperous era of peace, but eventually succumbed to alcoholism and depravity. That’s how the people understand it, anyways. You soon learn that in reality, your father fell from grace over the death of his wife – a dragon and your mother – after she was killed by his former best friend. This is all relayed to you by a forebodingly generic wizard, of course, who almost resembles a hybrid between Gandalf and the God of the Sea himself. There Larian goes with hybrids again.
So how does this whole genre milkshake work exactly? To be fair, Larian did an exceedingly admirable job of breaking down the game into various segments, sections, modicums, and menus so that its vast array of play styles and options are digestible. Essentially, it’s divided up into phases. The strategy phase, conducted while looking at a Risk-like world map, is where the turn-based magic happens.
Oh, I almost forgot an important question to add to the first paragraph! Do you like…card battle!? Dragon Commander has that, too.
In the strategy phase, you can view and employ cards you’ve collected, which will grant various abilities or benefits in current or upcoming turns. Some cards give you access to more or better units, some prevent the enemy from moving, some cause your territories to generate more gold for a limited time – they’re actually very useful. The learning curve in this section is pretty steep, and I found myself pretty much guessing what to do for my first few turns, but as long as you survive at least that long you’ll start to get the hang of it.
The problem with the strategy section isn’t necessarily that it’s not good enough, but instead that the story sections where you interact with the game’s impressively diverse and interesting cast of characters are a whole lot better. Aboard the Raven (your ship thingy) are various generals, diplomats, and others, all with their own stories and agendas. Though early on most of your interactions are just banter, it doesn’t take long to realize that your conversations and choices do matter. What you say to certain people can and will have considerable effects, and the game is even so aware of itself as to include issues like gay marriage or women in the military as things you can indirectly decide on. Moving from area to area and seeing who or what has something new to say is a real treat, and generally I just wanted the strategy bits — though fun in their own right — to step aside. It’s legitimately like putting an Xbox 360 with Mass Effect and a physical Risk board next to each other, and only allowing timed alternating play sessions of each. Sure, I respect and acknowledge Risk as a worthwhile and even enjoyable experience, but what am I going to want to play more?
Of course, there is one gameplay mode I’m glaringly omitting, and that’s the battle phase. You know, the “dragons with jetpacks” mode. Now, I don’t doubt that the developers are tired of hearing that stupid description, and I don’t blame them. Not only that, but this game didn’t even invent dragons with jetpacks. Seriously! Jetpack Brontosaurus for life, bitches.
In short, the dragon sections are incredibly fun at first due to sheer novelty if nothing else, and the thrill of hurtling into battle while your army fights below you and gains a ridiculously unfair advantage is overwhelmingly awesome. This is only enhanced by the bevy of cards you can collect to enhance your dragon abilities. In the strategy phase you collect research points, which can then be spent with the Poseidon-wizard Maxos to obtain more cards. The selection of abilities and options is actually pretty staggering, and choosing between one awesome ability or another can often be a genuinely tough call.
Despite this, though, the game’s do-everything approach soon brought me to another conundrum. To me, the fun part of the game beyond character interaction is controlling your scaly self in battle, and I pretty much wanted to spend all my research points on dragon cards. That said, if I want to have access to more money, more points, and more success in the game in general, I’m better off devoting the points to new technology, units, or other enhancements that will assist me in the strategy phase. As the game progresses and you have more resources it becomes less of an issue, but I found my time staring at a map less interesting than dragon-flight and character interaction almost every time.
Lastly, I do think it’s important to touch on the story a little bit. Though the individual characters and their attached dialogue are, in my view, the game’s crowning achievements, that doesn’t necessarily mean the plot itself is all that compelling. Early on, Maxos prefaces a long bit of exposition with, “This is quite a tale my friend, so bear with me.” I know it seems innocent enough, but to me that should have been a red flag. It was basically the developers jumping out and saying, “Uh yea, just hang in there for the next few minutes while he relays some dull annotations about ‘war since the dawn of time’ and a ‘quest for previous peace,’ it’ll all be over soon.” It would have been much cooler if they had allowed the player to learn things through sleuthing and info-gathering via the generally excellent conversations, or if they’d even left some story details blank entirely and let the player’s mind do extra legwork where appropriate. Not only that, but the idea of an entire kingdom collapsing because of three supposedly wise and powerful men getting into a spat over an irresistible female is somewhat embarrassing to the male gender, due in equal parts to the plot events themselves and the likely fact that it’s the best the game’s undoubtedly male plot designers could come up with. In fact, it kind of embarrasses both genders.
In the end that’s a nitpick, though, and if you factor out some weak plot points and the less than stellar strategy phase, the remaining RPG elements and dragon-fighting are an absolute blast. In fact, I’d play this for the characters and dialogue alone – perhaps point-and-click is in Larian’s future? At any rate, Divinity: Dragon Commander is a solid title that is worth your time. I just wish its creators hadn’t tried to do quite so much.
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which we were provided with.
Divinity: Dragon Commander is a game that tries to do too much, but does an impressive amount of it well. If you enjoy strategy and the slower sections based on that genre don't bother you, then you're in for an absolute treat. If you don't have time to wait around for the good stuff, though, you may be better off with regular old RPGs than with Larian's hybrid.