Divinity: Dragon Commander PC Review

Dragon Commander

An Emperor slain by his own children, a realm devolving into chaos and civil war, imps breeding like rabbits – the only person who can save the fantastical steampunk land of Rivellon is the eponymous dragon commander. This is a collision: between the turn based and real-time strategy you recognise from Total War, with an airborne shooter. It is mad, fun, and entirely original. 

Divinity: Dragon Commander takes slices of Total Annihilation, Risk and even Panzer Dragoon and throws in some political commentary – both on the nose and unexpectedly  astute – elevating the game beyond its initial, slightly silly premise of slapping a jetpack on a dragon. It’s one of the oddest strategy titles to grace our PCs, yet it manages to be robust and compelling, filled with clever surprises.

Onboard the Raven, a flying ship powered by the heart of a demon, the last hope of Rivellon plans his attempt to free the land from the clutches of his evil, monstrous siblings. From that impossible vessel, the whole kingdom is ruled using a simple, unassuming map. Units are purchased, buildings are erected and troops are moved from province to province.

The turn-based phase of Dragon Commander is a little humdrum, honestly. The map is bland, units are poorly defined, and there isn’t a whole lot to do besides buying troops or buildings. Employing cards spices things up from time to time, however. Cards can be generated by different types of buildings, and might allow one to reinforce armies with mercenaries prior to battle or give them handy buffs, while others can be used to sabotage enemy buildings.

When units collide, the war shifts from the macro to the micro; zooming into colourful battlefields covered in bases and mechanical hordes. Combat in Dragon Commander is a fast-paced, streamlined affair. Units pour out of the factories, aerodromes and shipyards, and rush to their targets in an unrelenting stream of metal. Rarely is a map not covered in lines of vehicles and mechanical soldiers marching into the fray.

Buildings have predefined nodes that, when captured, can be constructed on, so there’s little faffing about. Everything in the RTS phase of Dragon Commander is designed to get combatants fighting each other as quickly as possible. And when they do meet, the whole area is engulfed in fire, lasers and explosions. Forests burn, the ground is pockmarked by artillery strikes and smoke pours out of crippled vehicles.

Despite the dramatic nature of these clashes and the balls-to-the-wall pace, there’s no small amount of strategy involved. Each unit comes with its own strengths and weaknesses, from being able to dish out more damage to structures to being incredibly fast but easy to destroy when pinned down. With research – performed back on the Raven between battles – they develop new abilities like cloaking fields, energy shields and self-destruct modes, offering greater flexibility and more things for a commander to worry about.

Not being the type of leader who hides behind the front lines, the commander himself is able to enter the battle in his dragon form, and this is where Dragon Commander briefly becomes a frantic shooter. Dashing around the battlefield, the dragon fires flaming projectiles at the enemy units below, rapidly destroying them before it hurtles off in a blaze of speed to its next unfortunate target. Magical research can augment the dragon, adding new attacks, healing abilities, and boons that can be cast on allies. In this form, buildings cannot be constructed, and control over the rest of the army is restricted to directing units to head to certain places, but at the touch of a button one can quickly leave the dragon mode and get back to being a more hands-on leader.

This powerful ability is balanced by the dragon’s weakness to anti-air units and turrets, and if killed, it can only be revived by spending recruitment points – limiting reinforcements. Yet, even with limitations, the dragon remains the most powerful force in the game, easily capable of turning the tide of a battle. It’s undeniably fun to fly around the conflict zone, spewing flames and slaughtering countless foes, but at times it can make victory feel a little hollow when enemy factions (outside of multiplayer) can’t do the same. The “hard” difficulty neutralises some of these issues, thankfully, requiring more tactical thinking and faster fingers to beat a more aggressive, slyer enemy.

Though it would be pointless to do so, the RTS portion of Dragon Commander can be completely ignored. Just before a battle, a general can be assigned to lead the scrap – it’s basically an auto-resolve feature with some added depth. Generals come with their own unique strengths, and they are further enhanced depending on how you treat them onboard the Raven. Side with them in a dispute or make a positive change, and this is reflected in their ability to fight.

If, during a single turn, there are multiple battles, using a general will be necessary. The dragon commander can only be used once per turn, thus it’s not a great idea to ignore one’s generals or armies. While under player control, a tiny force can eviscerate a vast horde, the same cannot be said for the same force under the command of an AI general.

A second, more subtle war takes place in Dragon Commander: one where hearts and minds must be won rather than territory. The Raven is home to diplomats, generals and eventually the Queen, and interactions with them will lead to significant changes in the war effort. Chatting with these colourful individuals is a delight even were it not to have an impact on the game, for they each come laden with eccentricities, gags and exaggerated personalities enhanced by fantastic voice acting.

This chatty phase of Dragon Commander is best encapsulated by the Royal Council, a group of diplomats representing the fantasy races of Rivellon. Dwarves, undead, lizards, elves and imps all want the attention of the would-be Emperor, and have frequent demands. The political decisions that must be made only have a thin veneer of fantasy, and most actually relate to very modern issues.

The elves, for instance, want gay marriage to be legal, and are supported by the lizards. These two races represent the more liberal face of Rivellon, with the elves being a bit hippy-dippy, while the lizards are strong supporters of a republic and egalitarian ideals. The horrible, ultra-religious undead and the big-business loving capitalist dwarves are completely against such legislation, however. The imps… well they are just crazy.

Choosing to support the proposal of one race inevitably leads to ostracising some of the others, and these bills have a tangible impact on the war, with far-reaching implications like a shift in the economy or troop numbers. Courting these diplomats requires a spot of pragmatism – not unlike real politics. The wealthy dwarves, for example, are worth playing nice with because one always needs cash, but that becomes hard to do when the dwarven ambassador, with his fur scarf and bowler hat, calls homosexuals “queers” and makes a fairy joke about elves. These are believable, often horrible characters, and they go a long way to making the war seem less about statistics, and more about people.

After making such decisions, the salacious rag, The Rivellon Times will usually have a headline about it. It’s almost always negative, and beneath it smaller, sensationalist headlines fill the page along with claims that the publication contains saucy dragon pictures. The Times represents the worst elements of the press – though it’s highly amusing – but it is the number in the top right corner that I found my eye being constantly drawn to: the death toll. It’s not all fun and games.

The substantial single-player campaign is not all that Dragon Commander offers. An online mode contains both skirmish and campaign options for up to four players, showcasing both the turn-based and RTS elements found within the single-player mode. The draw of the multiplayer is not merely the opportunity to face human players, it’s the chance to finally fight with and against other dragons.

Dogfights between scaley titans are exhilarating, especially with enemy units below also joining the fight. Units become more vulnerable thanks to the constant risk of an aerial bombardment, and certain dragon abilities – like the power to heal other dragons – that were completely useless in the original campaign suddenly become incredibly important.

Though the diverse phases of turn-based, real-time and political shenanigans all compete for attention, Larian Studios has managed to tie them altogether into interlocking systems rather than leaving them as intriguing, yet disparate elements. There’s a lack of focus, and the turn-based portion of Dragon Commander could have benefited from a greater level of fleshing out, but the whole experience remains highly entertaining from start to finish. Rather than merely being a silly break from Larian’s action RPGs, this is one of the studio’s strongest titles. And let us not forget, it features dragons with jetpacks, and that’s just wonderful.