Developer: Larian Studios
Publisher: Larian Studios
Rating: 12 (PEGI) / NR (ESRB)
Logic dictates that Divinity: Dragon Commander shouldn’t exist. Long gone are the days where large-scale games are made ‘because it sounds fun’, the general impression being that we live in the age of tried-by-numbers fare where a surprise is a gun that shoots twice as fast. Larian Studios seem to be the mad scientists of video games, creating a mad-cap experiment where they glue the femur of a Lima to the skull of a Bull. Does this mixture of Dragons, jet-packs, politics and factionalism, all taking place during the backdrop of a world war work? Here’s what I think.
Yes, it does work. That’s it, that’s the review. You want to know more? Ok, more words.
Divinity: Dragon Commander holds something new around each and every turn. The something new could be smart, fun or funny. Generally it’ll be a mixture of two or even all three. To say that it’s surprising is a huge understatement as so many other attempts have managed to fall at every hurdle. This, being a dragon with a jetpack, soars above the hurdles and burns them away for good measure.
You are you, you are a bastard. That is actually your pet name to start with, given to you by one of your generals who looks like a burly Kane from Command & Conquer. I love that guy, he’s a complete and utter chauvinist pig at first impression. All four of your generals have strong personalities that will either be annoying or endearing and each of them will adapt and change over time, either opening up or closing off depending on your actions or what advice you give them.
Why are you in charge? Dragon Commander takes place in the world of Rivellon, the world of all the Divinity franchise, but long before the RPGs. You’re the son of the late king and a dragon who took the guise of a female. After your mothers death he lost the will to live, became a terrible ruler and eventually got killed by his other children. They’ve gone their own way now, divided up and are at war. Maxos, a wizard, has decided that you are the one to reunite the world, you are the Dragon Knight.
Of course, being an illegitimate heir to the king, people are going to be skeptical about you, you’ll have to prove that you are one to be followed and not like your father. As such you start on a smaller scale in one region, taking on the weaker of siblings. After a few wins you’ll get four generals who join your cause. Not long later the representatives of the five civilised races will join your giant flying ship, The Raven, in which you run your empire from. The five will bring many things to your attention and as ruler, you are expected to deliberate and make a final decision on them all.
Issues brought forward by the advisers are probably the most memorable things you’ll take away with you. Will you allow censorship of the press and ban the theory of evolution by a Dwarven Darwin? Will you support gay marriage? How about removing the right to defend your own property by prosecuting anybody who kills a trespasser like here in the UK. What Larian manage to do here is bring forward contemporary issues in an intelligent and funny way without making them seem forced.
The way this is enhanced in both a comical and also realistic fashion is through the use of stereotypes as the advisers: The Undead are the religious fundamentalists. Elves are the nature loving liberals. Dwarves are the capitalists. The Lizards are the libertarians and the Imps are for science above all else. Of course they are taken to an extreme but it makes it no less linkable to the world we live in today.
One particularly stand-out moment for me was a call on family planning, particularly aimed against the imps, restricting a family to six members (four children?). Not a particularly low number but the lizards and undead were adamantly in favor of it, claiming imps were pests. I opposed it and the Imp was of course happy, proclaiming that a Imp family isn’t complete until sprog number 23 comes along. It made me chuckle to simply read the extravagance.
These decisions are more than just a bit of social commentary, having an impact throughout all of your campaign. The initial impact is felt through a races affinity to you. The more they like you, the more of an advantage you gain from local support when attacking or defending a particular area. Other noticeable factors include a boost or reduction to the populous’ workrate, happiness and more. Also, the amount of research and gold gained is altered respectively based on decisions that either restrict or expand industry or science. Finally, if you oppose a race too much they may even drop their support completely.
As well as the favor, gold and research impact, certain decisions give you cards. The interactions and advice given to your generals and later your wife – of which you get to choose from either the Undead, Dwarven, Elven or Lizard courtiers – each offer cards that relate to the advice you give them. Setting them on a path of violence will result in cards that offer you a boost to a unit, a path of peace could give a diplomatic card or garnering support of a particular group may give a mercenary card.
The cards are used in what can simply be described as part two of your turn, part one being the ship where politics, chatting and research is done. The research is either with Grumio, an Imp in charge of your technology who can improve units abilities or unlock new ones, or Maxos, who will help you unlock more abilities for your Dragon form.
Part two is more akin to a board game. The map is an exquisitely designed representation of Rivellon, set in the middle of the bridge of your ship. Quite a lot of detail is thrown in at one go, showing the population of each area, the gold and research generated and also the race that is prevalent. Other details like trees and mountains are finely drawn to indicate the terrain, as well as great small touches like the image of a Kraken in the ocean tiles for show.
Linking further to the board game feel are representations of your units as small wooden figures. Your initial units are all built in this mode and moved along, having set movement points and rules they must follow. Fighters and ships, for example, can attack areas but never capture them from the enemy. Occupying ground troops are needed for that. As well as the units, certain facilities can be built and are also represented in equally great wooden figures.
Facilities range from War Factories, allowing you to build units in that area, to gold mines and research centers that improve the respective output of the region. Other facilities like the Tavern, Wizard’s Tower and Parliament offer you a new card from their set area. Parliament, for example, gives a diplomacy card every three turns.
The cards are varied. To put it simply, they either give you an area bonus on the map or damage an enemy area. Provide a buff to a unit in an upcoming battle or hinder an enemy unit. Offer you a dragon spell or give you some bonus mercenary troops for the upcoming battle. They can be used as and when you please, so long as they are valid, and you can stockpile them as long as you want.
The enemy can also use cards in battle and there are five slots for them, three being hidden from the opponents view. As a result, each battle can be quite a surprise should you opt to take command yourself. You can always leave it to one of your generals or just send the troops in themselves and auto-resolve it. What is important to remember is that the units on the map are also used in the battle, so facing against a huge number with only a few will put you at a disadvantage right away and losses to the initial units are permanent.
When fighting on multiple fronts you will be forced into having the AI take control of your troops so my advice is to always take the battle that sets you against the odds. Why? You are a dragon. As a dragon and also getting direct control over your troops, you tend to have the ability to tip the odds in a fight to your favor. Also, taking the fights that are completely set against you can result in some of the most exhilarating fun you will ever have in a strategy game, bar none.
Like the world map your units are between a range of naval, ground and air troops. Each map contains a number of different capture points allowing either the building of turrets, recruitment citadels that increase your unit pool, shipyards for naval units and also three war buildings that in turn build your troops. Recruitment citadels are the rarest and the most essential, providing you a quicker supply of reinforcements. The recruitment points available to each team is based on the regions population and the affinity of the largest race of the region towards each faction so attacking a region strife with war results in a smaller pool available, making it better to attack with more units on the map.
As in most strategy games, balance is key. While you may be able to overrun the enemy in the earlier stages by simply massing units, later becomes more tactical, requiring a mixture of units and some tactical maneuvers to flank or ambush. Most essential is the use of speed to secure positions otherwise you’ll quickly find yourself outnumbered and outgunned as the enemy can build much more with the excess factories and citadels, making it very hard to win, especially in harder difficulties.
As a dragon you still have limited control, allowing you to select your groups, the units around you or simply all the units on the map and direct them to a single area you’re targeting. Where being a dragon is most useful is your mixture of abilities, allowing you to shield yourself or your units, buff them or, in my case, wreak havoc on the enemy lines with a myriad of devastating attacks. Even as a hugely powered dragon there isn’t a guarantee of victory, you’re still susceptible to anti-air fire from the ground and Imp Fighters in the air without the support from units on the ground.
I can almost certainly say that you will never get bored of this if you’re a fan of strategy. Even as a strategy at core this as a lot to offer both to newcomers and long-term fans of the genre. From the great take on politics to the character development of your generals and wife. The turn based strategy of the map, with the use of cards, to the real time strategy of the battles. Everything has combined to make an exquisite package and I unashamedly say that I’m now a fan.
What makes this possibly the most important game I’ve seen or played this year is pure ambition. A twist from a RPG franchise, already a risk on it’s own, it has almost three separate games in one and does them all on a grand scale while offering great detail, visuals, writing and sound throughout. All of this was made on the budget of a single, modest sized, studio with no outside investment.