The empire of Rivellon was built on the back of a giant war machine, with peace forged through bloodshed. Its emperor had many children, but one child stood out from the others; he was a *** born of an ancient dragon who’d taken on the guise of a beautiful woman. You are this child in Divinity: Dragon Commander. Your mother has been slain, your kingdom has been shattered by civil war, and you may be the only one able to reunite the realm and bring peace back to Rivellon.
Larian Studios’ previous Divinity titles are action/RPGs that allow players to switch between traditional third-person action and aerial dragon combat. Dragon Commander, on the other hand, takes the franchise in a different direction. Players still soar through the skies as a Dragon (equipped with a jetpack, no less), but many of the RPG elements have been replaced with top-down strategy. Series like Halo and Warcraft have proven that jumping genres can be successful, but Divinity needs more refinement before it soars as a strategy game.
Dragon Commander features several layers of gameplay. Before you start making strategic decisions, you walk around your empirical airship and speak with your generals, settle disputes among various dignitaries, and upgrade your troops and dragon skills. I enjoyed learning more about my crew, and the colorful cast of characters – such as Edmund the racist Lizard-man and Henry the one-eyed drunk – who all lend vibrancy to the otherwise trope-filled fantasy tale. Sadly, these sections feel disconnected from the rest of the game, as the conversations with your crew have little effect on the strategic gameplay.
Once you’re ready to begin plotting your conquest of Rivellon, you’re presented with a tactical battle map showing various territories that make up the continent. Within each territory you can build new structures; mines produce extra gold, houses of parliament produce battle cards (more on those later), and war factories generate an army of troops for you to spread across the map. I felt like I mastered this system after a few hours, but I still got a kick out of trying to predict my enemy’s movements and ensure that I had more troops on any given territory before the end of each turn. Unfortunately, at the end of each turn your troops must battle any enemies in their territory, and that’s where Dragon Commander’s wings begin to droop.
New territories are conquered through real-time strategy battles. The more troops you move onto a territory during the strategy phase, the more resources you have in combat. Engagements can be auto-resolved, but you end up losing significantly more troops than if you oversee combat yourself.
The RTS battles themselves feature a bland rock-paper-scissors formula. You command resource stations scattered across a map that let you spawn units. Troopers are strong against light-class ground units but weak against hunters and heavy units. Hunters are also strong against ground units but weak against armours, and armours are strong against heavy units and buildings while weak against troopers and air units. The list goes on. Memorizing troop specialties and then using whichever unit is strong against your opponents’ units gets tedious. Thankfully, Dragon Commander’s wildcard is that it lets you jump into the action yourself as a high-flying dragon. Zooming around the battlefield using your dragon’s jetpack is exhilarating, and your suite of dragon powers is useful for buffing your troops or setting your opponent’s war factories on fire. Unfortunately, the dragon is a glass cannon; you are shot down in a matter of seconds if you’re not watching your health carefully.
Larian Studios adds another layer of strategy to the game with battle cards, which can be used during the strategy phase or before each battle. These cards augment your tactics by preventing your opponent’s troops from moving, let you produce ground units at a discount, give you high-powered dragon attacks for one round, or allow you to produce extra gold. The battle card system is one of the coolest features, and I wish that Larian Studios let you acquire more cards throughout the experience. As it stands, they are a precious and somewhat limited resource.
Online skirmishes play out much like the single-player experience, except you battle up to three other players for control of a map. However, the fast-paced nature of online gaming makes multiplayer matches even more cutthroat, and if you don’t know all your troop specialties or dragon commands, your battle encampments quickly turn to ruins. You also have to deal with other players’ dragon forms, which are a massive threat. Aerial dogfights with dragons are often hectic and stressful, but are also the most thrilling segment of online multiplayer. I wish you could just battle other players with your dragons and not worry about troop upkeep.
Divinity: Dragon Commander has a lot of layers. I enjoyed the Risk-like strategy of spreading my army across a world map as I sabotaged my opponent’s units using different battle cards, but I dreaded the slog of each RTS battle. If Larian Studios can refine their battle system then it might have a strategy series that appeals to a wider audience, but right now only hardcore strategy fans feel safe under this commander’s wings.