Divinity: Dragon Commander Review
A wonderful, charming game of grand strategy.
Larian Studios' latest game, Divinity: Dragon Commander, is something of a departure for the fantasy action role-playing game Divinity franchise. It's also a curious amalgamation. There are precious few strategy games featuring a card system, dragons with jet packs to control, and even a political simulation at its core.
At first glance, the are easy comparisons to make to The Creative Assembly's Total War series. The turn-based strategy of directing armies and capturing provinces on a grand map is present, as well the real-time combat when those armies come to blow. But those shared, broad qualities largely end there. It's less sophisticated in many ways, sometimes even downright tedious. In spite of that, the experience is elevated by an interesting set of mechanics and player involvement.
The heart of Divinity: Dragon Commander lies within its story campaign. The premise is simple – you play as the bastard son of the emperor of Rivellon fighting your siblings for control of the throne after they murdered your father. Your mother was a dragon disguised as a woman, however, granting you the power to transform into that mighty form during the heat of battle. The plot serves as little more than an excuse for gameplay purposes, but it uses the fantasy framework to tell more compelling stories.
In between each turn of traditional gameplay finds you aboard your flagship vessel, the Raven. There are several areas that can be transitioned to with the click of a button where technologies can be researched and where advisors, generals, and diplomats await your input on important issues. Ambassadors representing the different races in the game – undead, elves, dwarves, lizards and imps – will regularly bring proposals often ripped from modern headlines to your attention, each putting forth the political ideologies of their people. Every ambassador has their say on how the empire should be run, and the decisions made not only impact the personal stories of those on the ship, but the support you have with those races on the ground, as well. My low favor with Yorrick's undead meant I could not field as many units in their territories, a potentially dangerous penalty as I pushed further across the map. A different proposal earned me reduced recruitment costs.
The sheer volume of proposals should allow for a great deal of replayability. Not every decision may be difficult, but the game does present a wide variety of topics from dwarven nude beaches, deportation, castle doctrine to referendums on the direction the government should take. It may even be prudent to support an ambassador you disagree with in order to aid the conquest of Rivellon. Many of those decisions then create new avenues of discussion or volatile situations with the game's generals. These too have gameplay implications, such as granting cards and improving their combat auto-resolve statistics. Eventually a queen has to be chosen from one of four princesses, all of which have their own differing personalities, agendas and dilemmas.
Those interactions are what drove me forward in the game more than any plan to capture new pieces of land. The cast of is diverse, with a multitude of clashing personalities on display. They don't always get along, nor get along with you, but watching their growth and reactions to my various decisions became the game's core hook. I'm hard pressed to think of similar strategy games that can create that level of investment.
The characters come alive with well-written dialog and a great presentation, as well. Their models are rich with numerous fine touches. Voice acting is surprisingly good across the board, making you believe their convictions. But their facial animations are of particular note, allowing them occasional expressions of uncanny realism.
Unfortunately, the same level of praise can't quite be said for Divinity: Dragon Commander's other pillars of gameplay. Both its turn-based strategic phase and its real-time combat are limited and unchallenging. The fun found is lukewarm rather than scalding, disheartening in a setting where you can breath fire as a dragon.