When I used to make games, I used to have to go to various events and show off our games in little booths. If you’ve been to these kinds of events you know what I’m talking about. At these things you invariably get two really annoying kinds of people. There are the guys who feel the express need to tell you about how your game is clearly ripping off some other game.
Then, there are the guys who want tell you about their “awesome” (it’s always that word) idea for an RPG (it’s always an RPG) they’d like you to make. These games are pretty much all a collection of the best and most popular gameplay elements tied together with a story they have been “working on for years.”
They always seem to believe that the only reason no one has done this yet is simply because no one thought of it. Right, because no one ever thought,” let’s make an open work RPG with the battle system from Virtua Fighter that also has the city building from Sim City, nation building like in Cavitation, and the squad based multiplayer from Battle Field.”
No one ever thought to try to take everything from every game they like and put it into one game. Until one day some guy in a baseball cap rolled up, pulled a three ring binder out of his back pack, and showed us all the light.
I’m telling you this little story because it is quite impossible to describe Divinity: Dragon Commander without it sounding like one of those games. When I got the review code from Brandon, I asked him what it was, and I actually thought he was telling me about two different games. Dragon Commander is a fully featured RTS similar to Command and Conquer where after you build up your army, but then you can turn into a dragon with a jetpack on its back and then it’s Panzer Dragoon Saga.
When you aren’t in battle, you get to explore your air ship, fix your generals various social disorders, marry someone, and pass legislation like you’re playing visual novel. It’s the kind of game that only someone who has no idea how difficult it is to make even a very simple game would even suggest. I’m so happy it exists.
The story, such as it is involves a king who, after uniting his land, became kind of an ass hat. His children, who are not only ass hats but also insane, kill him. Thus, the realm is once again plugged into chaos. A wizard with a giant magic airship comes to find you, the once and former king’s half dragon bastard son, and together you build an army, legitimize your claim to the throne, and murder the rest of your family.
Story here isn’t taken very seriously, but it’s also not minimalist either. You get the sense that the people you interact with have a culture and a place to belong to, but it just isn’t expressly explored in the game. Instead you get little bits and pieces gleaned from talking to people in a rather natural way. There are also little interludes between each of the game’s chapters. These are brief affairs that involve still images of silhouettes against parchment narrated by a guy with an English accent. It’s all pretty charming.
You begin the game on your airship. You are introduced to your first two generals, and then it’s off to battle. From the bridge you can access a map. On the map screen you can spend gold to put units on the map. A battle is begun when you move a unit into occupied enemy territory. At the start of a battle, you can send in one of your generals, send the army in by itself, or lead your troops in to battle directly.
You can also spend cards that represent, strategies, mercenary units, or extra recruits. Any battles you do not fight yourself are determined instantly by the prowess of your general, and the number of units on the field. The battles you choose to fight yourself are a fair bit more interesting.
When you take to the field of battle the game plays out like an RTS. Any units you brought with you will be there from the start. You can build more units by placing factories on the ground on predetermined foundations these units aren’t paid for with gold but with recruits. You gain recruits slowly over time, and the speed with which you gain new recruits can by increase by capturing or building Recruitment Centers.
However, there is a limit to the maximum number of recruits you have available. The recruit ceiling is determined by what race is in control of the area and how popular your polices are there. For 20 recruits you can turn into a dragon with a jetpack on its back. I know I said it before, but it bears repeating.
You can turn into a dragon with a fucking jetpack, fly around, and rain fiery death on all who dare oppose you. In better world, I could end my review here because I would have to say anything else. The entire thing would just be:
In Divinity: Dragon Commander you get to play as a dragon with a jetpack on its back. The End.
You’d all know what to do from there.
Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world, so I’ll explain in more detail. While in Dragon Form you move around with the WASD keys, you orient yourself with the mouse, you breathe fire with the left mouse button, you dodge with right mouse button, and you press space bar fire up your jetpack which lets you bolt around the map. You can also still issue orders to your troops using hot keys. It’s all very satisfying. If that’s not enough for you, you can upgrade your dragon abilities on your airship.
The more territories you control the more gold and Research Points you gain after each action on the map screen. Gold is used to field units on the map or build structures that make more gold, generate more cards, or allow you to field more units in a turn. Research Points can be spent to create new unit types, upgrade existing unit types, or upgrade your dragon.
While on your ship you can talk to your generals and advisers. You’re generals will sometimes ask you to do a thing for them or you might be asked to send them away for one reason or another. In my experience there were both positive and negative consequences for any action I took with regard to my generals, but you’d have to play through the story line a few times to see everything. With regard to your advisors, there is one for each mythical race in the game.
They’ll come to you with different issues and ask you to go one way or the other on it. You can then discuss the issue with each advisor. Each race has their own interest to protect, and you need to make the call on who you want to disappoint. In addition to raising or lowering a particular race’s favor with you, certain choices will have positive and/or negative draw backs. Managing daily life on your ship and throughout you kingdom is every bit as important as burninating your enemies especially on the harder difficulty settings.
You also need to find yourself a wife. You don’t have a choice in this matter, it’s your duty as a King. You can marry someone from any of the races except the Imps. Marriage is a powerful political tool, and the race of whichever girl you choose will back you in battle no matter how badly you piss off their advisor. Each girl also has their own storyline that progresses alongside the rest of the game. I picked the undead skeleton princess, but her story wasn’t very interesting.
There really isn’t anything bad about the game, yet I do have a few minor gripes. Each of the games intertwining systems has little things that bother me about them. In the RTS game there aren’t a lot of maps. You play on the same ones from the same starting locations often, and this can get a bit tedious after a while.
In the political game you usually are asked to take a conservative or liberal stance on mostly social issues, and while these are mostly parody, and probably not to be taken too seriously, I soon found that taking the liberal stance on almost any issue yielded more favorable results.
I don’t really care as I find the issues of Dwarven nude beaches and requiring permits for enchanted swords absolutely hilarious. What bothered was that the way the issue was discussed in game leads me to believe that the game was either penned by an intense liberal or a bitterly sarcastic conservative.
My wife was fun for a bit, but then her story just stopped, so I sold her to a demon. This was fine, because everyone in the game made me feel really bad about my arranged marriage anyway. It’s a really weird experience to have a game force an immoral situation on you and then berate you for it. Angry uncanny valley is the worst kind of uncanny valley. Weird and interesting, but I don’t know why my wife stopped talking me. Did I break her?
If I was a game publisher and Larian Studios pitched this game to me, I imagine the whole thing would be a lot like that one scene from Jerry Maguire. They’d be going on and on about this grand game concept and I’d just be standing there with tears in my eyes until finally I couldn’t take it anymore and I’d be all like, “Shut up. Just shut up. You had me at dragons with jetpacks. You had me at dragons with jetpacks…” then I’d run toward Larian studios wrap my arms around it and get swept off my feet.
All of this aside, Divinity: Dragon Commander was seriously fun. I laughed at ham-fisted parody of real world social injustice, I cried at the steep learning curve of online multiplayer, and I was thrilled at being a dragon with a jetpack. This is a game that deserves to be lauded for how well it manages to do so many things at once rather than be nitpicked. It’s something that deserves your time. Also, I don’t if I mention this yet, it has dragons with jetpacks.