Divinity: Dragon Commander Review

Divine Divinity was one of those games that I could never really make up my mind about; it was simultaneously a great game and a frustrating one full of flaws, making it difficult to tell whether I enjoyed the experience as a whole or not. That ambiguity arising from numerous faults really sums up many of Larian’s games, so I went into Divinity: Dragon Commander without many expectations. Sure, it’s a game that has jetpack-wearing dragons, but its promise to mix real-time strategy with turn-based strategy seemed a bit too good to be true.

I was kind of right, but kind of wrong

Let’s get something straight right now—Dragon Commander is a turn-based strategy game at heart. Yes, you can play through a great deal of it as a real-time strategy if you’re so inclined, but an ability to think strategically during the turn-based sections is far more crucial to winning than one’s RTS ability. In fact, once you get tired of the RTS sections (which I did quickly since I’m no good at them), you can play through the entire game as a turn-based game. This is possible by auto-resolving each battle, and I played through the entire game on the “hard” difficulty to make sure that it could be done. Not only is it possible, but I actually found it to be both easier and more enjoyable.

Decisions, decisions, decisions…

Throughout the game, you’re forced to make a number of different choices: who to marry, whether to condemn someone to death or not, and a number of other decisions that correlate to real-world issues. Gay marriage, euthanasia, women’s rights, worker’s rights, and taxation on churches are just a few of the many issues that you’ll have to decide on. Each choice carries positives and negatives that can help and hinder your war effort in different ways, so oftentimes you’ll be weighing your own personal beliefs with your battle plans.

This is actually where the game shines; by forcing you to make difficult decisions—many against your own personal beliefs for the sake of the greater good—you really begin to become invested in this world you’re shaping the future of. Making things even more difficult are the personal feelings of your four commanders: Scarlett, Catherine, Henry, and Edmund. Some issues affect them directly, and you grow to appreciate their varied outlooks despite their over-the-top personalities to such an extent that crushing their hopes hurts in a very real way.

Divinity: Dragon Commander

Princess Lohannah is awesome, but she has some seriously crazy eyes.

About the RTS portions of the game

Though they’re not at all necessary to the game, I figured I should at least explain how they work. See, all of the turn-based stuff happens on a map screen, and once you find yourself in combat, you can choose to enter RTS combat by choosing yourself as the commander. The situation you find yourself in depends on how you set yourself up on the map, which is to say that if you go in against a huge army with only a few people, you really shouldn’t expect to survive long.

“Recruits” are the currency that you use during the RTS sections, and the number of available recruits goes up over time. The more “recruitment centers” you have (these can be built in predetermined locations once you capture them), the faster the number goes up. You spend recruits to build factories to produce troops, order those very same troops, and turn into a dragon. Once you’ve captured and produced enough buildings and soldiers to hold your own against the enemy, you send your troops against the enemy forces and try to keep everyone alive, oftentimes making sure of your units’ safety by hovering over them as a dragon and showering their enemies with fireballs.

You see, when a dragon and a jetpack are in love…

Turning into a dragon is easily one of the most innovative features of the RTS sections, but it can also be surprisingly frustrating. While I can understand not being able to turn into a dragon immediately after the fight starts (after all, it’d be too easy to fly over and devastate your enemies before they have the opportunity to even build anything), your attacks overheat far too easily on higher difficulties. Also, it’s quite easy on those higher difficulties to be shot down (though you can come back relatively quickly), even when you choose the type of dragon whose health is replenished by doing damage.

Most frustrating of all, however, are the controls. It’s difficult to manage everything on the battlefield as a dragon, so I often found myself un-spawning so that I could more easily create new troops and maneuver them around. Once you’re accustomed to the controls it’s a bit easier, but I still felt that it was easier to manage everything without the dragon. The dragon comes with some serious perks, though—you can research various dragon skills that improve your abilities and “equip” them before battle (as a side note, you have to equip passive skills onto your dragon skill bar before a fight for them to be active, just like activated skills), but ultimately I found the whole thing too clunky and moved to a purely turn-based approach to the game.

Why is turn-based easier?

Part of it is undoubtedly how much better I am at turn-based games than real-time strategy ones, but it goes beyond that; I actually noticed that the difficulty I chose didn’t affect the turn-based portions of the game anywhere near as much as the RTS portions. Higher difficulties mean having to fend off incredibly vicious attacks in the RTS sections, while I honestly didn’t notice much difference between the easiest “casual” difficulty and “hard” when it came to the turn-based section of the game. Perhaps the AI is a bit more aggressive when it comes to taking areas, but fights ultimately come down to who has the greater numbers when you auto-resolve and this makes the difficulty much more bearable.

Prepare to get carded

If there’s an element of the game that I was completely unsure about in the beginning, it was definitely the cards. You’re constantly acquiring cards through both your actions and the buildings you’ve built in your conquered lands, and these can have many different effects. There are cards that allow your units to perform better or cause enemy units to perform worse, for example. Those are mostly useful if you’re involved in RTS sections. When you’re coming at the game from a turn-based perspective, however, what you want are mercenary cards. These allow you to add units to any combat situation, improving your odds (they both improve your chances of auto-resolving the battle without losing too many friendly units and make the RTS sections easier). There are also cards that sabotage enemy areas, benefit your areas, and allow you to produce units at a discounted price.

Divinity: Dragon Commander

Henry has a heart of gold to match his equally hard… er, nevermind.

Creating units on the map

Creating units in the RTS section is one thing, but on the map where the turn-based stuff happens, it’s a totally different (and more important) deal. Forget about “recruits”—new units on the turn-based map cost gold, and you can only produce so many units in a country in a single turn. Additionally, you can only produce new units in countries that have a “war factory” built on it. How well you do in the game quickly becomes a matter of planning out where to build your gold mines and where to build your war factories so as to produce enough soldiers to defend your lands without impoverishing yourself.

Once you have a handle on that, it’s often smart to replace some of your buildings to focus on acquiring cards for the next map. I found this to be the most enjoyable way to play, honestly, doubly so because research points (the very same ones used to unlock new dragon skills) can be used to unlock upgraded units. By focusing on turn-based combat and card acquisition, you render the dragon unnecessary and can focus all of your research points on making powerful new units available with which to dominate each of the three story maps in the game.

Why you can’t rely on RTS

I tried to play through this game as a pure RTS despite my innate lack of talent for them, but ultimately discovered that it’s simply not possible. The reason for this is that you only get into the RTS sections when you choose your dragon to resolve a fight, but sometimes there are multiple fights in a single turn. Since you can’t be in multiple places at once, the fight you’re not leading will be auto-resolved by a general (or, if you don’t want to pay them, your less talented army). If there are three fights and you use both your dragon and a general, the third will have to be fought by your army no matter what because your generals stick together.

What all of this basically means is that even if you’re a pro at real-time strategy games, you’ll have to focus on the turn-based portion of this game in order to succeed. If you don’t, you risk losing huge chunks of land to enemies who attack you in multiple places at once.

Capturing capitals = insta-win

Capturing an enemy’s capital (and holding it for one turn) grants you all of that enemy’s land. This means that you can sacrifice huge chunks of land to attack an enemy capital, gaining it all back if you succeed at capturing it—assuming they were the ones who stole it from you, of course.

The game can basically be cheated

I found an easy way to play through the game that may be of interest to some. Since cards and gold and research points transfer over from chapter to chapter, capturing all the land in the first map except the enemy capital means that you can produce huge numbers of cards and research all technology that isn’t locked. It’s worth mentioning that gold and research points are capped at 50 and 30, respectively, but the second map doesn’t appear to have any such restrictions.

To ensure that the enemy doesn’t try anything, you then produce a bunch of zeppelins (one of several units that can’t capture areas on its own) and move them onto the capital. Anything that the enemy produces will automatically fight against and be destroyed by your zeppelins while you repeatedly end each turn, amassing a large collection of cards that will help you later on. It’s also possible to do this in the second chapter to far greater effect, making the final third chapter a breeze to get through. All of this is explained in the description of this video I made (the video itself only covers the first chapter, though):

Your enemies don’t stand a chance if you do this.

The game is kind of short

I think that it’s supposed to be a decent length because the RTS sections really take awhile, but if you focus on turn-based combat, you can easily get through the game in a single day. Grinding cards like mentioned above makes it even shorter; despite the apparent randomness behind “events,” there are only so many issues that can come up, so producing a bunch of cards means going through a lot of turns and seeing the vast majority of what the game has to offer.

It’s pretty, though repetitive

I really like Dragon Commander’s graphics. Characters in particular are exaggerated and full of personality without ever veering too far into the abstract, and they really have an immediate charm that draws you in. That being said, all of your conversations take place on your ship between the same 10-ish people, so there’s not exactly a whole lot of variety as far as those graphics go. Even the RTS sections, while colorful and distinctive, start to look the same after awhile. Still, I’d much rather have a little of something very good than a lot of something bad.

Music is, as always, really good

The soundtrack was one of my favorite parts of Divine Divinity, a very positive element in a sea of things I wasn’t too sure about. I was glad to find that Dragon Commander’s music is every bit as great as Divine’s, maybe even more so, with each and every song sticking out on its own and being the type that you get stuck in your head. It’s always there to set the mood, and it doesn’t even repeat endlessly; at one point a song ended and an entirely different song began playing, ensuring that things stayed fresh.

Here’s what you should do:

Divinity: Dragon Commander

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