The battle lines have been drawn. After a triumphant campaign throughout the Elven homelands, in which the nature-loving hippies responded particularly well to our progressive attitudes to gay marriage and recreational drug use, we’ve reached a stalemate of sorts in the Undead realm. Being brought back to life from a state of decomposing nothingness would make a person more fundamental and religious, we suppose, and even though we promised not to tax the Church when the rest of the Council practically begged us to do so, our liberal attitudes aren’t going down so well with this nation of animate skeletons, limiting the amount of recruits we can summon during battle. Really, we should have accepted the marriage proposal from Ophelia, the Undead princess, but, well, we needed to appease the capitalist dwarves, too, as our shorter-than-average bride with the delightful Scottish brogue can attest. The result of all this backfiring politicking is that we’ve started outnumbered and outgunned in the decisive battle for control of the undead kingdoms. We’re building troops and armour as quickly as we can, but there’s only thing left to do, really, and that’s transform into a great big fire-breathing dragon.
Divinity: Dragon Commander makes you, as a character and an individual, a more present part of your nations’ defences than most strategy games, in which you’re a disconnected, abstract tactician. In Larian’s game you’re simultaneously commander-in-chief, head of state, and the most powerful piece on the board. A politician personally responsible for the running of the realm as well as the defence of it, you must juggle both the disparate need of a diverse populace and the frequent need to strap a jetpack to your scaly back and personally send whole battalions of foreign troops back from whence they came. It’s an odd mixture of concerns, frankly, and even though Larian ensures that Dragon Commanders’ diverse systems feed into one another appropriately, there’s occasional vertigo as you pinball between the rolling, epic scale of a battlefield, where consequences are immediate and obvious, and the intimacy of a one-on-one discussion in the throne room, the implications of which will only let themselves be known with time.
Let’s start with the RTS which is, after all, the dragon-with-a-jetpack, headline-grabbing centrepiece. Dragon Commander plays a messier, scrappier game of strategy than many of its rivals, fuzzy with its unit dynamics and where victory can be a little too easily won by building tanks en masse. Simple resource gathering and relatively contained map design ensures that battles are chaotic and relatively short lived, much more about map control and who can build the biggest army the fastest than sophisticated tactics. The outcome of any single battle will likely be swayed by wider factors in the meta-game, too, further diminishing the importance of clever strategies.
But that’s ok, because no encounter can be won without a little help from above. The interplay between the RTS and the arcade aerial combat game is where so much about what’s fascinating in Dragon Commander can be found – providing, as it does, the ability for you to formulate army-wide strategies in which you play a crucial role. Perhaps you’ll split your army unevenly, attack on two fronts, and use your Dragon powers to bolster the underpowered forces, or maybe you’ll commit your forces to taking over a distant stronghold, singlehandedly defending your HQ in dragon form while you manufacture reinforcements.
As you might expect, once a dragon turns up it becomes the dominant force in play – though not through being overpowered. It takes a sound tactical mind to hold the lay of a battlefield in the back of your mind while also performing strafing runs across columns of enemy troops, and we found that, particularly in the later stages of a battle, we’d inevitably end up fighting alongside our land forces rather than on a different flank, especially since the tactical controls in dragon form are only really good for directing nearby units.
After all the realtime aerial combat, it’s a relief to return to the relatively staid campaign map, where global dominance resembles a board game. Continents are divided into regions: commit troops to a neutral region and you’ll automatically take over, gaining resources and the ability to build structures there. Commit troops to an enemy-held or contested region, however, and you’ll end up in battle. It’s a simple enough system that nonetheless leads to a series of dilemmas as to how thinly you’ll end up spreading your units – with an extra layer of complication provided by playable cards and the fact that your total number of available resources in a country is limited by the populace’s opinion of your politics.
It’s a reflection of Larian’s sense of humour that the scenes in which you pilot a jetpack-equipped dragon around a steampunk battlefield aren’t the most ludicrous in the game. That would probably be when we turned down the fair undead princess, lipstick smeared across her rictus grin. Or it might be the moment we told one of our generals, a lizard man, that no, we wouldn’t block publication of a dwarven scholar’s evolutionary theories. Each member of your council, meanwhile, represents a distinct ideological position (the Elven ambassador is liberal, the Undead a fundamentalist, the Imps pro-science in their policies) and the group regularly demands policy decisions from you. it’s impossible to keep everyone happy whilst toeing a consistent ideological line. Abandon any moral high ground you might hold, however, and you can easily keep most parties content, but we were surprised by how often Dragon Commander’s stark dilemmas stirred a conflict between decisions that we knew made tactical sense and our genuine political opinions.
It’s very silly, Dragon Commander. It’s a game in which you legislate on universal healthcare and fair trade before beating your scaled, leathery wings across a battlefield. But it hangs together because its distinct strands feed into one another just enough, even if that relationship is as crude as a dialogue tree leading to you gaining a stat-altering card that you can play during the campaign phase. Decisions have consequences in Dragon Commander, and that’s something any budding leader, dragon or not, needs to know.
Divinity: Dragon Commander is out now on PC.