Larian may be a large studio by indie standards, but they barely register as a blip on the radar of most publishers, and Dragon Commander is an almost comically ambitious game. Part action-RTS, part turn-based strategy boardgame and part political-themed fantasy roleplaying game. It’s the kind of concept that’s almost unheard of in modern gaming, a relic unearthed from the Amiga era, but fully modern in its presentation. The big question, much like the concept of Jetpack Dragons, is whether these disparate elements work in harmony or leave a smoking crater in the ground.
It’s hard not to approach a game like Dragon Commander with a mixture of childish glee and dread as almost every proposed feature of the game could be brilliant or terrible, depending on just what angle it’s approached from. Blending action and strategy has been done well before, but if either element is half-baked, then they tend to negatively impact each other. Turn-based strategy is a tricky proposition, too, especially in this context, with the strategy map gameplay needing to be robust enough to support the presence of real-time tactical combat, but not such a focus as to completely override your battlefield decisions or vice versa. Most worrying is the idea of fantasy politics; at best, it could hit on the wry social commentary of the Discworld series, but at worst, it could be heavy-handed contemporary soapboxing wrapped up in fantasy clothing.
Thankfully, Dragon Commander pulls it off, for the most part. The setting, shared with Larian’s long-running Divinity series of RPGs, falls closer to the Pratchett end of the scale than Tolkien, set in one of the vast and mostly-undocumented gulfs of time in Rivellon’s history. Your father, a powerful technologist emperor, has been murdered by his legitimate (yet slightly insane/evil) children, and things are generally looking a little civil-warry, so it’s up to you, an illegitimate, princely heir to the throne, to take back the empire and reunite the fractured kingdoms.
Unlike your barmy half-siblings, you have three notable advantages going for you: the support of the ancient wizard Maxos, the techno-magical flying flagship Aurora (which Maxos stole for you) and the fact that your mother was a dragon, meaning that your dad had a thing for powerful, scaly women and that you can shapeshift between human and giant fire-breathing reptilian forms at will.
“Every choice is going to please somebody and upset someone else, and the game never judges. Every single option has its own rewards and penalties”
The gameplay alternates between three playmodes, starting with the RPG-lite adventures of the Aurora. You’ll hop from chamber to chamber, talking to your generals, ambassadors and (eventually) your wife for backstory, humor and political gain. You’ll also spend the research points produced by your held territories (more on that later) on new units, upgrades for your existing troops or new spells/powers for your personal dragon form.
The characters themselves are pretty broadly cartoonish stereotypes, but with a dash of nuance each, and over the course of the three-act campaign (the first is a glorified tutorial, admittedly), you’ll learn quite a bit about them, and from the second act onwards, you can stumble upon additional character arcs, assuming favourable conditions with the nations/commanders involved. While seemingly superficial at first, the game does a great job at grounding you in its world, rather than just having you sit above it all, passing judgement on the peons below.
Dragon Commander has caught some flak in the press already for its portrayal of female characters (especially the princesses), and while there is some debate to be had on the subject, I think “portrayal is not necessarily endorsement” is something to keep in mind here. Yes, the princesses have no shortage of cleavage on display, but they’re also sent by their respective nations to try and sway you (the Dragon Prince) into acting further in their favor. Sex and politics have always been regular bedfellows.
It’s also of note that just about every character, male, female, undead or reptile, has their own personal agenda, and everyone has a strong role to play in the story that has knock-on effects on the strategic and tactical gameplay. Another area that has borne controversy is their choice to have the political debates aboard the ship mirror real-world issues, with the various races fitting into broad political party archetypes. Do you please the elves, imps and lizards by allowing gay marriage? Then you’ll upset the socially regressive and capitalist dwarves and the devoutly religious undead. Every choice is going to please somebody and upset someone else, and the game never judges. Every single option has its own rewards and penalties, some of which (like forcing conscription into your armies) stay in effect the entire game.
The second core part of the game is the strategic map. Closer to Risk than Total War, it plays out very much like a strategy board-game and would probably work pretty well purely by itself. Starting with a single territory and a scant few units (each piece on the board represents a squad in tactical combat), you expand into new territories and fight enemy forces for their land, with the aim of capturing the enemy capital and holding it until that enemy leader is defeated. This is also where the initially-superficial political and roleplaying elements are most strongly felt as your approval ratings with each race are represented as a support multiplier in territories you hold.
Each region on the map is ruled by one of the five races (Undead, Elves, Lizards, Imps or Dwarves), and if you’ve gone to great lengths to please a race, you’ll find yourself making more money per turn and being able to recruit more troops from their land. Conversely, if you anger them, you’ll be looking at nearly-useless territories that are more hassle than it’s worth to even claim.
When two armies clash, gameplay moves to the RTS segment, arguably the most important and fleshed out element of the game, where the two armies fight over resource and building points. While you start out with a force based upon whatever pieces you moved on the strategic map, unless you’ve got an overwhelming numerical advantage, you’ll want to capture the various control points around each battle map. By capturing recruitment points, you earn the single resource of the game (recruits), and by capturing building points, you can construct factories that’ll let you spend these points on new temporary (they don’t carry back to the strategic map) units.
After 90 seconds or so have passed, you can also summon yourself, the dragon, onto the battlefield at roughly the cost of a medium combat unit. Once on the battlefield, the HUD and controls change somewhat. Playing a bit like an action-RPG in this mode, you effectively act as a highly mobile spellcasting ‘hero’ unit, capable of spearheading an attack, although still fragile enough to be crushed instantly if you fly into an overwhelmingly dense wall of anti-air fire. If you unsummon yourself, you can jump back onto the battlefield wherever and whenever you want, but if you die, you have to pay the full summoning cost again.
“…it takes a good long while to conquer a full campaign map with three enemies, but it’s not quite as fully featured and narrative-driven as I might have hoped”
The RTS gameplay is much faster than you might expect, with battles often ending within seconds if one player has a significant starting advantage from the strategic map. If not, then it’s a frantic back-and-forth almost reminiscent of Galcon, Eufloria and other such RTS-lite games as you capture points, reinforce and try to punish failed enemy attacks. To help avoid things getting stuck in a perpetual stalemate, there’s a global limit to the number of recruits that can be drafted during a single battle, so extended fights will eventually come down to small bands of survivors trying to capture points and avoid turrets, and also making your personal dragon-form an essential stalemate-breaker, especially if you’ve researched a good range of personal skills and power-ups.
While you’re in dragon form, you can’t micro-manage your troops quite as effectively, but with some hotkey work, you can still boss them around while providing covering fire from above. Sometimes, though, it’s easiest to just command from above, especially if you want to use and target the special abilities of upgraded units.
One other area where the strategic map bleeds into the RTS gameplay is in a deck of cards you draw from at various points. Some may be played on the strategic layer to (for example) double gold gained from one country for one turn, but others are tactical advantages, like deploying an extra squad of mercenary hovertanks in the next fight. As such, every decision from the RPG layer down has effects that trickle down and affect the tactical gameplay, and vice-versa, without overwhelming each other. It’s an interesting and exciting balancing act, and for the most part, they pull it off.
One element that is interesting in gameplay terms, but not quite as fleshed out as it might be, are the Generals. While they’ve got a decent bit to say on board your flagship, their in-game effect is stand-ins for the default auto-battle system. This might seem strange, but you can only fight one RTS battle a turn (you can’t be in two countries at once, after all), so assigning generals to cover for you is useful, but they do seem to be both the least-developed characters in terms of dialogue and in terms of visible gameplay effects.
One area that’s acceptable, but not amazing, is the campaign structure itself. The story mode is set across three campaign maps, although the first is effectively a short tutorial, meaning that 90% of the gameplay happens in the second and third acts. It’s longer than it sounds, taking a good long while to conquer a full campaign map with three enemies, but it’s not quite as fully featured and narrative-driven as I might have hoped, and there’s nothing quite as dramatic going on as the world-altering chaos of Divinity 2′s later acts. While there are a couple of plot twists along the way, they never really feel fully reflected in how the campaign plays out.
There is, however, a Custom Campaign single-player mode that effectively skips the first act and drops you into the second, wife assigned already, into a customized world, using a map of your choice, and with some tweakable rules. That, plus a good range of difficulty settings (Hard takes off all the AI limitations, letting them abuse unit special powers as badly as you can), does give you a solid amount to chew on once you’re done with the main plot.
As gorgeous as Dragon Commander looks, it’s still a fairly low-budget game, but Larian have managed to hide this exceptionally well. The scattered few cutscenes are simple animatics with a single narrator, and the Aurora is just a handful of static environments with various little background animations to make things feel a little more lively. Your generals, advisors and other notable figures are all seen just standing in place, waiting for your click, and they’ve saved money on animating the many talking-head dialogues through effective (if occasionally wobbly) use of facial motion-capture. Likewise, they’ve cut some corners in the real-time combat sections, with all factions sharing the same dozen or so unit types, just with different colour pallettes, and there aren’t a huge number of battle maps, either. You’ll probably not notice any of this unless you go actively looking, though; this small, independent Belgian studio have managed to imitate AAA production values at a fraction of the cost, and that’s impressive.
“…this complex interlocking web of systems really should be experienced if you’re a strategy or RPG fan.”
These impressions are technically incomplete. We’re just taking a look at the single-player component of the game right now as it’s almost impossible to judge the multiplayer value of a new strategy game until at least a few days (or even weeks) after launch. While Larian were kind enough to invite us to some pre-release multiplayer testing events, we’ve opted out in favour of testing the game out under live-fire conditions, so to speak.
As it stands, the single-player has already provided enough entertainment for me to give this a wholehearted recommendation, and while the campaign itself is a little more limited than I would have liked, the custom campaign mode and difficulty options give it a solid degree of replay value. One area where the game absolutely does stand out aesthetically is the music. Normally, you’d expect a standard fantasy RPG score for something with so many elves and dragons, but composer Kirill Pokrovsky has provided us with something almost as unique as the game itself. While there are traditional fantasy elements here, there’s a strong electronic vibe running through it all (reflecting the magical steampunk technology fairly well), and even some brief lapses into outright synth-rock during combat reminiscent of Command & Conquer’s finest themes.
There’s no doubt that there’s room for growth and improvement here, and perhaps even an expansion pack or two, but Dragon Commander pulls off the seemingly impossible anyway. While the gameplay in the final product is a little more pedestrian and down-to-earth than the high-flying concepts put forward in the earliest preview trailers, all the core elements are enjoyable by themselves, but are interwoven well enough as to result in a truly coherent whole.
Political decisions may eventually boil down to numerical perks or disadvantages on the battlefield, but it does mean that following your heart might not always be the fastest or most effective way to victory, making it far more interesting and effective than almost any binary morality system in an RPG, and a pyrrhic victory on the battlefield can often mark the start of a slow, painful defeat on the strategic map. While none of the three core pillars of Dragon Commander’s gameplay would be particularly great taken by themselves, this complex interlocking web of systems really should be experienced if you’re a strategy or RPG fan.
Divinity: Dragon Commander is out tomorrow (Tuesday, August 6th) on Windows PCs via Steam for $40 or your regional equivalent, with a 10% discount for owners of Divinity 2. We’ll be giving the multiplayer side of the game a proper poke once the launch-day dust has settled and the matchmaking seems to be functioning. Still, the game is easily recommendable, even taken as a purely solo experience.