On the surface, it would be easy to expect Divinity: Dragon Commander's most appealing trait to be the ability to transform into a jetpack-wielding dragon to decimate its traditional RTS battlegrounds. The delightfully surprising thing then, is that it's only a small and entertaining portion of what makes this strange melting pot of both action, strategy, and RPG so fun and unique. Divinity: Dragon Commander combines fast-paced RTS gameplay, elements of 4x strategy, and the dialogue and character progression of an RPG into a varied package that constantly surprises with it's excellent writing, consistent quality, and high production values.
The story setup here is simple. You are half dragon and half human, and your father, the former emperor, left his empire in disarray following the death of your mother. With the help of a wizard and his magical steampunk technology, you're competing for the throne against your siblings. There are some interesting twists and turns here that might surprise, but overall the story is standard fare. But developing this main plot isn't really the biggest element of the game's campaign mode.
Dragon Commander is comprised of multiple components all meshed together in the game's robust story campaign. The result is something that bears more in common with Starcraft II's campaign or the Total War series, rather than Civilization. Here you're on board the Raven, a royal airship that acts as your base of operations. It would be easy for the Raven to be nothing but a fancy set of menus, but the large amount of voiced dialogue and intriguing characters aboard the ship make it anything but. Here you can talk with your surprisingly well developed generals, each with their own unique personality and agenda, which you'll eventually become active in handling as the game progresses. There's a fairly large tech tree for both your empire and dragon form abilities, many of which become crucial to success as the enemy progresses technologically. There's a few other surprises on the Raven that delves a bit into spoiler territory, but it's safe to say that there's a lot to see and do here.
The dialogue structure isn't too far removed from Mass Effect or The Witcher 2, with choices ranging from small to large. The choices with multiple threads are easily the most interesting, as you'll be inclined to stay consistent with each one. I'll refrain from naming any choice thread in particular, but I think it's fair to say they definitely get you thinking about political consistency and commitment. Characters are fully fleshed out, with strong voice acting and arcs that progress over time, albeit not all that subtly. Then there's the political council, a group of leaders from each race who will constantly proposition you about enacting new laws or dealing with various crisis. While the dialogue options for the generals is varied and allows you to give strong reasons for each choice, political decisions boil down to yes or no answers. The lack of debate and dialogue options with the councilors is unfortunate, but not a deal breaker. Lastly is marriage, which comes a bit later in game. Each potential queen has their own agenda as well, some marrying for love while others for political gain. While this is probably the least developed out of the three sets of NPC's, there's an interesting balance here of making your queen content while also keeping their respective faction in check. Fortunately, all three sets of NPCs blend together on issues later in the game, giving a larger variety of opinions than you would otherwise get.
Underneath the humorous fantastical character design and tone with these characters bear striking similarities to contemporary political viewpoints and issues. From the religious fundamentalist skeletal Undead to the capitalist Dwarves, you'll be constantly reminded what their respective personal agendas are. Some of these issues might make you go "Oh come on!" every now and then, but for the most part they are handled extremely well, paralleling the societal problems of this ridiculous fantasy universe with that of our own. At one point you'll be deciding on legalizing gay marriage, or allowing Dwarves to construct a dam on a hallowed Elven place of worship. Themes of gender roles, nationalism, environmentalism, media, and racism are just a few of the points of contention, with more and more surprising situations arising every other turn. Then there's smaller situations with your generals, like giving party advice to your bigoted genius lizard comrade Edmund, or deciding whether or not to turn a blind eye to destruction caused by the one eyed, one armed brute Henry.
These choices work because the characters feel fleshed out and consistent, and they go a long way towards giving you a sense of the ideologies of each faction. You'll never satisfy everyone on the ship, and each turn ends with a newspaper summary condemning whatever action you took with a sensationalist headline. Despite the strong writing, I never felt squeezed enough in terms of racial support or finance to go against my own personal beliefs, and it's a shame that the overall structure didn't push enough here to make it a fight between doing choosing what you personally believe, versus what's necessary for success. Some of the character arcs felt a bit unearned as well. At one point, a general was lambasting me for denying her request, yet the next turn she was praising me for making her a more open minded person. The writing however, maintains a high quality for much of the campaign, and complaints such as those mentioned above are thankfully in the minority.
The tactical map is where much of your campaign progression takes place. The objectives themselves aren't much beyond capturing and holding your opponent's settlements, and erecting new buildings to produce troops, bolster income, and generate cards. Cards are a clever way of sabotaging the enemy settlements, or producing mercenary units before a fight to even the odds. These work as a good way to help equalize battles where you might not have many units to defend, and they are crucial in the later game where the enemy assaults on multiple fronts. Turns are quick and sometimes hectic early on, and while the map is easy and simple to understand, the lack of depth keeps it from being more than a quick capture-and-hold style of game. There isn't much to build or develop in each individual territory, so doing nothing but producing units while cutting a path towards the opponent's capital is usually the go-to option. Towards the end it becomes a bit too easy to max out research and income, removing much of the challenge in later encounters, but the path there is still highly rewarding. The story's act structure makes it so that each map is wholly separate from each other, so it's disappointing to have your building and unit progress reset when transitioning to a new map.
The last pillar of the game is the RTS combat, which plays fast and frenetic. Each battle begins with an initial set of units based on how many you had in the territory on the strategic map. While you can produce your own units and buildings on the RTS map, the first opening moments are crucial due to the capture point style of play here. Capturing points early is key, and matches can end quickly if you or your opponent establishes an early foothold. Build options are fairly limited, with genre staples such as barracks, tank factories, sea and airship factories, as well as recruitment centers to increase the amount of population you convert into recruits, which acts as the match's currency. If you run out of population to recruit from, defeat will shortly follow. Again, I can't emphasize enough how fast each match plays. There's certainly an intensity in trying to get the jump on your opponent early on, but it's very easy to get carried away by being too aggressive. Combat rarely felt repetitive due to the fast pace, although there was enough repetition in the actual maps to get tiresome. Matches are extremely forgiving however due to the option to immediately restart at any point, and it's tempting to want to continually retry to start off on the right foot. Depending on your playstyle this could be either positive or negative, but I personally found it to be a welcome addition, especially early on when I was still grasping the flow of the combat.
The obvious difference here is the ability to transform into a dragon to even the odds. Dragon form controls quite well, with the ability to dodge quickly and get a sudden burst of speed from a jetpack, making movement quick and responsive. Dragon form starts out as a small way to even the odds, but eventually becomes necessary later on as you unlock more devastating abilities. It's not all offensive either, as you can cast buffs or fire off healing spells and shields onto your units to protect them. It's a joy to fly around and dominate as a dragon, but you lose the ability to manage multiple units easily. While I'm sure some players will be quite good at managing in dragon form via the hotkeys, I found the trade-off strong enough to make me carefully consider when to transform.
All these unique styles of play are wrapped together with brilliant production values. Characters are well animated, look great, and have a distinct style to them. The Raven is beautiful on both a technical and artistic level, and I never found it repetitive to come back to. From a graphical standpoint the game is beautiful all around, with lighting, unit detail, and character design being the big standouts. What's most impressive is the way in which the camera moves from an incredibly fast third person dragon view, to a pulled-back RTS view, which works well without feeling too jerky or sudden. The UI is simple to understand, and while the strategic map could do with a bit more life, it gets the job done without being intrusive. The soundtrack, scored by Kirill Pokrovsky, is excellent all around, and rarely ever sounds like most generic fantasy themes. Every character is fully voiced, with no performance being noticeably weak. While I ran into a few minor bugs dealing with repetitive lines in the RTS battles, the game as a whole is surprisingly polished all around.
The later part of the game suffers from a few minor balance issues. Maxing out the research tree happened fairly early in my playthrough, and every fight was a breeze from there on out. Consequently, the last third of the game doesn't really have a sense of progression. The focus falls almost entirely on the battles, and some of the dialogue-based events start winding down and become less frequent. However, I suspect this may have been due to large amount of turns it took for me to finish the game.
The story campaign itself will last over 12 hours at the minimum, and there's certainly many reasons to return to it afterwards on greater difficulty levels due to the way choices are laid out. There's a fully-featured multiplayer with up to four players as well. Multiplayer has both a campaign map based mode, which basically removes any dialogue options on the Raven and instead relegates research to an option on the tactical map. If you prefer not to engage in those long matches, basic RTS skirmishes are available as well. I found that dragon form was much less effective here, and I suspect many players will prefer traditional RTS matches in multiplayer. If you opt not to play with others, there's a custom campaign mode with multiple strategic maps not included in the story that still keeps the dialogue and choice based scenarios.
My biggest worry with Dragon Commander was that it would feel too disjointed by having so many different components of gameplay, but I didn't feel like that was the case for most of the campaign. Very few games manage to combine genres while doing justice to them, so it's impressive that Larian was able to do so with genres synonymous with depth. Divinity: Dragon Commander is an excellently written and polished blend of action, RPG, and strategy that delivers on each front without feeling disjointed or glaringly weak in any one area. It's a game in which each component meshes together well as a whole package, and the end result is a fantastic genre mixing title that is both entertaining and thoughtfully constructed.