Posted: April 7, 2014
What do you expect from this game? Because if you are looking for a good RTS and turn based gameplay, Divinity Dragon Commander isn't the game that's going to scratch that itch for you, even though it employs those mechanics. But if you are looking for a conceptually interesting game, with emphasis on story, character and choices, then I dare say that Divinity Dragon Commander might be worth checking out, if and only if, you are willing to be patient with it and accept the shortcomings of the action phases, meaning the RTS battles.
Divinity Dragon Commander is divided in three parts of gameplay: story and political decisions, turn based Risk-like movement troops on a military map and real-time strategy confrontation during which you can control a dragon. The three phases of the game influence each other in a delightful way: the political decision you make have an impact on all the areas of the map, and the level of bonuses you get from them, depending on the faction to which each county belongs. For example, if you are popular with the elves, your elven controlled regions will grant you more money and will also be more easy to defend. At the same time, it will be harder for the enemy to hold on to those elvish districts. Obviously, should you be less popular, those bonus would become penalties, making the game actually very difficult, even in the RTS sequences of the game, where the number of recruits, and thus units you can build, is tied to your popularity.
But on that point, it needs to be said that the whole game is pretty difficult if you don't know its workings. The learning curve is all over the place. The game doesn't explain the consequence of your political decisions and the nefarious effects of a popularity of zero percent with one or more factions. Worse, going against the wishes of the undead faction, which is blessed by the gods, actually gives you a penalty during automatic battle resolutions, which is bound to happen sooner or later since you can only manage one battle per turn personally. This battle penalty can go pretty high as I found out, up to -26% apparently. I wouldn't necessarily recommend that particular experience. The RTS phases are a lot easier if you compromise you political stance and try to accommodate most of the factions, at least some of the time.
The problems during the battles do not only spring from what the game doesn't establish in mechanics, but also from balancing issues. At the start of the game, you can choose from three dragons, but the differences aren't obvious: the mage-like dragon has more health and better mobility but deals the least amount of damage, whereas the biggest, fastest dragon has the best damage output, but the less health and mobility. The starting skills of each dragon are also different, but since you can unlock every talent for every dragon, it's really a none issue. The problem is that the mage-dragon deals so little damage, that it takes ages to kill anything while the enemy has no problem pummelling that particular dragon to death. Sure, in multilayer, it might make a difference, but for the story campaign, I see no point in going down that road.
Also, on the turn based map, it is possible to build local improvements which in turn grant you cards that you can play before a battle to improve your odds of winning, or granting temporary bonuses to counties. But, from all the dozens and dozens of different cards it is possible to get, very clearly the tavern, which grants you mercenaries, is the best way to go. All of a sudden, you can attack an enemy, one unit against ten, and then just summon a whole army of mercenaries to take care of things.
Besides these balancing issues, there is also the fact that it is possible to carry over gold between acts. There are three acts in the game, and while you are limited in what you can take with you between act I and II, there is no limit between what it is possible to import to act III. While the game puts an emphasis on rushing down opponents, it is well worth waiting a dozen turns at the end of each act to maximise the treasure, the research trees and the cards, stacking up on mercenary ones. The worst part is, winning or, at least for me, enjoying the game, seems to require using these exploits to gain the upper hand against the IA and avoiding most of the dreadful RTS sequences.
Because there is no way around it, those sequences aren't well made. That they are functional is about the only good thing I can say about them. The RTS aspects of it are rather simplistic, and the tactics are seldom more developed than surviving, building a large army and dumping it on the enemy. The fact that it is possible to play as a dragon during those phases is refreshing, and it is nice to fly over the battlefield, helping you troops and raining down fire on your enemies. But this makes it almost impossible to control you troops, managing your army, buildings, etc. So it is constantly necessary to switch back and forth between dragon and RTS controls.
As a balancing issue, -again!-, the speed of the game is a huge problem. It is possible to determine how fast, or slow, the RTS portion of the game can run. This means that everything can happen either twice as fast, or only at fifty percent of the speed. Here is the kicker: the dragon you control isn't influence by the change in pace, meaning that he still moves and attacks at the same speed, regardless of the speed of the enemies. This is completely broken since it means that enemies can dish out twice as much damage to you on higher speed, but only fifty percent on the lowest speed, which makes it also much more easier to dodge. So turning the speed to “slowest” during the RTS section is almost a vital necessity.
But if, on paper, one third of the game is worth rushing through, the rest of it must be that much better, to compensate, right?
From the start, Divinity Dragon Commander pulled me in: the introduction sequence, and it's music, set a refreshing tone for me, as well as the first contact with the generals under your command. The personality, characterisation and style really shines through during those moment. It is the most polished part of the game and the effort shows.
The characters feel almost larger than life, straight out of a play, going through individual arcs with their quirks and personal demons, down one path or another, depending on your guidance. The voice acting is just perfect, I couldn't even think of one thing to improve on in that regard. It hits every mark! The dialogue made me think, it made me laugh, it completely mesmerized me. There is so much personality here, even in the background of the scenes where you make decision (like the amazing skeletal barmaid).
The opinion of the player is asked constantly over subject which are sometimes trivial and funny, or very serious. It is sad to only have two options as choices, no matter the subject, but it does make things more straightforward. Although, you would be surprised how often the obvious choice isn't always the right one. I liked it a lot, but I suppose it requires a certain interest in political issues, if only to catch the jokes, the nudges and the parodies represented here.
I was also very surprised by some of the different issues you get, depending on what you decided earlier. Turning down the imp faction looking to build a giant bomb will result in them coming back with a super soldier project, whereas agreeing in the first place, will only ask more and more of you in the search for the “biggest and badest explosion ever”. Each faction (of which there are five), each general (four in this case) and each queen (again, four) has one of these quests with a lot of multiple branching.
Still, although I enjoyed my time with Divinity Dragon Commander, I cannot justify its full price tag, for what content I liked amounted to not even half of what the game had to offer.