Divinity: Dragon Commander Review: Genre Potpourri

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Dragons, real-time strategy, and political simulation? Under different circumstances, Divinity: Dragon Commander could have been pitched as the game version of Aegon’s Conquest from A Song of Ice and Fire, and with minimal changes to to boot. Ditch the steampunk aesthetic, ground the airships to the water, and trade some of those turrets for catapults, and we’re there.

What we have instead is a curious wonderland where dragons speed about with jetpacks between gear-laden airships, while snooty lizard men demand to know your stance on same-sex marriage. Somehow, Larian Studios makes its new emphasis on real-time strategy work competently enough despite its significant departure from the Divinity series’ previous reliance on action RPG combat. Even if its story, little more than fluff to provide some context for the melange of steampunkery and traditional high fantasy that unfolds around you, doesn’t measure up to its setting and focus on interpersonal relationships.

Divinity: Dragon Commander
Platforms: PC
Developer: Larian Studios
Publisher: Larian Studios
Released: August 6, 2013
MSRP: $39.99

It starts off well enough, particularly with a compelling stylized animated short that details the death of the old emperor, after he fell in love with a dragon in the guise of a beautiful woman. Naturally, you’re the spawn of this fateful union. Yet there’s apparently no stigma against bastardy here, and by the time the first cutscene fades away, you’re in command of your own demon-powered airship and under the guidance of a wizard who’s equal parts Gandalf and Zeus. Alas, from here Dragon Commander’s plot devolves into simplicity. Your goal? Kick your upstart brothers’ butts into shape and reunite the empire through fire, steel, and a few rounds of sweet talking. There’s not even any real subtlety behind your actions; in essence, you’re the best candidate for leading the realm because you’re the only son who’s not a jerk.

Yet even though the overarching storyline never takes off as well as the airships it features, it’s nevertheless a pleasure to chat with the myriad travelers scattered throughout the rooms of your ship. Not only are they better rendered than the models you’ll find on the battlefield, but they all tell their own stories for those with the patience to listen, and the actors who voice them deliver them with a degree of skill that’s surprising considering Divinity: Dragon Commander’s quasi-indie origins. Only a few of these conversations have any real impact on the campaign, but hearing of the past tragedies and dreams of your shipmates allows you to slip into Divinity’s world more easily than through the primary tale of conquest.

These conversations make up only a small part of the journey toward ending this bloody tale of sibling rivalry. The layers here run deep: one moment you’ll be barking out orders to your troops on the battlefield while morphing into a dragon; the next you might be fiddling with the fate of entire races on the Risk-style world map. Back on the ship, you’ll chat with your advisers and emissaries from the world’s races of dwarves, elves, imps, lizards, and undead, and there’s even an element of collectible card games when on the world map. As a result, Divinity: Dragon Commander comes off as a hodgepodge of different games that shouldn’t work: a bit of Risk and Command and Conquer there; a dash of Elder Scrolls and Total War over there, and elements of Tropico and Magic: the Gathering thrown in for good measure.

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