Mon, Aug 19, 2013 | 03:55 BST
Dragon Commander: weird, flawed, but courageous indie
Brenna surfaces briefly from under a pile of sequels and uninspired clones clutching a copy of one of the weirdest games we’ve seen in ages – Divinity: Dragon Commander.
I’m rubbish at real-time strategy and do pretty much everything I can to avoid it, but when I found out Divinity: Dragon Commander was all about flying around as a dragon with a jetpack, I knew I had to check it out.
Dragon form allows the commander to zip about the battlefield, firing streams of fire and other special skills, including healing fields, buffs and debuffs, while narrowly avoiding ranged attacks. It’s a little bit like having a hero unit, as in Warcraft 3 or similar, but feels more action-y. This resolves one of the major issues I have with strategy games (and MMOs, for that matter), which is that I often feel like I’m not really involved in the fight.
On the other hand, it’s pretty distracting. I struggled to master the arcane art of controlling units while in dragon form, although I’ve heard other, more experiences keyboard warriors had a better time with it, and I didn’t get around to fiddling with the key bindings. I would often forget that I was supposed to be building resources and attacking strongholds with my armies, preferring to chip away slowly at the enemy with my jetpack-wearing dragon; this usually didn’t end very well for any of us, although the enemy quite liked it. Reincarnating your dragon form after you’ve been blasted from the skies isn’t cheap, either. Those of you with longer attention spans may have a better time here.
I feel like Dragon Commander might have worked better with turn-based battles, where you could opt to participate and alter your chances in specific battles in dragon form – as it is, it’s all a bit overwhelming. The joy of flapping about as a dragon has to take a back seat to tactics and management, and for hardcore strategy fans, all the dragon stuff is likely to be distracting. It’s not an easy game, even when you do get the hang of it all.
There is a turn-based element, actually, as between real-time battles you tootle about the map in a ship attempting to keep the empire united. The game is well entrenched in the Divinity lore and the single-player story is quite interesting; there’s even an element of life-sim in there, with your choice of princesses. Occasionally your advisors ask your opinion on a matter of state, and it can be tricky to keep everyone happy, but these little sections are filled with humour and personality.
A fairly agile indie, I don’t think Larian needs to sell a great many copies of Dragon Commander to make its effort worthwhile. This is a good thing, because it’s going right under the radar. Even in the current console release drought, the approach of the next-gen transition is starting to suck in gamer attention. Europe has always been kinder to strategy, PC gaming and homegrown development, but gamescom will be dominated by new consoles this year. On top of that, we’re coming into triple-A release season, and must prepare for the inevitable barrage of sequels and clones which, lord love them, turn up every year and have been especially egregious for the last few.
Dragon Commander isn’t perfect, but it’s weird experiments like this that lay the foundations for new genres, and when the console transition injects some cash back into the industry we should start to see the indie revolution begin to bear fruit inside mainstream games. If you have any hipster aspirations, don’t wait; check it out now, and get in on flying-dragon-shooter-RTS-empire-building-life-sims before they were cool.
Divinity: Dragon Commander is available now for $40 on PC via GOG.com and Steam.