I’ll state right upfront that I’ve never played a Heroes of Might and Magic. Maybe that’s blasphemous, but such is life—you can’t play anything, and HOMM is one of those things that passed me by. A bring this up because, if you’re hoping for a review that’ll dive deep into how The Dragoness: Command of the Flame compares to its stated inspirations, this isn’t the one—sorry! Instead, I come at it with fresh eyes and no expectations, and from that perspective, The Dragoness is fun. Not amazing, but an enjoyable enough romp that takes a slightly different approach than most of today’s tactical RPGs.
In The Dragoness, you play as the commander of a squad of monsters, sent out into the world to undertake missions at the behest of the titular queen of dragons. Battles play out in a familiar turn-based fashion on a tiled battlefield, with said monsters doing most of the dirty work (though you can, as command, throw in a few spells here and there). But those little skirmishes are only part of the picture—you also need to make sure your squad is up to the task of increasingly tough battles that lay ahead.
To that end, exploration plays a crucial role: as you move around each map, you’ll find various ways to strengthen your team, from huts where you can recruit new monsters, to shops selling passive bonus-inducing artifacts, to universities that give you an instant level up—and with it, the chance to gain a new spell or bonus. Gathering resources are crucial for being able to recruit new fighters, and space management is also vital: you only have a limited number of spots in your party, but you can combine identical monsters into more powerful forms to make space. Depending on the map, there are also usually sidequests of some sort or other, with the promise of special rewards when you complete them.
With this, The Dragoness creates an intriguing dynamic of party growth and strategy. Aside from the commander herself, who plays a strictly support role, there’s no linear growth path; instead, a stronger army comes from carefully choosing when and which monsters to recruit, and making the most of the limited resources available. Turns are also a factor to consider, too: exploring the map is done in a turn-based fashion, with each turn consuming some of a limited supply of rations. Run out of food, and your army will suffer, so you need to use your turns wisely.
If you’re not coming from a Heroes of Might and Magic background, it takes a bit of getting used to. I spent my early hours mostly in frustration, with armies hamstrung by general approach of just recruiting whoever crossed my path first—the end result being a team of weak monsters, spread too thin across different types in a way that meant limited opportunities to combine and strengthen them. But once you get into the rhythm of this particular style of strategy, thinking ahead to what sort of army you want to build and working towards that—while dealing with whatever unknowns a new adventure throws at you—becomes a satisfying endeavour. Combat itself is slow and rather sterile, some boss fights aside, but the fun of The Dragoness is in how you prepare for those encounters.
For better and worse, there’s also a bit of a “roguelite” twist—emphasis on the “lite”. After each mission, win your lose, your character gets reset and you start the next with a clean slate. Each new outing gives you the choice of a couple of different semi-randomised starting bonuses for your commander, and the chance to build your initial army from a pool of monsters that’s relatively small at first, but grows over time. As you use resources brought back from your expeditions to build up your home base, the choices available—and relative strength of those options—grows, so there’s a persistent sense of growth and continuity, but each outing is a fresh run.
On one hand, it works nicely: it ensures a little bit of variance from mission to mission, and creates the opportunity to try new builds and tactics. Building up your army is the most enjoyable part of The Dragoness, and each fresh start is a chance to tweak and fine tune your approach, rather than just playing a game of continual power scaling in the way that most RPGs have you doing. The different commander starting builds don’t have a huge influence in the scheme of things, but they do at least make you think briefly about what your priorities are in this moment, for whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish—do you want to be able to bring more resources back from your expedition to help build up your base, or have the safety buffer afforded by starting with a healing spell?
On the other hand, it’s held back by not being “roguelite” enough: aside from the relatively minor impact of the commander’s bonuses, there’s not much variability, and once you’ve found an army setup that works, there’s little incentive to do anything other than try recreate the same one run after run. You can also save to your heart’s content, and reload from a save if you die—as such, there’s little risk in just taking a gamble on something, and none of the tension that usually comes with the threat of failure in a typical roguelike. In a more tedious vein, it can also implicitly encourage save scumming, especially on harder missions where managing your food levels gets trickier; reloading a save over and over again in order to find the most efficient way of picking the map clean isn’t a whole lot of fun. The roguelite aspect is an intriguing idea, but The Dragoness struggles to make the most of the opportunities that kind of setup could provide.
It also suffers more generally from a lack of finesse. The user interface is clumsy and often unhelpful, especially when it comes to getting detailed information about, say, the effects of different spells when you’re levelling up and have to choose which one to learn. Combat tends to be slow and tedious, not due to the tactical nature of the thing, but just in how long it takes every action to animate and the moments of downtime between turns. There’s an overarching narrative tying the whole thing together, but it’s generic fantasy fare that, despite some attempts at humour, mostly falls painfully flat.
It could do with some better optimisation, too: it’s not a graphically demanding game by any stretch, but it’s surprisingly resource intensive. My GTX 950M setup is old and relatively low-spec by today’s standards, but it can usually handle games of a similar graphical footprint just fine. With The Dragoness, I had no option but to play on the lowest settings, and even then deal with frequent slowdowns and long loading times. Controller support wouldn’t go amiss either, or at least the ability to set custom keyboard hotkeys.
But, despite its shortcomings and the missed opportunity to do more with its roguelite concept, The Dragoness: Command of the Flame is still worthwhile for anyone looking for a slightly different take on the tactical RPG. I can’t tell you if it’ll hit the spot for a Might and Magic fan, but as someone with no background in them—and, therefore, no burden of expectations—I’ve enjoyed my time with it well enough. Whether or not it lives up to its inspirations, it’s still a nice introduction to an interesting niche.