The den of mercenaries is alert as you approach. Earlier today you bartered an audience with a nearby town’s leader in exchange for information about the pay-for-hire group and the artifact they have in their possession.
“Stop!” yells the outpost watchman. Your perceptive nature tells you that there are 3 more guards nearby, attacking would be suicide for a merchant of your skill; so you opt for a more amicable approach. “I’m a loremaster,” you say calmly, “My master has asked me to seek work outside of the city.” You think to yourself: Self, it’s a good thing I recently upped my knowledge of lore. A bead of sweat forms at your brow as you follow the watchman’s gaze from your boots to your tunic. His expression transitions from curiosity to anger...“You don’t look like a loremaster...” Crap!
The den of mercenaries is alert as you approach. “Stop!” yells the watchman. You decide to put on some loremaster gear you have in your possession... Let’s try that again.
If there’s one thing I learned from playing The Age of Decadence, the new RPG from indie developer Iron Tower Studios, it’s that I now need a 12-step program to get over creating new saves. For anyone with ADD tendencies, the multitude of options available in The Age of Decadence’s “choose your own adventure” style will likely coerce you into spending hours testing result after result. There are so many dialogue options that I had to pick up my reading glasses (I don’t own reading glasses). Had I known that the developers created a quid-pro-quo system of choices and consequences, I probably could have shaved a few hours off the learning curve and felt less of a need to see every possibility. Learn from my mistakes – just play it out and enjoy the story.
Familiar, But Only to StartThe premise of The Age of Decadence should be recognizable to any regular RPG-er. An empire with a strong resemblance to the Roman one lies in ruins. Fledgling towns struggle to survive, while guilds, ex-infantry, and bandits all vie for their share of the remaining power. Your journey in The Age of Decadence begins in the town of Teron, a substantial city in the old empire and seat of several notable factions. The destitute litter the streets while zealots and merchants pander to any who will lend them an ear. Survival will require you to be more than a mere jack of all trades – it will require someone who is extremely proficient with a few select skills.
This is where The Age of Decadence strays from standard RPGs. Where in most RPGs you can master: all forces of magic, fighting styles, crafting recipes, dialogue options, mercantile skills, you name it; The Age of Decadence forces you to focus your precious skill points on specific abilities and attributes. Mastering an odd set of skills that might not seem to have all that much to do with one another (e.g. Stealing + Blocking + Spear) will serve you exponentially better than having a balanced spread of all skills.
Which brings us to character creation. Accept the fact that your first character will be marginally your worst. Know that the best method of adaptation is to start a general character and play to the point of “I wish I had built my character with more insert skill” and then start from scratch. Considering that The Age of Decadence is a moderately short game (10-12 hours), this becomes an especially viable plan.
Customization is limited. You can choose your gender, cycle through a few preset faces, hairstyles, hair colors, beard options, and skin colors, but the look is relatively generic. The choice of your background will determine a few faction standings and create a modifiable preset skill selection, but it mostly serves to determine which main quests will be available to you.
Selecting a “drifter” (default selection) will set your major stats at the minimum value of 4 and allow you to allocate stat points as you choose into six major categories: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Perception, Intelligence, and Charisma. Increasing any of the first 3 stats will also directly increase major combat factors (damage, action points, and hit points) and generate combat skill points, which can then be used to increase your proficiency with specific weapons and defense tactics. Increasing the remaining three stats will directly increase civil skill factors (accuracy, extra skill point generation, and social reaction bonus) as well as generate civil skill points which can be used to gain aptitude with civil skills ranging from the less-than-noble lockpicking and stealing to more respectable talents in persuasion, alchemy, and metal crafting.
It’s important to note the effect that point allocation has on how the game plays out. Your major stats will be “checked” against several major plot points to determine how the story will unfold. Not having enough points in Intelligence will prevent a certain portion of the loremaster questline from being available. Additionally, during most NPC conversations, checks against your civil and combat skills will determine how many dialogue options you will have and ultimately determine how the story develops. This facet of the game makes a diligent “save often” gameplay style very important for those who want to gain achievements and see more of the story.
Development Thoughts The Age of Decadence has a simple appearance with its gritty graphics and text-based dialogue, but it is rich with sounds and stories. There is an obvious focus on ambiance as sitars and cowhide drums flare up when you enter desert towns, or ominous sounds emanate as you approach the metaphysically endowed “Abyss.” I wouldn’t say it’s easy to become immersed, as for me at least, that state required a decent amount of effort to get to (lots of reading). However, once you have been drawn in it remains relatively easy to imagine yourself trapped in the aftermath of a great empire. The quantity of lore available in this game is not just lengthy, it’s well thought out and masterfully intertwined into the story.
The assortment of skills is broad. Surprisingly, most of the game can be completed using social skills. Become a smooth enough talker and you can take over guilds, convince widows to give you money, and take out entire groups of bandits without lifting a sword. On the other hand, kill enough people and soon the merchants, beggars, and sometimes even skilled fighters will bow to your will. The game fiercely rewards expertise no matter where it lies, and wreaks havoc on anything less. Consider a fighting character: Armor and weapon choice are heavily weighted toward specific playstyles. For example, a stealth player needs to be quick so he can dodge, he will suffer tremendously if using anything beyond leather armor and a dagger. A legionnaire who specializes with a spear strikes from a distance and has little use for armor, anything that detracts from his attack points or critical strike is worthless to him. Alternatively, a sword bearer will find no utility in leather or with spears – he fights up close, so give him a sword or axe and some strong armor to soak up the blows he will no doubt endure.
Player movement will take a little getting used to. All movements can be performed using a mouse but it’s beneficial to devote certain camera movements to the WASD keys. It took me some time to realize it, but double clicking an area will make your character run. The interface is simple enough. Buttons to open up skill screens, an inventory page, quest notes, and a map. Nothing of significant note.
CritiquesDespite many positive qualities in The Age of Decadence, there was one problem that became apparent after a few hours of playtime: a peculiar system of checks in single dialogue strings. In a several cases you have to pass 4 or 5 checks throughout the string to reach the end and successfully advance the quest. If you fail one part, then the quest is lost and you end up practicing your ability of loading a game and reapplying whatever skill points you have available. This wouldn’t be a terrible aspect except that in many strings, a check is performed against one of your main attributes … attributes that are locked in place at character creation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of playing through a game multiple times, especially if it will tweak the ending significantly, but forcing players to create a new character just to expand one portion of a questline seemed overdone.
This second point is less of a complaint and more of a note to players. You will never (as far as I can tell) be able to complete all quests in a single play-through. There will be a mob fight that is too hard to beat if you’ve focused on social skills. There will be some social situations that will remain unresolved if you’ve focused on fighting. The constant check/load/reapply skills started to take their toll and at a point near 20 hours, it felt like I was doing little more than completing chores. If you are like me and want to “do it all,” this game will probably end up becoming tiresome.