If you want to be the hero of a story, run and don't look back.
Age of Decadence
Age of Decadence is a hardcore RPG set in a post-apocalyptic world that follows the fall of a fictional Roman Empire. The game has been developed by Iron Tower Studio over the past 11 years and promised a return to the style of the memorable old-school RPGs, featuring multiple ways of solving quests through skills, challenging combat, an emphasis on choices and consequences and complex dialogue trees. In order to see whether the developers delivered on these promises or not, I took my sweet time and played through the game three times. Let's see how I reached my conclusion that Age of Decadence is one of the best RPGs in recent years.
A few words of warning before we kick off this review: the game is targeted at a very small and specific audience. It is hardcore and merciless, it lacks any type of hand-holding, it teases you with insulting death screens and its production value is small, so there'll be no flashy effects. Seeing all that Age of Decadence has to offer or even understanding its story requires multiple playthroughs, a design decision that is completely different from how most recent titles choose to serve it all in one go. Nonetheless, there is a demo version available on Steam, so nobody can claim that they were misled or disappointed.
The game starts off with a complex character creation system. There are no classes to choose from, but instead you pick one of the eight possible backgrounds, such as mercenary, merchant, loremaster or assassin. Your background affects your starting reputation with the factions in the world of Age of Decadence, but I'll touch on that later. Next up, stats: quite similar to the SPECIAL system used in Fallout, we have Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Perception, Intelligence and Charisma. Last but not least and probably the most important and defining part of your character, the skills are divided in two categories: combat and civil. Combat skills are separated between skills for each type of weapon in the game and also dodging, blocking and critical strikes. Civil skills feature all types of abilities that help you deal with situations in a peaceful way or improve your gear for combat: sneaking, persuading, crafting, alchemy - poisons! -, trading and many others. It's a system that greatly encourages multiple playthroughs to experiment with each background and skill.
I feel like I should add another warning: it is very important to choose skills in a sensible manner and not to spread them too thin. This is one of the reasons why this game may not appeal to everyone: you're not going to be very successful if you decide to be a jack of all trades like you are encouraged to be in Bethesda games. Playing a mercenary? You won't need big Intelligence and you'll have a lower number of skill points, so investing them only in a weapon skill, dodging or blocking and critical strike will be more than enough. What about a merchant? You could use more points in Intelligence and will be able to invest in more civic skills. Basically, go with a very real life approach when choosing skills. Specialise only in a few things. It'll help you in the long run.
|So many possible builds!|
Your character is now ready to enter the universe of Age of Decadence. The story takes place in a fresh and unexplored setting: the post-apocalyptic world left after the fall of a fictional Roman Empire, which was long ago locked in conflict with the Q'antaar, an Aztec inspired kingdom. Both sides summoned gods to come to their aid, and while this brought an end to the fighting, it almost entirely destroyed the world. A long time after that, the shattered remnants of the Empire are trying to rebuild the world despite their conflicting interests. As the search for old artifacts and machines goes on, loremasters become more important than ever. Three Noble Houses remain: Daratan, Aurelian and Crassus, all vying for power. The Imperial Guard was once the main force that maintained the peace, but now has its own plans. An organisation of merchants called the Commercium controls other factions through its economic power. Two guilds exist for those who prefer the shadows, the Boatmen of the Styx - assassins- and the Forty Thieves - thieves -. The world has become a playground for all these conflicting factions, and you discover a map that leads to an unexplored temple. What will you do?
|Welcome to the Age of Decadence.|
The choice is yours, but the possibilities are ample. Freedom is the word that best describes Age of Decadence. You are given the freedom to explore its world in whichever way you choose to. You aren't tied to a clicheic main objective of saving the world or becoming the greatest hero ever seen. No, you start as a nobody and you simply live, and living can be both a mundane and exciting thing. You can get your hands dirty and be a mercenary that signs up with the Imperial Guard or offers his services to one of the lords of the Noble Houses. Or be a merchant that gets involved in the Commercium's plots. Or choose to strike from the shadows as an assassin in the Boatmen of the Styx. You can even decide to damn every one of them and go looking for artefacts and temples as a loremaster. The game offers the best replayability value of all RPGs in recent years, with each playthrough taking at least 10 hours and feeling like a new experience.
To reinforce the idea of freedom that I've mentioned above, let's take a look at my three playthroughs. My first character was a mercenary who took up every fighting chance and joined the Imperial Guard, advancing in the ranks and furthering their goals. He was also a champion of the arena and racked up almost 100 kills during his adventures. My second character was a loremaster who went through the game without fighting once and also was a member of the Commercium. Whereas my mercenary would look at old machines with a complete lack of understanding and would fear the retribution of the gods in case he touched them, the loremaster would understand their purpose and how to use them. Age of Decadence feels extremely natural: if something works a certain way in the real world, expect it to work the same way in the game. I finished my first playthrough without a clear understanding of the story, because the mercenary was pretty dumb and had no interest in old conflicts and gods. My loremaster offered me a completely different experience and I discovered a lot more about the story. The last character I played was an assassin with a mix of both combat and civic skills, which proved an insane challenge in terms of game difficulty. Each playthrough felt entirely different to the other ones in terms of how I used my skills to get through quests and the side of the story that I got to see due to my different choices in terms of factions. I wish more RPGs would do the same thing. If Iron Tower Studio achieved this with their small budget, I can only dream of what a RPG with an AAA budget would be like if they would follow their example.
|My mercenary is pretty dumb..|
|However, my loremaster isn't.|
The game features three cities and multiple other smaller locations to explore such as old temples, libraries and monasteries. The cities, Teron, Maadoran and Ganezzar, are where the bulk of the action happens and where most of the quests are. Speaking of quests, I haven't mentioned that they are the main method of obtaining skill points and furthering your character development. All of them offer several ways of solving them based on your skills, which may not be that obvious with a combat focused character but can be easily seen with a talker or a hybrid. Quests also feature an interesting new addition: after talking to a NPC, you can choose to be teleported to the next NPC involved in that quest, removing the need to wander through the city and waste time. Your actions in the world are also remembered through a few other states such as body count, prestige or word of honor, which these can be used in a few quests, though not as often as I would have liked. All in all, there is a great replayability value here.
|Using body count for intimidation.|
|Multiple options #1.|
|Multiple options #2.|
Age of Decadence is a game that is very strong in the writing department, which helps create intriguing factions and characters that support the story. Playing through it involves a lot of reading -though not as much as in Shadowrun Hong Kong, for example -, especially if you're going for a pacifist approach, but the dialogues and the descriptions do not feel like lore dumps. Instead, they feel natural, from the manner in which soldiers and merchants talk to the descriptions of old tombs and artefacts. Characters are believable and interesting, although I didn't feel like any of them were too memorable. The writing does its job very well and made me want to learn more about the motivations of the factions and about the old world and its gods.
Let's move onto combat and say a few words about the difficulty of the game. Assuming that you have invested your skills in a sensible way, the entirely peaceful approach isn't too difficult. However, building your character as a killing machine and getting through the game poses a much greater challenge. Ultimately, playing a hybrid - investing in both combat and civil skills - proves to be the ultimate test, as you are forced to maximise your character's potential while spreading your skills points perfectly. The combat in Age of Decadence is brutal and unforgiving. Hell, the game starts with a warning that tells you that you're no hero and you should expect all encounters to pose a great challenge. Would you engage in a 1v5 in real life? Most likely not, so the game expects you won't do it here either except in situations where you are extremely well trained and geared.
Onto the specifics of the combat. First, we have the fighting specific skills: a skill for each type of weapon - sword, axe, hammer, dagger, bow, crossbow, etc -, blocking, dodging and critical strike. Investing in a weapon skill increases your chance to hit with that weapon, and each weapon has different bonuses such as bleeding or increased criticals. You also have to choose between blocking and dodging and stick with one. Blocking is useful especially in fights against ranged enemies, whereas dodging can help you to entirely evade blows and counterattack more often. Combat is turn-based and involves actions that take up Action Points (APs). Each weapon has multiple types of attacks: fast attacks require less AP but have a higher chance to hit and are more efficient against poorly armored enemies, whereas power attacks are exactly the opposite. There are also multiple types of targeted strikes : aim for the head and you'll probably knock your opponent down and stun him for the next round, unless he's wearing a helmet. You can also aim for the arms or the legs to reduce enemy accuracy or movement speed. All in all, the combat feels very challenging but fair, as there is always at least one sound strategy that will get you through even the hardest fights. My only complaint is that when I got stuck on an encounter, performing the same sequence of actions would sometimes lead to a resounding defeat and other times to a victory, and this is all due to the probabilities of hitting, critting, dodging or blocking. So despite the fact that choosing your skills and strategies well is paramount, there's also a small degree of luck involved in winning the fights you pick, which can be frustrating.
|There are a few epic battles in the game.|
We've almost reached the end of the review, so all that's left to look at is the visual and audio aspects of the game, as well as a few other things that have bothered me. Visually, this is where the low production value and huge development length of Age of Decadence has its say. Iron Tower Studio has always let it be known that they are focusing on refining the elements of the old school RPGs into something memorable, and not on a title that is visually impressive. So it is no surprise that what we have here looks like a game from maybe.. 2008. But when all the other elements come together perfectly and form such a definitive RPG experience, do the graphics matter anymore? My answer is no. This may be a thing that turns away the players who prefer visually impressive games, but Age of Decadence was never intended for those players anyway.
In terms of audio, I was positively impressed with the soundtrack, despite the fact that I didn't find it very memorable. I especially loved the game's main theme and Maadoran's theme felt very Fallout-ish for some reason - I am referring to the first two games -. The songs fit the Roman Empire setting while also evoking melancholy over the destruction of the old world. The game's OST can't compete with OSTs from games of this year like The Witcher 3 or Ori and the Blind Forest due to the fact that the developer is such a small studio, but it does its job pretty well and creates a beautiful atmosphere. Beside the soundtrack, the game doesn't feature any voice acting and its ambient and combat sounds feel a bit bland. Nevertheless, Age of Decadence fares quite well in the audio category.
I mentioned that there were a few things that bothered me, so let's go over them now. The game starts in a strong way with the first two cities in terms of things to do and quests to complete, but in each of my playthoughs I felt that the last city did not have enough content at all. This feels disappointing, but as far as I'm aware, the developers know of this and have stated that they will address it. The other thing that annoyed me were the frequent crashes of the game at launch. After finally defeating a tough enemy in the arena that required dozens of retries, the last thing I needed was a crash. And this happened a few times, although not as often recently. Nonetheless, it is a good idea to spam those quicksaves.
Not too many complaints, eh? Let's sum it all up then. Age of Decadence is a fantastic RPG that easily puts to shame many AAA releases from the past few years. It is one of those games that truly lets you roleplay however you wish, and this gives it great replayability value through all of its factions, multiple ways of building your character and different stories to be experienced. I have only felt like this in Fallout 2's New Reno, where I had the freedom to join any of the families in the city. Oh, and I could also become a pornstar. Age of Decadence takes it one step further with all the possibilities it offers and is a must play for any gamer that misses the "golden era" of CRPGs.
(This article is based on a press copy of the game provided by the developer.)
+ Interesting and unexplored setting
+ Lack of a clicheic main story, playing as a nobody
+ Multiple factions with individual and completely different storylines
+ Challenging and complex combat system
+ Plenty of ways to build your character and solve quests
+ Best replayability value in ages
+ Great writing
+ Beautiful soundtrack
- Visually unappealing
- Lack of content in the last city
- Combat is partly based on luck
- Crashed a lot at launch (improved now)
Written by Wolfe for The Game Slashers.