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RPG Codex Review: The Age of Decadence
Review - posted by VentilatorOfDoom on Mon 7 December 2015, 09:31:44Tags: Age of Decadence; Iron Tower Studios
[Review by Darth Roxor]
Potius sero quam numquam
Disclaimer: Per his own request, this review is dedicated to Goral, my favourite cultist of the Church of AoD.
Having spent over 11 years in development, I think it’s safe to say that Age of Decadence has gone far beyond being just a regular video game and has transformed instead into a peculiar social phenomenon. At least, of course, among those In The Know because your average Joe has likely never heard of it. Yet here, on RPG Codex, where it all began, talks of Thursday release dates, competitions with Mr Blakemore’s Grimoire and the countless prophecies of the coming incline need neither explanations nor introductions.
And so it happened that one sunny October Wednesday (bastards can’t even keep the most basic of promises), Iron Tower Studio’s magnum opus (and debut) Age of Decadence saw the light of day, much to the surprise of everyone who thought the game was but a very elaborate prank.
Yours truly was sceptical of AoD and initially didn’t even plan on playing it, because he thought the very first demo was kind of crap. Yet the random hand of fate delivered the game to him instead, and, after that, there was no going back. I just couldn’t wait to witness firsthand the terrible single-character turn-based combat plagued by RNG, the paranoid hoarding of skill points, the restarting and savescumming bonanza and the many other attractions the game had in store.
But was all that true in the end?
Arma virumque cano
Our adventure in AoD begins, naturally, by creating a character. First we pick the protagonist’s appearance and background, after which we move to the statistics.
There are eight backgrounds to choose from. Four of them already start as members of certain factions (assassin, thief, merchant and praetor), while the other four are non-affiliated (loremaster, mercenary, grifter, drifter). The choice influences the character’s starting vignette, its reputation among various factions and a few very minor details later in the game.
You don’t have to worry about the starting reputations, considering how rarely those things get checked in the first place. If anything, you’ll usually check your reputation with the faction you’re currently a member of, so it’ll be pretty high by default.
As for the backgrounds altogether, one question that I have to ask is what exactly is the purpose of the non-affiliated ones. AoD doesn’t really support a “freelancer” path through the game, and the only non-starting faction that can be joined is the Imperial Guard. Your grifter is likely going to become a thief or a merchant anyway (which is rather suspiciously at odds with the background itself), and the only difference between the three will be the starting adventure. The loremaster perhaps can do a few unique things in the first city, but other than that? Mercenary, grifter and drifter could all be merged into one without much harm.
Next up are the stats and skills. There is a lot of interconnection here between just about everything, and making your character is going to be a nail-biting experience for plenty of reasons.
There are 6 stats (3 physical, 3 mental), all with certain effects upon the character (damage bonus, skill point bonus, HP value, etc). Their values range from 4 to 10, they can’t be increased in-game barring extraordinary circumstances and your stat pool to be distributed among them is only 16, so you will be forced to dump some of them. And given how often all stats are checked in various circumstances, usually important and exclusive, juggling them is not as easy as you’d expect. Specialisation is key in AoD, and while a do-it-all hybrid character is possible, you’re likely going to need either a solid briefing from a veteran player before starting or at least 2-3 playthroughs of your own to find out the “winning” combination. In fact, it is highly likely that your first character is going to be a bumbling fool barely able to succeed at anything.
Your stats also influence your starting skill point pools. There is a neat distinction here between combat and civil skill categories that is as simple as it is obvious, which only makes me wonder how come other RPGs don’t use it as well. Physical stats give you combat SP (weapon skills, defence, critical strike), while mental stats give you civil SP (everything else). This is also upheld all across the game. Clobbering people gives combat SP that you can’t spend on lockpicking, and negotiations will give you civil SP that won’t make you better at dodging. Of course, you’ll also be getting ‘general’ SP that can be spent on both.
Each combat skill has a unique twist to it, and it’s very commendable how different most of these weapon types feel while remaining comparatively useful. Spears are optimised to keep your attackers at bay. Daggers are fast but reliant on critical strikes. Hammers can knock people down and damage their armour. Bows allow for superior kiting and crippling, while crossbows pack a punch and can send enemies to the ground. There are also synergies between them, in that raising axes will improve your hammer skill, but ultimately, I don’t really think it allows for building a ‘weaponsmaster’ character, simply because, again, specialisation is key. Plus, most weapon categories have enough variety within them, both among one-handed and two-handed weapons, not to require switching to another skill to fit a different purpose.
Civil skills encompass all the other stuff you could think of, from crafting and alchemy, through sneaking and stealing, to lore and etiquette. There aren’t any direct synergies here, but they often appear in skillchecks as pairs – e.g. Streetwise + Persuasion if you want to tell a very convincing lie or Lore + Crafting if you want to fix a broken machine. Here, however, the situation is a far cry from the equal usefulness of the combat skills. Everything in AoD is very, VERY noticeably skewed in favour of Lore (and, by extension, Crafting, which is often paired with it, and which is near-mandatory for combat characters). I am not exaggerating when I say that skipping Lore is going to bar your character from a very significant amount of content and will not really give you anything in return for specialising in other skills. On the other hand, you may play through the game never encountering a single significant Traps or Trading check and never missing out on anything due to their lack.
Thus, it is unfortunately very easy to funnel yourself into a “trap” build. The developers have stated multiple times that making a character that simply “makes sense” is enough for you to be successful. But I really do beg to differ. My first character, an assassin, I envisioned as a “ninja” type of survivalist sneaker relying on his own wits, focusing on Alchemy, Sneak, Streetwise, etc. What I had in mind was climbing into people’s villas via balconies, putting scorpions under their pillows and disappearing into the crowds unnoticed. You know, typical assassin business. Imagine my surprise when the assassins’ guild modus operandi was mostly centred around approaching people from the front door and shanking them, forcing me into countless Impersonate checks and never letting me pull off the things I expected my character to do.
On the other hand, my most successful character was a loremaster/diplomat/gladiator/blacksmith/scoundrel extraordinaire who, despite his completely nonsensical set of stats and skills, managed to, essentially, do everything there was to do in the game.
A large part of this stems from the blasted mandatory Lore/Crafting. Simply put, the rich get richer in AoD – every new place unlocks more places, and thus more SP. Without Lore in place X, you won’t get to Y, and by extension to Z. My poor Lore-less assassin, therefore, was constantly starved for SP, constantly underperforming, and constantly skipping content without unlocking anything in exchange based on his skillset. Meanwhile, the loremaster übermensch was swimming in so much Lore-harvested SP, he still had 80 left in the bank by the end of the game and basically ran out of things to improve.
Thus, while AoD has no difficulty levels, a comprehensive set can be easily produced based on your character build:
- Easy – a character focused solely on conversation skills and never going into combat.
- Medium – a dedicated combat character.
- Hard – a hybrid that has to be good at both talking and killing.
- Ultraviolence – a hybrid without Lore and/or Crafting.
The grounds for this classification are many, and I’ll leave them for later. Yet there is one more reason why Crafting is so important in my view, but this time it’s related to combat. The items you can craft are so insanely better than nearly anything you can buy or loot in the game, it’s not even funny, and you can’t even get an NPC blacksmith to craft something for you. But meanwhile, every single two-bit back-alley thug is going to have masterwork arms and armour. This is also another reason why my poor assassin got so shafted throughout the game – he couldn’t craft any ammunition. There is a linear progression of five types of materials available for crafting in AoD – bronze, iron, steel, blue steel and meteor. However, you won’t find a single merchant in the game that would sell arrows above iron, even though steel is as common as potato. Thus, even though I had some 5k unspent gold by the end of the game (that I couldn’t possibly hope to spend on anything useful, as money in AoD is absolutely not an issue), I was still running around with silly iron arrows and a leather jacket that I looted (off a dead ally) back in the first city.
Alea iacta est
If there is one element of AoD that has greatly exceeded my expectations and, in fact, amazed me, it’s definitely the combat. Before playing it, I was absolutely certain that single-character turn-based combat that wouldn’t be very basic, very terrible or very random was unattainable. I figured that AoD’s “brutal, hard and unforgiving” combat system would simply boil down to praying for crits to go your way, similarly to Fallout & Friends. I was so wrong, I don’t even know where to begin.
For starters, it is amazing just how many tools AoD gives you to handle every situation and tip it in your favour. A typical combat encounter has you heavily outnumbered, with the odds usually being 3:1, but sometimes even putting you alone against ten opponents, many of them using all kinds of dirty tricks. Fights often look downright hopeless, but assessing your situation and adapting to it properly will easily take you to victory. There were many moments where I found myself thinking “that’s it, I can’t beat those gits”. But then I’d take a deep breath, analyse what was going on and what I was missing, and come up with the solution. “A-ha! If I switch to a different weapon, throw grenades all around, cripple that dude and smack the hell out of another one in the first two turns, I should hold out till the end since the rest of them are scrubs”. This is exactly what combat in AoD is all about. Analysis, preparation and planning.
I already mentioned that the weapon types in the game are all very nicely varied. Choosing the right weapon for the job is step 1 on your road to success. Each weapon category has 3-6 different arms for you to choose, both one-handed and two-handed, all varying in terms of damage, action point usage, passive effect chance bonus, accuracy bonus, critical strike and the odds of denting enemy armour. You will often find that switching your big two-handed sledgehammer for a smaller, faster infantry hammer will make all the difference.
Furthermore, the selection of combat moves available to you also gives you a lot of flexibility. Aimed strikes that reduce enemy combat stats, feints that let you reposition, knockdowns, pushes, whirlwind attacks, it’s all there. And that’s not even mentioning the bonus effects they do on crits! An enemy in full plate armour will have a hard time dealing with your constant armour-ignoring dagger strikes. Some foes also neglect helmets (since they impose accuracy penalties) and are ripe for headslams.
That is still not all. As mentioned before, you can also upgrade your gear with crafting to further give yourself some specialised options. Like a dagger tailor-made for crits or a spear solely for keeping enemies at bay. But by far the biggest gamechangers you can find in alchemy. Alchemy has all the answers. Armour-damaging acids, poisons, AP-boosting neurostims, healing salves, firewall vials, grenades, so many things to choose from. Containing angry mobs and turning the tide with alchemy is not only fun as hell, but also makes you feel clever, and is perhaps the most important part of any combat preparation. “I wonder what happens if I use this” can lead to unexpected and extremely effective results. These items require alchemy to brew, but can also be bought at some shops, though their stocks are very limited.
Think that’s it? Think again! You can also buy or loot some other non-craftable consumables. Whetstones increase weapon damage based on your crafting, while nets and bolas snare enemies and reduce their combat stats. The only thing I find strange here is that bolas and nets are not skill-dependent and always hit, which makes them nothing short of awesome buttons considering how powerful they tend to be. The only exception is that bolas aimed to the head, which can disable a character for up to 2 turns and constitute the most powerful manoeuvre in the game by far, have a fixed 75% THC, but the reward to risk ratio here is still ridiculously high.
Now, even with all the above letting you rig the dice, you will still every now and again die to some asshole’s lucky crit. But if you know what you’re doing, this should be happening rarely enough to basically consider it a non-issue. If despite all those options you still feel like the game is treating you unfairly, then I can give only one diagnosis – you are really bad at it and have only yourself to blame.
However, that is not to say that everything is perfect around here. The biggest stinker is probably the enemy AI. Your enemies are pretty dumb and usually act only in the most basic ways. This is probably why you are always so desperately outnumbered – it does tend to offset the enemies’ stupidity and present you with adequate challenge. But still, there are many routines and actions that the AI always employs, which you will quickly learn to recognise and abuse in all kinds of ways. The biggest problem, perhaps, is that your enemies never act as teams, but instead as groups of individuals. You will often see your foes clog up a chokepoint and block their allies or surround you in ways that are absolutely counterproductive to some of them, not to mention their usage of whirlwind attacks that hit more allies than enemies. They also can’t handle kiting in any way, making it an extremely effective strategy. Sometimes, you might also witness idiotic actions such as first using a net against you and then not approaching to attack, letting you sit out the penalty’s effect without harm.
I would also mention the lack of any kind of leftover AP preservation or conversion, turn delaying, etc, as being conspicuously absent. Plus, a few of the encounters might make you raise some eyebrows when it comes to enemy compositions – masterwork-geared cutthroats are one thing, but you can also run into a Finnish sniper division masquerading as a bunch of villagers or a trio of thugs sent to rough up a merchant in his cramped mud hut, who nevertheless all brought ranged weapons with them. This ties as well to a quest device that AoD really loves to (ab)use – you enter a house full of goons, and then suddenly another one appears right behind you to lock the door, as if all the thugs in the world carried skeleton keys to every door in existence. Finally, if you run into a fight in the middle of a city and take your combatants on a wild goose chase all around the streets, none of the guards you pass will react in any way. It’s not perhaps the greatest of issues, but it does look silly.
But apart from that, I don’t really have much to complain about. Furthermore, I believe it speaks tons about the quality and variety of AoD’s combat when you consider that for the entire course of the game you fight only human enemies, with only a handful of exceptions, and it never gets old.
Thus, to close this chapter, let me just elaborate on why a dedicated combat character is AoD’s “medium difficulty”. Understanding the combat system and all its elements takes some effort, particularly when it comes to combining all your options to formulate a daring plan instead of hitting your head against the wall, reloading time after time and hoping for better rolls. But once you get the hang of it and build a character solely for combat, you will mercilessly steamroll through the vast majority of fights in the game, only hitting a significant challenge in some fights meant purely for murderous psychopaths. This stands in opposition to hybrid characters (hard difficulty+) which might struggle even with some of the easier fights simply due to their lower martial stats. It must be said, however, that this “steamrolling” doesn’t make the game boring. In fact, smashing everything gud with a hammer is simply tremendously satisfying, especially if done after a playthrough in which combat consistently gave you trouble.
Non omnia possumus omnes
AoD prides itself on how much it gets back to the “golden era” of RPGs, a mythical age when games weren’t stupid, had deep branching quests and lots of unpredictable choice and consequence. Designer Vince D. Weller is well-known for his zealous dedication to the cause of C&C, so it’s only natural that his game would be full of it. But the question remains whether all these fancy quests and consequences are up to par quality-wise.
Indeed, when it comes to AoD’s quest design, I believe it is the game’s most bipolar aspect. There are some things here that are brilliant, while some others are either poor or downright nonsensical.
To kick off with the good stuff, there is definitely a lot of variety to be had here, as well as the things that you do simply being interesting. Between plotting political overthrows, pillaging monasteries, taking airships to flight or taking stands against the unwashed not-Mongol hordes, you will hardly ever get bored or stumble upon two quests with similar premises. While I’d say that AoD doesn’t actually have that many quests to begin with (at least available in the course of a single playthrough), most of them are robust and expansive enough to offset that. A very clear focus on quality instead of quantity can be observed here, allowing you to avoid just about any generic fetch quests (barring some exceptions, but more on that later).
Furthermore, a lot of them really do have many ways of tackling. There are obviously the typical genocide, bribe and rat diplomacy options, but some resolutions can even be considered “secret” given their obscure requirements. A lot of fun can be had with skillchecks, as well. Not only do they often lead to different outcomes, but they also aren’t always binary, instead presenting you with degrees of success and failure. Missing 1 point in critical strike during an assassination attempt will make you fail, but on the flipside you’ll greatly reduce your target’s HP. Being 1 point short of persuasion might convince half the enemy band to go away before the rest charge you. So on and so forth. Furthermore, while picking a [skill] tag in dialogue is usually the way to go, they sometimes happen to be trap options – like trying to impersonate a mafioso while talking to the godfather’s right-hand man – although they aren’t really common enough to keep you on your toes, particularly since so many of them instantly lead to game over screens instead of putting you into actual trouble.
Speaking of secrets, this is another big strength of AoD in general. There are so many places, characters, endings and outcomes that you will probably discover only by accident or after hearing about them from other players, it is really impressive. Some of them are so deeply hidden and require builds so specific, finally achieving them after a few playthroughs is very satisfying. This reliance on “secrets” is also one of the factors that drive this game’s replayability so much, although you have to get into the right mindset for it. That is to say, most games allow you to see most, if not all, of their content in a single go. AoD lets you access perhaps a quarter of it. At first you might be infuriated about getting barred from it so blatantly, but after a while you start viewing it in a different way. If you come across enemies that wipe the floor with you and force you to run away for good, you are likely going to think “oh, you cheeky bastards, you have no idea what my future incarnation is going to do to you”. It’s a pretty interesting approach, reminiscent much more of roguelikes, except without the random campaign generation – you can just start another game solely with the intent to do that one thing you had to skip before and get away with it.
But a specific mindset is necessary in many other ways, and here things start to get a bit ugly. It is perhaps the most difficult to get accustomed to the idea of hoarding skill points. Generally speaking, there is no room for trust between the player and the game in AoD, and I don’t mean the fact that you’re going to get betrayed a lot. What I mean is that you can hardly ever foresee what skillcheck is going to await you behind the next corner. The situation might look like it’ll fit your character but will actually turn out to require a higher score in one of your tertiary skills. This is why AoD very quickly changes into a game of retroactive skill point allocation. Barring very rare and specific circumstances, if you immediately assign new skill points, you’re simply doing it wrong. At one point during my second playthrough, I even ran into a situation that made me think “oh, good that I have 100 unspent SP to pass this check”, which is basically AoD in a nutshell.
The actual quality of the quests and how they fit your character is, however, very hit and miss, particularly when it comes to the main and faction-related questlines. The universal main quest imposed on all characters feels incredibly tacked on – it starts with an unnecessary macguffin that is never really needed for anything, then has you talk to two dudes and finally sends you off to a finale that is likely not going to make any sense in the context of your character’s (or its superiors’) agenda.
As for the faction questlines, here the bipolarity of AoD reveals itself the most. Some of them are really fun to go through and well thought out – the Imperial Guard questline definitely comes to mind for a couple of reasons. First, the whole faction leaves a lot of room for both obedient soldiers who just want to take orders and smash faces, and for politically-inclined officers who want to have their hand in influencing the faction’s agenda. Plus, the entire chain shows a logical and carefully planned out series of events and decisions from the Guard’s higher-ups. And finally, you simply get to do a lot of cool stuff.
But then on the other hand, you have the Boatmen of Styx, the assassins’ guild. The way the guild performs its missions makes you wonder whether a more accurate name for it wouldn’t be “the rentathug guild” or “The Three Stooges”. All Boatmen guildmasters are complete morons, their agenda make very little to absolutely no sense and their mission plans have the subtlety of a derailed train. When your “assassins’” guild decides it’s a good idea to assault the Imperial Guard garrison head on, you know you’re in for a treat. Or when it orders you to infiltrate enemy territory in disguise of a hobo and doesn’t give you any other option even when you haven’t invested anything in Impersonate. Or when a guildmaster suddenly decides to give his life for the lord that torched his guild. The entire questline is simply not very well designed, and it’s riddled with so many absurdities, I could probably dedicate an entire article just to how silly it is.
It’s a good moment now to come back to what I’ve described before as “easy difficulty” - it is possible to totally avoid combat in AoD and just pump a character’s talky skills to the stratosphere. A noble effort, but one which ultimately falls flat on its face and is, to me, the very worst way in which you can play the game. This is due to a couple of reasons.
First, a “diplomatic” playthrough is extremely limited and easy, almost to the point of the game playing itself. You never really do anything. You just go from dialogue to dialogue, pick the (one and only) [skillname] choice, return to the quest giver and win. It’s sort of like a bad choose your own adventure game that presents you with the following choices in every vignette: 1. [Persuasion] Win; 2. [Streetwise] Win; 3. Attack! (optional); 4. Bye. It is just about impossible to fail here, and the way you are railroaded from point A to point B and given all the necessities on a silver platter leaves you precisely zero room for any agency. Trying to win the game with a full diplomat should be a challenge in itself, perhaps even greater to that of going through it with a brawler, but in AoD, it almost feels like a cheat mode.
Secondly, if playing with a diplomat, you’re probably going to end up with the Commercium, and that questline is simply horrid. On paper, it looks largely fine – you get to overthrow lords, manipulate, scheme and send men against each other. But in practice, the game just transforms into a quest dispenser simulator. Your character never has a hand in anything, it is nothing more than an errand boy. You only keep delivering the plans conspirator A has devised to conspirator B, or telling other characters to bring you five rat tails that you can then bring to conspirator C. You play the role of the NPC with an exclamation mark hanging over its head and give everyone else quests in the name of your superiors. And the very few precious moments you do finally get to choose, the outcome turns out completely meaningless.
Ultimately, there is a lot of confusion in AoD when it comes to player status, whether the PC is a pawn or a superhero. The Commercium questline is an example of it, but it is true for almost any other one as well. You can rise in the ranks of a guild in record time, you can slay gods and daemons, you can overthrow lords and even nuke a city and have all of that stuff documented, yet the game (both the meta-narration and everyone you meet) still keeps treating you like a bumpkin, even though your name could just as well be Mr Awesome at this point. Even though the game tracks your reputation in various categories, the only thing that is consistently checked in dialogue is your kill count.
It also has to be said that the overall quality of the game keeps steadily going down as you play, and it’s almost ironic that after 11 years of development the ending areas still feel rushed and unfinished. To me, the first “chapter” of the game around the city of Teron is AoD at its peak. It gives you the greatest flexibility of approach, internal logic and overall quality. The next chapter in Maadoran is still good and introduces more variety of content, but it’s here that you’ll see the first seeds of badness. And then you finally get to Ganezzar and beyond where things really start to fall apart, where logic takes a holiday and where the quality of design simply plummets all the way down to the three final endgame “dungeons”. You also can’t help feeling that plenty of the quests you do in the second half of the game simply end abruptly and never reach a conclusion. There are so many events that promise biting you in the arse, so many people swearing that you’ll meet again, but almost none of that ever happens. Similarly, there are tons of situations that simply beg for additional things when you return to your guildmasters in different cities to ask for counsel, but all they do is either ignore you altogether or say “gosh, that’s terrible! You better do something about it, bro!”.
Which leaves the final part of this chapter, one that I’ve mentioned at the start but haven’t really elaborated upon in detail. How’s the C&C? Well, as with everything in AoD, it’s very bipolar.
On the one hand, the faction questlines all sport robust branching in each city, even up to the point that you can play the same organisation’s quest chain twice and achieve completely different results. Plus, the degree to which you can jump between factions and betray everyone you work for is pretty impressive, even if sometimes those options are considerably out of character or force you take a decision blindly. Some of the smaller quests can have delayed outcomes or ties to “secret options” in one way or another as well. This, once again, adds to AoD’s very high replay value.
But then there’s the stuff that I can only classify as biowarian. Every now and again, someone is going to ask you to make an Important™ choice. Each time that happens, you can bet your arse that it won’t matter at all. It’s insulting and shameless, particularly in the Commercium questline which is so full of it, because the game always presents the choice as something very, very significant, always makes you think for a moment what to do and sometimes even gives you three widely different options to choose from, but in the end provides you with no actual outcome or practical difference from status quo. The best you can hope for is an altered ending slide or the colour of a guy’s shirt turning from blue to purple, even when the dilemma itself concerns the fates of entire armies or peoples.
Sic transit gloria mundi
I said that AoD requires a specific mindset to accept many of its aspects, and this is perhaps the most true when it comes to the game’s writing convention. AoD’s dialogues and descriptions take many shortcuts where possible and apply a healthy dose of abstraction. When meeting with an NPC, the game simply assumes that pleasantries have been exchanged off-stage and skips a lot of the clutter that plagues many modern RPGs. A short biographical note giving the most important info might be presented if talking to someone important for the first time, but that’s it. No unnecessary walls of text along the lines of “hello, my name is X, let me tell you about my life” to be found here. This is, to me, an extremely welcome and healthy approach. Particularly since the few times the game does let NPCs go into rambling mode, it does so pretty poorly, and the occasional life stories and infodumps you will hear will turn out to be rather predictable and uninteresting. But nevertheless, they appear rarely enough to avoid being bothersome.
That said, sometimes the omnipresent abstractions can become really absurd and once again remove the last scraps of trust between the player and the game. Other characters can get past you unseen and reach places faster with plot teleportation, you may be forced to initiate combat in a disadvantageous position, events can resolve themselves without your input in ways that would never be possible if you were there, etc. The best example of this is a monastery beset by raiders. The monastery is built on a cliff and the only way up is via elevator. It is also manned by the previously mentioned Finnish sniper division. The raiders first need to cross a broken bridge with a gangplank and then scale the wall with ladders. If you take part in the assault, you will notice that the raiders drop like flies. But if you leave the area, they manage to win. Also, how do those raiders manage to scale the ladders without getting shot to death? And, the best of all, after you finally kill the snipers at the wall, you will find out that the raider head honcho and his two goons who stayed behind somehow managed to run past the bridge, the walls and the entire monastery courtyard and loot the vaults within completely unseen and in record time while you were standing right there, fighting.
The player options in dialogues also cut down on any redundancies, often just locking you into conversations with single responses available. It looks silly sometimes that your line can be three times longer than your interlocutor’s, but the uninterrupted flow of dialogue is not a bad thing. In fact, it resembles Gothic a lot, in more ways than one at that. Also just like in Gothic, most characters you meet will treat you like trash, talk in a dry manner and generally act like assholes or idiots, or both, and yet you will learn to love some of those blazing rascals. The same cheeky attitude is imposed on your character for the most part as well, which sometimes makes you feel like playing an alter ego of Vince D. Weller, but I digress. Nonetheless, AoD is not just dialogues. It also comes with plenty of descriptions and CYOA vignettes, some of which are, admittedly, really well done. Probably my favourite moment in the game was a blind fighting sequence against an enemy with a hypnotic gaze that is realised only through in-dialogue checks for stats like Dexterity or Critical Strike.
However, when it comes to characters being morons, you quickly start questioning the amount of morons in positions of power. I already mentioned the guildmasters of the Boatmen. But all the great house lords are also complete twits. So is the leader of the Commercium in Maadoran. It does make you wonder how the world is actually functioning as it is, and how all the guilds haven’t yet dissolved, particularly with the constant bickering and backstabbing that takes place everywhere. An interesting comparison can be drawn between the Imperial Guard and all the other factions – the Guard is also fairly political, its members are ambitious and cunning. But the Guard keeps together, and even when they plot, they plot against other factions. Meanwhile, just about every other local guild branch leader thinks himself the master of the world who should immediately doublecross and dispose of all his allies to achieve global domination. I exaggerate a bit, of course, but “first my local trash heap, then the world!” is a common motivation for most people in AoD. The grand schemers’ brilliance is also often revealed in situations when your lowly pawn of a character can point out the very obvious weaknesses in their masterplans and propose (very obvious) solutions.
Another thing that you grow to question is the state of the world before and after the game starts. It sort of looks like the politics of AoD have been completely static and everyone lived in relative harmony, but then every faction leader suddenly becomes insane with hunger for power the moment your character appears in the game. Certainly, you do hear about some power struggles taking place in the past. But most of them are petty and minor. Meanwhile, each city your character visits soon starts a violent revolution, or even revolutions.
The last point that deserves discussion is the setting. Here we come across yet another example of bipolarity.
For starters, the backstory of the world of AoD can be viewed as a puzzle. It has been fragmented and hidden all around the game, and sometimes the smallest scraps available in the most secret places are necessary to piece everything together. Separating the actual useful info from the lies of conmen or searching for nuggets of truth in the fantasies of lunatics is an effort in itself as well.
But the problem is that once you do assemble the puzzle, you realise that AoD’s setting is essentially a grimdark version of Wizardry or Might & Magic. The pre- and post-“apocalypse” levels of technology simply make no sense at all no matter how you look at them. We are talking about people with vast knowledge of all things scientific that dwarf modern science, who have fusion generators at their disposals, who construct robots and airships, but who ultimately arm said robots with swords, put regular ballistae (shooting nukes) on the airships and seem incapable of producing the most basic guns, even though they have access to blackpowder and grenades, and even though your own character’s first reaction to finding a nailgun tool is to convert it into a makeshift ranged weapon.
More questions arise when you consider the “historicity” of the setting, or its “pseudo-historicity” as it would be. On the one hand, it’s obvious that a lot of data-mining took place to construct the world of AoD, and it’s full of various interesting historical trivia, some of which is even very obscure and might fly over your head.
However, these historical and cultural elements are taken from so many sources, the world quickly starts looking like a bizarre theme park. The setting is supposed to draw heavy inspiration from the Roman Empire, but the funny thing is that the Roman aspect is the least present here. If people’s names didn’t end with “–us”, if one of the lords didn’t have a laurel wreath and if armies weren’t based on Roman legions, you would never guess that this place ever had anything to do with the Romans. Meanwhile, you keep coming across all sorts of influences and references related to ancient Egypt, Persia, Babylon, India, the Islamic Middle East and Warhammer 40k that all coexisted in the same timeframe. Nowhere do you see any slave markets, but instead you often observe people rolling joints in the streets. Finally, at one point, this strange melting pot even namebombs Aegir, the sole representative of Norse mythology in AoD.
Fluctuat nec mergitur
Naturally, before proceeding to the end, I’d like to shine some light on the technical stuff.
As you can deduce from the screens, the graphics serve a very important function in AoD – they keep reminding you that everything is, quite literally, shit. Despite the artists probably doing the best they could to wrestle the last bits of juice from the Torque engine, the game is still pretty ugly. The models are blocky, the textures are smudged and everything is coated in a next-gen layer of brown and yellow. Nevertheless, drawn artwork such as character portraits or still images are all of very high quality. I also have to praise the character animations – those are usually terribly stiff and shoddy in indie games on bad 3D engines, but the ones in AoD are surprisingly fluid and lifelike.
The soundtrack is great as well, even though it’s rather limited and many of the pieces tend to be recycled. It’s never a problem, though, because they blend into the background and support the atmosphere so well. The music mixes many different instruments fitting the historical theme, as well as the occasional choral wails, and simply does a splendid work at sounding ominous, martial, calm or mysterious depending on the context.
The interface does its job, but it’s not without problems. Some of the worst ones include the combat grid melding into one when zoomed out or right click being responsible both for movement and changing attack types, which leads to missclick galore. The combat maps are also very unclear and arbitrary when it comes to passable terrain – there are often times when a single tree will completely block your passage even though there are plenty of empty squares around it, while a seemingly impenetrable wall of trees elsewhere will not be a barrier. Granted, you probably won’t notice it unless you kite a lot in combat, but it’s still rather annoying.
There are a handful of bugs of varying magnitude to be found too. Mismatched scripts sometimes tend to give you wrong dialogues or ending slides, certain circumstances can cause the graphics to glitch, there are some typos here and there, etc. More annoying are some of the outdated leftover tooltips that lead you astray (remember kids, Critical Strike does not raise your resistance vs CS, no matter what the skill would say). Even greater annoyance comes from the occasional missing collision detection or broken line of sight that make enemies shoot you around corners or through (multiple) walls, while you are unable to retaliate. But by far the most annoying are the few broken transitions between quest vignette and combat. For instance, in the assassin’s questline, the game really loves to push a crossbow into your hands at combat start, even when you possess neither the item nor the skill, forcing you to waste your first turn AP on weapon switching.
Finally, I feel I should mention that Iron Tower have declared their intention to support AoD with new content in the coming months, so who knows whether some of the things I’ve mentioned in this review will even stay valid.
Romanes eunt domus
Well then, to come back to the question from the introduction: was Age of Decadence really as bad as I expected it to be?
I can say that I’ve had a very complex love/hate relationship with the game. Each time I came across something brilliant, it would then likely be followed by something not so brilliant. Some things infuriated me to no end, while others impressed me with the sheer ambition that made them come to life.
It is ambitious because it tries to blend so many things into one. The developers say that their game is “not for everyone”, but I disagree. After all, it has a great combat system and can be played for it alone. It has plenty of branching and reactivity. It may not have much in terms of exploration, but it does have a lot of secret hunting and info collection. For God’s sake, it even has an inbuilt CYOA mode if you hate RPGs, no matter the fact that it’s not particularly good. In this way, AoD is actually for everyone, simply due to the breadth of playstyles and approaches supported by it.
Not to mention the replayability. While I haven’t gone through the game the proverbial seven times, I think it’s certainly possible (if extreme), and the four playthroughs I did never really got boring. Only by the fourth one did I start feeling some repetition, but it still didn’t get in the way of the fun too much. Perhaps it’s because the game is short enough to keep you interested with the new content brought by each playthrough – depending on character build and times you’ve finished the game, it can take roughly 5 to 20 hours (you can probably speedrun it in 15 minutes just as well). But take heed that you haven’t truly finished it until you’ve won the final bossfight by convincing the developers on the forum that some aspect of their game has to be changed.
So, ultimately, I guess the joke’s on me. Age of Decadence is a good game, and I’ll likely revisit it in the future. It still leaves a lot to be desired, but it’s definitely an ambitious game, perhaps even one of a kind, and it is good for what it is as the only one of its kind. It might not be particularly innovative per se, but it has its own quirky convention, it sticks to it firmly and pulls no punches or takes any steps back to adhere to popular practices.
It also has a huge demo that you’d be wise to check out first to see if you’re able of getting into the right mindset for the game. Unless you want to jump right into the full deal, in which case, please follow me into this alley here so that I may sell it to you with a wondrous discount.