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RPG Codex Re-Preview: The Age of Decadence

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RPG Codex Re-Preview: The Age of Decadence

Preview - posted by Crooked Bee on Wed 25 March 2015, 19:02:34

Tags: Age of Decadence; Iron Tower Studios

[Preview by MasterSmithFandango; edited by Crispy and Infinitron]

The Age of Decadence – Early Access Preview

Thursday feels like it’s just around the corner – again. After approximately 83 years in development (give or take), The Age of Decadence is in a playable state, and presumably close to finished, with a few more major areas still to be included, but with the foundation complete.

With that in mind, it felt like it was time to check and see what all that time in the development oven has resulted in to date.

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Overview

For the uninitiated, The Age of Decadence is an RPG developed by our very own Vault Dweller. Set in a low fantasy, post-apocalyptic Rome-inspired universe, the game is developed with a particular focus on choices and consequences, branching storylines, and multiple quest solutions. The intention is for there to be no “right way” to play, but rather to give the player enough flexibility to find his own path.

In an attempt to provide a Fair and Balanced™ preview, I want to look at each system individually then talk about how they mesh together. This preview will be spoiler-free and, other than generally, I won’t comment on the actual content. Right now there are two completed cities (essentially quest hubs), with a third currently being tested before being added to the regular EA release with a bit more to come after that.

Character System

The character system shouldn’t be unfamiliar to anyone who’s played a cRPG before. There are eight backgrounds to choose from the onset – Drifter, Grifter, Merchant, Mercenary, Praetor, Assassin, Thief, and Loremaster. Ostensibly these function like classes, but when you get to the stat screen, you’re still free to allocate them how you’d like to. More accurately, the game treats them as a template for stat purposes, which you are free to change. There’s nothing keeping you from being a merchant who is fond of giant axes and sneaking. The individual choices for “Background” function as an introduction quest to the game, and have other effects on the game world.

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There are six base stats: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Perception, Intelligence, and Charisma. Unlike nearly every RPG that has come before, Charisma is not a dump stat! Celebrate, everyone!

Depending on how you allocate those stat points, they provide certain bonuses or penalties. According to the stat’s value, you’ll get a bonus to damage for Strength, Dexterity sets your AP, Constitution sets your HP, Perception gives you an accuracy bonus, Intelligence a skill point bonus (based on percentage), and Charisma gives you a reaction bonus. Additionally, how you allocate these also puts points into the two skill point pools, combat and civic. The first three skills, STR, DEX, and CON put points into the combat pool, while PER, INT, and CHA add points to the civic pool.

This is probably where my first real criticism of the character system comes in. Perception is an important stat for fighters – with the difficulty of the combat, the bonus to accuracy you get from a high perception is important. However, a fighter that invests in perception is putting points into the civic pool, and not the combat pool. Conversely, a purely civic character can treat the combat pool stats merely as dump stats, thereby putting all of their skill points into the civic pool instead. It’s not a colossal concern – combat builds are still viable – but for those who like finding the optimal build for their play style, it is a hurdle.

At the same time, I understand the limitation. A possible solution would be to put all points into the general pool, but that would seem to fundamentally go against the way the system was designed. A compromise may be to designate CON and PER as points that go into the general pool, while STR and DEX and INT and CHA still go into their designated pools. It would keep the equity between combat and civic intact, while allowing fighting characters the ability to optimize their builds if they so desire, and not hindering civic builds too much… maybe even permitting more hybrid possibilities.

Combat and civic skill point pools are separate, but there is also a general points pool where most of the skill points you earn during the game will go (with some exceptions). Combat, not shockingly, goes into improving your combat skills which have a number that rates their effectiveness, as well as a level which will give you certain advantages (for instance, points in dodge both improves your chance to dodge, and the level gives you a percentage chance to counterattack when you successfully dodge a strike). Additionally, there are synergies where improving one skill will also slightly improve a related skill, e.g. improving swords will also give you a small improvement to the effectiveness of daggers and axes.

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Civic skill points lack that same combination. For example, points in persuasion simply give you a flat improvement to a persuasion skill check. I would have liked to have seen the same system for the combat skills be reflected here – an effective ability score that acts as the primary stat check, paired with a level that gives certain bonuses, as well as synergies – such as an improvement to persuasion giving you a slight improvement to streetwise, or sneak improving disguise. It feels like a missed opportunity to add some more interesting depth and flexibility to the character system.

One other thing that just strikes me as missing is the lack of feats. Considering what I know of Vault Dweller, I can only assume this omission was intentional, or perhaps he thinks the traits you earn while playing are good enough. But to me that would be just another way to customize your character while adding depth to the actual gameplay (which at times can be repetitive as outlined below).

A little touch of flavor that is nice is the skill descriptions as you rank each skill up. It’s not substantive, but the explanation from “you regularly belch your name” to “hookers think you’re classy” as you rank up etiquette is a fun representation.

Ultimately, the character system as currently implemented (and this late in the game it’s probably close to set in stone) is effective, if not perfect. I do feel there are some things missing that could greatly improve the system. More synergies as mentioned above would add some depth, especially between the civic skills and the civic stats. Having a high charisma giving a slight bonus to persuasion, or having high intelligence give a bonus to lore just seems like another missed opportunity. This isn’t a system that I feel would be fun to spend hours just building characters on, but for the purposes of providing decent effects on the game world, it does the job.

Combat System

The Combat system, like the character system, should look pretty familiar to fans of the genre. It is turn-based and grid-based, with three different types of base attacks which use different AP for each strike, as well as aimed strikes that can have different effects. Aiming for an arm will hurt the target’s THC and things of that nature. Your three basic attacks are ‘fast’, ‘regular’, and ‘power’. Fast has the highest to-hit-chance of the three, but the lowest damage, while power has higher damage but lower to-hit at a higher AP cost. It’s not the most complex system in the world, but it gives a good bit of tactical variety to the player.

On top of it, weapons have various bonuses to hit chance, counterattack chance, crit chance, etc. Daggers require fewer AP per strike but do less damage, for instance. There is a good variety of weapon classes, and a good variety of weapons within each class. Do you go for the higher damage/higher AP per-swing sword or the sword that does lower damage but allows for more attacks per turn?

So that’s the basic foundation. In practice, if you haven’t invested fairly heavily into combat skills, don’t bother. This game is very much one that punishes a jack-of-all-trades play style, and nowhere will that be more evident than in combat. Each point in dodge, block, or your weapon skills will have a big effect on your ability to survive. If you do invest heavily, combat can be challenging at times but generally isn’t too difficult, although some encounters you may lose just due to the numbers game.

That actually may be the problem – often when I lose a fight I feel that it’s not because I played the fight poorly, but rather that I got screwed by the random number generator. When I reload to do the fight again, I don’t really do anything differently to adapt to the battle – I just hope the RNG doesn’t screw me as badly. I have no problem with dice rolls, mind you, but I like feeling that when I lose I’ve learned something new that will allow me to be better at the game, and I just don’t get that here.

Combat is one area where I feel that there is so much promise, but in practice it lacks a certain satisfaction. On the surface it’s got all of the pieces a great combat system would require. You have a variety of attacks, each with their own pros and cons and utility, you have the ability to move around tactically and exercise your brain a bit, and the stats and skills translate in a clear way to your performance on the battlefield. Still, after a heavy dose I feel like I want something else. I would say this is an area where the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Part of it is because when you engage an enemy you just stand in the square next to him, going back and forth until one of you doesn’t get up. Moving away from someone who's beside you in combat gives them an attack of opportunity, so your best bet is almost always to engage unless you need to retreat to your support to prevent being totally overrun.

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Maybe I’m just that good, but I don’t think that’s it. When you’re actually in a battle, the battlefield feels rather constrained, so while in theory there are a multitude of tactical options, in practice your best bet is probably to engage one guy at a time and beat him until he’s dead. I wouldn’t call it a bad system – in fact I would probably still call it a good system – but I feel like with the parts in place, it could have been a great system.

This may be a flaw inherent in the way system works. With the punishment given for not specializing, the wide arrays of tactical options technically available in practice aren’t there. For instance, investing heavily in throwing, which would probably require an equally heavy investment in alchemy to create the explosives as well as a primary weapon and a defensive skill, probably isn’t viable long-term. I understand the desire to prevent a jack of all trades play style from being the preferred path, but this system probably goes too far in the other direction.

At the same time, this could just be a side effect of controlling only a single character. It is admittedly much more difficult to provide sufficient tactical depth and dynamism in a system where you only control one character with the limitations the character system imposes. I would be interested in seeing this system when I can control more than one character to really explore the tactical depth it provides, but at the same time I can't really give it a pass simply because of the single character constraints. There are battles where you have support – a solution could have been the option to control all of the characters on your side in a given battle (with possible bonuses based on survival) which also would have potentially given non-combat specialists a way to engage in the combat system. At the same time it's easy to acknowledge how this goes against the idea of specialization central to the design, but holding to that design leaves this element of gameplay feeling incomplete.

Non-Combat Gameplay

There’re a million things that fit under this umbrella. Playing a non-combatant is totally viable, and may be even the preferred play style by Iron Tower with all the effort they put into it.

Most quests involve a ton of skill checks. If you have your persuasion high enough, you’ll pass the skill check – and if you don’t you won’t. Additionally, there are some joint skill checks throughout the game. You’ll have to have a certain level of persuasion and streetwise to pass certain skill checks, or trading, or disguise, or lore... you get the picture. This adds a level of depth that most games that feature this sort of gameplay simply don’t have.

I could go on about it, but it’s pretty straightforward, so I’ll go right into my issue with it: for such a key gameplay element – and arguably the most preferred path through the game – the system just isn’t satisfying. The green success or the red failure don’t give you a real sense of accomplishment. If anything I think it would be preferred that the conversation continue without noting success or failure, and the player would find out simply by the result of the conversation rather than a color-coded YOU PASS announcement.

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Yet another real opportunity was missed to potentially significantly change the way non-combat gameplay is tackled in RPGs. Instead of a binary pass/fail system, I would have really liked to have seen a more dynamic system that makes conversation as deep of an element as combat is. As it stands, combat seems like the less preferred, but more developed gameplay style, while non-combat is the preferred but more basic and shallow style.

I’m torn between the desire for all available information to be given to the player and the desire to instead leave things under the hood for the sake of the experience. Maybe hiding the information and providing a contextual hint based on your character's level of skill, requiring you to read what you’re going to say to try to convince the other character, would be preferred to the bracketed [Persuasion][Trading] signal. It would certainly be a more frustrating experience for the player, but it would require so much more engagement and lead to a feeling of accomplishment that at the end of the day would be more satisfying.

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But, maybe I’m wrong. If you view this system as just a vehicle to discover the story with, than my suggestion probably frustrates that purpose to a degree. Admittedly, my suggestion comes after writing for twenty minutes versus developing for eight years, but I just can’t help but shake the feeling that announcing the relevant skills leads to a lazy player.

Ultimately, the system gets the job done. Much like the aftermath of playing as a combat character, I felt that the system worked, but it just could have worked better. And let me be clear about something that I’ll go into more detail later on – the writing is fantastic, and it’s worth taking the time to read these conversations. That’s part of my frustration – with such good writing, signaling the relevant skills and failing to innovate the way the player experiences and participates in the story kind of takes away from the atmosphere.

My other main gripe with the gameplay is traveling. To put it bluntly – it sucks. You *can* walk from place to place, but the character moves pretty slowly, the camera controls kind of stink, and it’s easy to get turned around without a compass/mini-map to keep you oriented. Instead, you’ll probably just open up the map, then click on PALACE, and magically appear right in front of it. It makes the game world feel disjointed. Vince and Co. did a fantastic job creating a unique setting, with excellent writing and character that fleshes out the game world in text, but in towns you don’t really feel that world around you. Rather, you fast travel. It’s probably too late in the game to change this now, and that’s a shame, because it does take away from the immersion.

This plays out even more jarringly within certain quests. You’ll be in the middle of a conversation and the quest objective will shift to "go and speak to someone else". Instead of you participating in the game world to get to the second location, the game just transports you there and you have no idea where “there” is. There’s no sense of movement, nothing in between – just dialogue box to dialogue box with a different face talking to you. Speaking to VD about this, he hopes he’ll have time to go back and change this element, but there is no guarantee (and it’s probably not likely).

Writing and assorted story stuff

This section kind of overlaps with the above, but I felt it was worth discussing on its own. Where I think the non-combat and combat gameplay both have their foibles, this is where Age of Decadence truly shines. The writing is top notch. I found myself reading in great detail all of the stories from the storyteller, and all the related conversations. The descriptions of what was going on in the world were just fantastic, and the setting really feels fresh. There is an air of ambiguity to everything that is so refreshing in this age of “GATHER ARMY TO FIGHT DARK EVIL”-level of storytelling.

Additionally, the quests are designed to be radically different each time you play through them. You can choose to piss everyone off – and there are multiple ways to do that. Each character I play through feels like I’m just getting one piece of a larger story, and playing through the same area with a different character you can see different angles and how things can play out differently.

Vault Dweller has always been about choices and consequences, and this game tackles that in spades. It seems like every little thing you do will have some effect on the game world. Sometimes it’s small, sometimes it’s massive – it’s always interesting, though. The way you treat people you meet, the decisions you make when deciding who to side with in conflicts – they all have long-term effects. Forget seeing all the content in one playthrough. Shit, forget seeing half the content in one playthrough. This is a game that will cut off quests as you go. But where a door closes, another one opens.

Conclusion

There’s still a lot to come content-wise, but what’s here is already a pretty deep experience. There’s plenty to do and see, a ton of quests with a ton of ways to solve them. Ultimately, there are some flaws with the second most popular vaporware game in RPG Codex history, and to be honest those flaws are significant. While the writing itself is excellent, and will probably set the bar for the industry in a way similar to how Planescape: Torment did, there is an element of game that’s missing. In some ways it feels like I’m reading a choose-your-own-adventure book rather than playing an RPG. All the parts are there, but they feel rather disjointed and not a cohesive experience.

Perhaps that’s a result of choices and consequences as the central focus, rather than building a strong core system and adding choices and consequences from there. The vision of a variety of viable gameplay styles being effective in a reactive setting was accomplished, but the final product (or final early access product, more appropriately) doesn’t fit together as well as I’d like.

How you end up feeling about this game is going to greatly depend on what you value in your RPG experience. If you’re the type that can’t help but replay Planescape: Torment; the type to slog through the festering pile of … I’ll generously say “mediocrity” that is Alpha Protocol; the type that values choice and consequence and story above all else, then this game will definitely scratch your itch. You should circle Thursday on your calendar and take the day off to play it.

If you’re the type that really values a more cohesive experience and generally doesn’t value storytelling to the point where it will excuse gameplay flaws, you may have a hard time enjoying this game. There’re some elements here that are still pretty good, and Vince tells me that he plans on improving the combat AI and other elements of it before release, which may help in the end. But until you read how it comes out on release by some other intrepid reviewer, it may be wise to just keep waiting for Grimoire.

Age of Decadence is available in Steam Early Access.

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