The Age of Decadence Review
The classic cRPG has you leading a band of adventurers to vanquish a great evil, becoming heroes known across the land. There is nothing here to cater to this fantasy. There are no companions to aid you, no villain that can be singled out, and no one who will remember you or what you do. This is the land of a broken Empire, whose equally broken inhabitants know nothing of the former glory they once reveled in. In place of peace and unity, there is only chaos and mistrust. Welcome, dear reader, to the Age of Decadence.
The world (or what’s left of it)
Let’s talk about the world for a moment. It’s grim. If you were just a commoner, chances are you’d die before the age of 30 from a mugger or the plague. The lands you behold were all part of the same unnamed Empire, deriving much of its culture from Imperial Rome. In the present what remains of the emperor’s domain is but a few townships: Teron, dwindling and on the verge of collapse; Maadoran, where the poor struggle to carve a home in the vestige of a once-proud city; and Ganezzar, ruled by a mad self-proclaimed holy man. Once, these settlements were part of a grand empire, but a magical war between the Empire and the kingdom of Q’antaar ended with the summoning of gods on both sides, resulting in the destruction of both lands.
But you don’t know about any of this. In fact, even those who can recall the tale of the end do not know what truly happened, if what they tell to strangers are true facts or fabrications appended by generations of storytellers past. Scattered around the map are remnants of the old world, such as old mining facilities, ancient temples, or a warded tower. While many events will happen with or without your aid, these locations will remain unaffected by the machinations of men. It is up to you to learn the secrets these places hold, and ultimately, what truly became of the Empire and its people.
… But you don’t have to. In fact, you could run through the entire game without understanding a single thing about the lore. The game doesn’t care. The lore skill is vital to understanding the purposes of ancient artifacts and machinery as well as how to use them, but it’s a completely optional skill to invest in. If you choose to, you may invest your points solely into combat. You’ll suck at everything else, but you’ll be an unstoppable force known to all—at least, near the end of your run. At the start you’ll be lucky if you can survive being ambushed by a group of beggars.
Skills, or how your character isn’t completely useless
When creating your character, don’t be ashamed if you decide to steal someone’s build. This game isn’t forgiving when it comes to character creation. If your build sucks, you won’t make it. This is because the game relies on you to pick a specific set of skills for your playstyle and to stick with them instead of trying to become a jack of all trades. You won’t be able to change your stats mid-run, and you have no opportunities to farm experience for skill points. Don’t worry: you can always start over. It’s a fairly short game, and the first town will help you decide if your build is fine or if you are in dire need of a restart.
Your stats aren’t just for providing bonuses to your character. In dialogue, there are points where the game offers a skill check to opt for another route in the conversation. This means you can bypass certain encounters or discover a new area just by having a high score in a stat. The same works for your skills, both combat and civil. They apply bonuses as usual (trading nets you better prices, crafting lets you craft better weapons with less metal) but are also checked in dialogue, either for different conversation paths or to perform certain actions, like a surprise attack on who you’re talking to. There are plenty of places to make use of of these skill checks, especially for persuasion and streetwise. It’s great to know that no matter what your build is, you’ll always be able to experience some unique dialogue choices.
There is an issue with this system, however. Although combat is an option in many cases, you will almost always find that talking your way out of a situation is the better option. There are also many interactions with the world that rely on a skill check. In both dialogue and world interactions, failure of the check may, at best, simply do nothing and allow you to try again later. Otherwise, you may not be offered the opportunity to pass the check again or you may even experience a game over due to failing the check. Whenever a skill check occurs, it will tell you the names of the skills that it is referring to. This has led to many players, including myself, to hoard skill points and spend them only when needing to pass a check. This may be considered scummy, but because the risk of failure prevents you from progressing, you must either come prepared or move on from the check.
The counterargument is that much of the content you may experience in Age of Decadence is gated: not everything is meant to be experienced in one playthrough. Still, it is an annoying scenario when you decide to save up on your general skill points because you’re worried that increasing dodge now will leave you no points to pass a persuasion check later.
Fight or flight (opt for flight)
The header isn’t a jab at the combat for being bad; it’s a jab at the combat for being hard. For many people who disliked the game, the combat system is the primary complaint. And who could blame them? Teron, the starting town, is when you are at your weakest. You will find yourself outmatched in almost every fight you can come across in town. It’s relentless, but with enough determination and the right stats, you can overcome Teron’s foes and become ready for the rest of the game.
To aid you against the fact fights tend to be you versus the world, you have a variety of weapons to choose from, both ranged and melee, along with equipment such as nets and throwing knives. Alchemy lets you create potions, poisons, and bombs, while crafting lets you craft improved versions of weapons and armors. A well-placed bomb can easily turn the battle in your favor so don’t sleep on those skills.
The combat itself felt clunky to me, but it’s also a unique and complex system I haven’t seen anywhere else. A full explanation would be too lengthy, so I’ll keep this short. Combat is turn-based and utilizes action points for moves. When you attempt to attack someone, a variety of factors and formulas come into play: attack skill rating, defense skill rating, damage reduction from armor, and more. You’ll never have a 100% chance to hit someone, even at the very end of the game.
The main thing that stuck out for me about combat is the attack type system. You got normal, fast, and power attacks. Fast attacks do less damage for less AP and a higher chance to hit, power attacks being the direct opposite. But you also have aimed attacks against the torso, arms, legs, and head. For a hit against the torso, you have a chance to halve the protection the enemy’s armor gives them. The arms give a chance to disarm the enemy, the legs give a chance to double the enemy’s movement cost, and the head gives a chance to knock the enemy out. In addition, weapons provide their own special attacks (e.g. impale with spears, flurry with daggers) as well as passive abilities during combat (e.g. spears can perform an interrupt attack on a moving enemy, daggers can completely ignore a piece of armor’s damage resistance). And, of course, you have critical strikes which do additional damage and even have their own combat skill. The way this is all implemented works fine, but like I said, many people will be turned off by how different the combat is compared to other games. But if you find yourself enjoying it, you’ll treat every combat encounter as if it were a puzzle. It’s a lot of fun to experiment with your arsenal to successfully keep yourself alive.
Plot summary unavailable
So here’s the thing about the story: it’s nonlinear. There are mandatory locations you must visit, but your reasons for visiting them all depends on your previous actions, such as what you’re doing for a faction. There are seven factions in total, from noble houses to a merchants’ guild. Each faction has a storyline that will span across the entire game world—some locations are only accessible if you’re doing business for a specific faction. And these storylines aren’t linear either. Most quests have different ways of going about them, and the ending to the storylines can vary based on what decisions you made. You can even betray a faction and work for another one if you choose to. Don’t worry: in this world, backstabbing is as common as getting waylaid by thugs and muggers.
The way the story is done is definitely my favorite thing about Age of Decadence. The lore isn’t handed to you; you have to pay attention and actively search for it. You’ll find fragments of truth and shards of misinformation along the way. It’s up to you to sort through them and figure out what was actually real and what didn’t happen.
Your character isn’t going to become a hero by the end of the game, but you can at least build up a reputation, which will also act as skill checks in some scenarios. There’s faction reputation, which acts as an indicator for if a faction likes you or absolutely hates your gut. Then you have your general reputation, consisting of body count, combat, loyalty, peacemaker, prestige, and word of honor. The first two acts as tallies while the other four are changed by your choices. Perhaps you will be known as an honorable diplomat. Perhaps you will be known as a merciless killer. No matter. If you were to die, your reputation would fade alongside you. It is only through working with other powers that you can potentially secure a legacy that outlives you or your peers. There’s multiple endings, with factions coming into play with the ending sequences. There’s even a secret ending you’ll likely only figure out how to achieve if you read about it online. It’s amazing just how much detail went into the story, yet so little of it is actually talked about.
If Age of Decadence was a gem, it would be a synthetic diamond. It’s highly experimental. For some, it just doesn’t work. And that’s fine. But for those who stuck with the game, they’d find modern proof that the RPG genre can still find new ways to innovate itself. I can’t say that the game is a masterpiece: I really didn’t like how skill point hoarding was encouraged, and the combat made me want to cry at times. But there are not many games out there that try to break away from the established design of their genre. It’s not perfect, but for what the game is good at, it did not fail to deliver. The next game by Iron Tower Studio is called Colony Ship. When it releases, I hope to be one of the first to play it.
This game can be found on Steam here.
You can also find this game on GOG.com here.