Developer: Iron Tower Studio
Publisher: Iron Tower Studio
While I have yet to waver from my assertion that The Witcher 3 is the GOAT, Baldur’s Gate 2 (and to a certain extent, the original Fallout) remains as fond relic to my heart. Still, I am always looking for the next RPG that will blow my mind, and The Age of Decadence (AoD) was brought to our staff’s attention. Its character customization and promise of soul-crushing difficulty reminded me of the classics, but only by playing would I determine if it, too, is memorable.
A calamity reduces humanity to a state more primitive than the Dark Ages. The vestiges of the Roman empire in the form of three houses and half a dozen guilds compete to rule over not just the remnants of civilization, but also its future.
Players can create a character whose background may involve one of the guilds, or they could be a “Tabula rasa.” The Age of Decadence symbolizes politics in A Song of Ice and Fire: one can decide to have the tongue and deep pockets of a Tyrion Lannister or be a formidable mercenary with a high body count like the Hound while working their way up the ranks in prestige, glory, and reputation. The exception here is that there are no dragons, yet the legends have it that the Magi were once indebted to the gods that walked the Earth….
The direction of the story depends upon the type of character choosing from the beginning. themes include: ambition, conquest, hegemony, enlightenment, ascension, coup d’etat and more.
Violence: Weapon strikes in The Age of Decadence yield negligible squirts of blood. However, crucified individuals—some of them still drawing breath—casually litter sectors of certain cities. Due to its dated engine, AoD is not macabre in these displays, but the sight of them is a jarring reminder of the days that Rome ruled the world,and of course, Christ’s death.
Language: Under normal circumstances, even with my review of GTAV, I simply mention in this section if there is any bad language and leave readers to determine their own tolerance threshold. I expect vulgarity out of GTA, but the abundance of profanity on display in AoD is preposterously insouciant. It is one thing for a developer to attempt recreating the language of peasants and soldiers for the purpose of immersion, though even they practice a sense of decorum. The fact that there is an “etiquette” character trait in a game where individuals whose pedigree allegedly descended from gods drop F-bombs like candy during Halloween is beyond irony. It is simply incongruent for a game set in Late Antiquity.
Drugs/Alcohol: Drunkenness is referenced, as are poisons. Sometimes, they are discussed in tandem. Bring a food tester while playing!
Spiritual: At least one character paraphrases from the Bible, but takes credit for their words of wisdom. Legends of gods walking and warring among men abound (addressing their legitimacy would be spoiler material).Meru, the lord of a major house, becomes a fanatic; the growth of his zealots and the dissemination of his message concerning worship of the gods is a major plot device.
Players can begin The Age of Decadence by going straight to the character creation screen or beginning a tutorial that primarily serves to expose newcomers to the combat system in an effort to prevent rage quitting. I will discuss the battle system later under the gameplay section.
AoD adheres to RPG convention in regards to character creation. Str, Dex, Con, Int, Per, Cha serve as the conventional primary stats, and every point allocated to a specific category has the consequential effect of perks such as increased damage, chance-to-hit, hit points and so on. Secondary traits include mastery with weapons, shields, dodging, and critical hit chance, but where AoD distinguishes itself from most RPGs are is impactful the non-combative secondary traits are in the game.
I rolled a few characters specializing in streetwise, persuasion, intelligence, charisma, and lore. The struggle was real, as they say: by “a few characters,” I mean that I had to restart the game after going five hours-deep into a character because I had invested too few points in a critical skill and would hit a progression wall—death or lack of sense of direction—forcing me to reroll and respec my next avatar. For example, without a high enough persuasion and streetwise, I was forced to agree to join a shady guild in return for a favor that I needed to advance my quest. Little did I know, I would end up in an unwinnable fight three hours later (in realtime) because of a failed conversation check. Indeed, AoD is unforgiving with its stat allocation mechanics. There are checks to fixed primary stats and upgradeable secondary stats throughout, even during the endgame. One such check I experienced was to my intelligence and constitution, stats that are usually antithetical to each other, but here, they both needed to be high to avoid death. It is recommended that newcomers build specialists rather than hybrids for the best results.
Notwithstanding, I was able to complete AoD with an ending that did not result in death without me so much as unsheathing a dagger. Fallout and Deus Ex are the only two RPGs that I can recall for their ability to play as a “pacifist.”
Simplicity is the operative term for the UI in The Age of Decadence; it is entirely possible to play the game with just the point and click of the mouse, through keyboard shortcuts are available for the more intuitive players—especially useful for camera functions.
Combat in Age of Decadence is not an exercise in futility but an exercise in ennui. Once players understand that failure in combat is often a consequence of allocating too many points in a weapons category irrelevant to the character build, it becomes boring rather than difficult. An example of this is that in most RPGs, one would want both block and dodge, but the battle system in AoD renders dodging for shield-wielders and blocking for those without shields counterintuitive.
Once players understand this, combat is easy…and boring…or impossible. For those who want to hack and slash their way through The Age of Decadence, expect to invest hours (in real time) watching hit rolls miss and miss and block and block and miss as the turns pass. Striking true is rare with the exception of when the player fails a conversation check and ends up on the wrong side of a spontaneous office party and winds up with a leaky body.
The attack animations are dull and unimaginative, certainly a limitation presented by AoD’s archaic engine—more on that shortly. The only cool animation that I have seen is one that was also in the trailer: a pikeman lifts and impales his adversary as a death blow. In my pacifist playthrough, there were two instances where I ended up in the middle of a multi-man brawl, but watched the AI struggle to fight each other. By just skipping my turn, it took those fights about 15 minutes each to resolve themselves due to the excessive misses (dodges) and blocks. While these demonstrations revealed to me everything I needed to know about combat in AoD, I rolled a mercenary anyway. I did not get far because fights in AoD produced within me not with joy but torpor. The developers claim that one should not expect to become a godlike slayer of evil and that it would be more favorable to avoid fighting altogether. What better way to steer players in that direction than to make combat unsatisfying.
The Age of Decadence is an eyesore—there is no congenial way to put it. While the game engine, Torque 3D, was developed in 2012, its modern iteration was derived from the 2001 version used to develop Tribes 2. AoD looks every bit of an engine that has been in circulation for fourteen years, like a simulacrum of a Neverwinter Nights precursor.
While the character models are plain, the artwork of the NPC profiles are outstanding, and I am in despair at the fact that developers chose to render the game in polygons rather than sprites. The developers should have been aware that they are not only competing with the likes of AAA franchises like Dragon Age, but also indie productions such as Pillars of Eternity and Divinity: Original Sin. Compared to these, The Age of Decadence looks amateur rather than “indie.”
Environments are oftentimes large, but with few interactables. Even cities that host slaves working on their eternal, never to be finished tasks and NPCs wandering around aimlessly or simply loitering still feel empty and lacking soul. The only people the player can interact with are those who are important in the advancement of the game’s plot. Even so, some locations and characters are difficult to find because they might be indoors or around a hard to see corner. The map helps sometimes with markers for quick travel, though I missed a few quests because I spent upwards of an hour looking for a character that my journal told me is located in the Temple District of a certain city. I could not find him despite the fact that that location is small.
The music is unremarkable. Neither worthy of an award nor worthy of diversion. Then again, an uremarkable soundtrack in a RPG is a demerit.
The writing is uneven. At times, it resembles something that the random Internet user on an alternate account would post in the comments section of a YouTube video. Other times, the writing is novel. It is best in the character customization screen; I enjoyed accumulating skill points just to play around with stats to read their clever descriptions. Unfortunately, once players begin conversations with NPCs beyond an “introductory” slide, the writing atrophies.
I abhor cliches, and if Iron Tower Studio was aiming for imitation as the best form of flattery it is not a good look on The Age of Decadence. AoD “imitates” games like Planescape: Torment and NWN, but with an engine that looks like something I would expect from the Humble Game Making Bundle. Perhaps Iron Tower Studio used Torque 3D to be cost efficient and time conscious, but I have seen better mod(ules) and total conversions. In fact, if they had created The Age of Decadence as simply a massive module for NWN, it would have been a significant improvement.
I feel that The Age of Decadence is a game produced primarily as the result of someone having a brilliant idea for a novel, yet remained indecisive about its ending. They choose the route of a video game to let gamers decide the outcome for themselves. I would have liked to have experienced a story that is more comprehensive than fragmented, more canonical than unorthodox. Because of this, I would only recommend The Age of Decadence to the most hardcore of CRPG fans, the kind that still play the original Might and Magic, Ultima, and those seeking RPGs with with more emphasis on point-and-click than combat options. Others will want to stick to its competitors.