Age of Decadence is one of my new favorite role-playing games of all time. While not revolutionary, it is a bold design that takes role-playing in directions many games claim to aspire to, but so often fall short.
What is it?
Age of Decadence is an indie fantasy RPG title for the PC from Iron Tower Studios. I feature isometric graphics and turn based combat with a single player character. In many respects, it looks and plays like a typical fantasy RPG, but if you play it, you will quickly discover it is in truth very unique for the genre.
When you begin the game, you start the character creation process by choosing a background. There are eight to choose from; Assassin, Thief, Preator, Loremaster, Drifter, Grifter, Merchant, and Mercenary. In a typical RPG this might have some influence on your starting skills or how you level up. In AOD this choice can utterly change how you experience the game.
While every character start’s the game in the same small city, each will have very different options open to them and face very different types of challenges befitting their background. As a merchant, you will be tasked with negotiating deals and working as a political agent. As an Assassin, you will be murdering people for hire. Not only that, the part you play in the unfolding story can be completely different.
On choosing your background, you will then choose ability scores and skills. The wise player will heed the game’s advice and build a character largely suited to their background choice. A mercenary had better know how to fight and a thief had better have some skill at sneaking around and procuring things. It is quite possible to go through the entire game without ever entering combat provided you make appropriate choices. Likewise, you can fight your way through most problems provided you are good enough at it.
Whether you go the way of the sword or not, Age of Decadence is a dialog centered RPG. Who you talk to and what you say can have a dramatic impact on the unfolding story and your own fate. There are numerous ways to die in this game. It rewards players who think and act consistently and punishes those who don’t focus on the natural consequences of their choices. A novice merchant who threatens the thieves guild is going to get a dagger in the back for his bravado but a hardened warrior with a reputation for slaughter is going to be respected when he issues a threat.
While there is a single narrative story line in AOD, how you experience it and how the story unfolds can vary dramatically depending on what background you start with and what choices you make. Every decision you make has an impact. This is not a game where you can have the same dialog with someone 10 times until you “solve” the character. You get one chance and what you choose will change things. Each time you play you will discover new aspects of the story. What happens in the shadows on one playthrough will be the main focus of another. As a merchant, you may hire assassins to murder someone, as an assassin you are hired by merchants to do commit the murder. A Loremaster would only know about the assassination after the fact but the advice they gave someone could yet change the outcome of what happens behind the scenes.
Combat is turn based and uses an action point system, where each action you take uses a given number of points. There are a number of different types of weapons you can specialize in and each allows for different tactical maneuvers and special traits. A spear is good for piercing armor or pushing back attackers, while a hammer can damage armor and stun opponents. You can also choose an active defense, either a shield to block blows or to try and dodge them.
One big departure from most RPGs is that the hit points do not go up as you level your character, only your skills. And there is no in-combat healing. It is your combat skills in avoiding attacks and your armor that will keep you alive. Face an opponent with superior skill or equipment and chances are good you will end up dead. This and the fact you are often outnumbered in combat means you need to either specialize on combat or avoid it.
In addition to the combat skills, there are a number of social skills available to more cultured heroes. These are divided roughly into the skills of a rogue, diplomat, or academic, though you are free to choose among them no matter your background. When in dialogs and when interacting with the world, possessing the right skill will open up possibilities in play, provided your skill is high enough. Like in combat, if you want to make use of a skill, you need to keep it competitive. The farther you progress in the game, the higher you will need your skill to be to keep it relevant and useful.
All in all, it does not take a very long time to complete the story in AOD. This is especially true if you choose to avoid combat situations as battles can take a while to complete. Much of your time will be spent reading dialogs and descriptions as you explore the world. Subsequent playthroughs tend to be faster as you know where things are and who you can talk to in open areas. That said, every playthrough will offer unique experiences and plot lines. A first playthrough is probably around 6-10 hours. Subsequent playthroughs will be 2-10.
The setting for the game is also a departure from typical fantasy games. The trappings are that of the roman empire rather than medieval Europe. Magic is a very mysterious business, mostly consigned to ancient and mysterious relics of power rather than magicians and priests. The civilization you are a part of is the remnants of a much greater historic empire that suffered a grand apocalypse in which gods and devils battled one another.
Further departing from a typical adventure game, most of the action in AOD is political in scope. Your quests involve the power struggles withing the remaining society rather than delving through monster-infested dungeons for magic swords. All in all, the world of AOD makes a lot more sense. Why you are exploring old ruins, why there is treasure there, and what its guardians are doing is all very logical due to the setting.
I love this game to pieces. So many games promise that your choices have consequences and so few fail to deliver on that feeling. Age of Decadence is all about that idea, and how you play and what you do will dramatically change the experience you have as well as the fate of the world. Every play through revealed new aspects to the story, the world, and the possibilities the game offers through its storytelling.
I love that you cannot have every experience in one playthrough. If you choose to play through as a merchant, then you will have an adventure filled with political backroom deals, shrewd trades, and cunning manipulation from behind the scenes. If you play as a mercenary and join the legion, you will be hacking and slashing your way through assassins, rebels, and ancient tomb guardians with little concern for politics.
On my play through as a Grifter, I constantly changed sides. Starting as a merchant, then betraying them to the ruler of a city, then betraying him to a religious zealot, then betraying him to become the servant of a god and rule the world in its name. I could have instead destroyed the god and let the world be a chaotic mess of weakened factions, or I could have stuck with one and consolidated power behind them. The more you play, the more you realize just how many possibilities it offers.
Even small side encounters ancillary to the main plot have multiple outcomes and means of resolution. Many paths are reserved to those with specific skills and abilities, sometimes to owning specific items or having made specific choices earlier in the game. Despite all this complexity each play through feels like everything happens for a reason and each consequence flows naturally from the decisions you made and the type of character you created.
But it is not a game everyone loves. Even the developers themselves note in on their Steam description that some RPG fans will hate their game. Most games allow any character to experience any part of the story no matter what choices they made for their class or build. This kind of freedom is not available in AOD. It is brutal in requiring that a character who wants to talk their way out of trouble to invest in the skills to do so, and likewise in forcing a warrior to ensure their fighting skills are the best they can be. No character in AOD can do it all.
Furthermore, it is a brutal game. Making the wrong dialog choice can leave you just as dead as picking the wrong fight. This has the drawback of meaning that if you don’t create your character wisely, you can end up in some no-win positions in the story where your only path forward involves skills you didn’t invest in. Again, I find that if you think like the character you made, this won’t happen. If you want to play a noble lord, think, act, and train like one and you will be fine. But make an assassin who isn’t good at killing people and you will have a very frustrating experience.
I felt the writing could not have been better and that is critical in a game with some 600 thousand words of dialog and description. Every significant NPC is well fleshed out and their dialog consistent with their character. Not only that, but if you pay attention, you can divine what types of responses will be well or poorly received based on those personalities. If the description says that someone is a no-nonsense commander of a legion, don’t try to flatter him or appeal to his sense of justice, give him a practical argument.
The game setting is likewise very well conceived. This is a world where most people only know legends of the past. Ask 4 different people how the world was destroyed and you will get 4 different answers, though each has common threads. Only by paying close attention and being very curious can you begin to piece together the truth of it. Every corner of the world has tidbits of information and further mysteries. Each playthrough can reveal the world and its plot from different perspectives. I think it is a masterpiece of interactive fiction.
For a game that allows you to entirely avoid combat, it has a pretty involved combat system. One portion of the game features an arena where you can face off against increasingly difficult foes. This really shows off how many effective types of combat specialization are available in the game. It also helps you see how different types of combat maneuvers can help counter different types of foes.
That said the combat does require hardcore specialization to be effective. You really need to pick a single weapon and a single defense and focus on that. There is no switching from bow, to hammer, to sword. You just don’t have the skill points to do that and still beat someone who focused on spear and shield alone. You also need to keep your equipment as cutting edge as you can manage to. The game’s combats can be really brutal and you need every edge you can get. Again, this echoes the game’s story theme in that choices have real and deadly consequences so think carefully and choose wisely.
As an indie game, the production value is somewhat limited. The game’s graphics appear dated, though part of their challenge is a game set amongst desert sands and ruins. They make for a dull and repetitive palate. That said, look closely and you will find a lot of attention to detail and a lot of craftsmanship in the visuals. Sound is limited to background music and simple sound effects for combat. While inoffensive, I played much of the game listening to my own music collection instead.
Like many RPGs the user interface leaves a bit to be desired. You end up closing and opening the inventory and character screens too often. It could use refinement in how you load weapons, activate alchemical items, and so forth that would streamline combat without dumbing it down.
I absolutely recommend this game to anyone who likes their RPGs heavy on story and appreciates choice and consequence style gameplay. Just know that you are getting into some unusual territory and need to set aside some preconceptions and learn to take the game on its own terms.
- Craftsmanship: 4 of 5 stars
- Production Value: 3 of 5 stars
- Gameplay: 5 of 5 stars
- Innovation: 4 of 5 stars