Ah yes, RPGs. A genre full of fantasy and breathtaking battles, of epic heroes on epic quests, and of magic and monsters. RPGs are the type of games where you can separate yourself from the harsh realities of life and immerse yourself in a far off realm, becoming a legendary warrior of sheer awesomeness – right? Well, no actually, at least not according to the folks at Iron Tower Studio.
The team have just released the full version of The Age Of Decadence (after having spent years in development and early access), an isometric RPG for Windows that promises to take the genre back to its hardcore roots. As the title suggests, the world portrayed in The Age Of Decadence is one that’s in complete disarray. It is based around the Roman-era, where the cities are still in ruin after a devastating ancient war. Society has collapsed, with different guilds and Houses in conflict with one another, struggling to establish any real order. The world has become overrun with corruption, criminals, and violence.
That’s where you come in. The game lets you choose your role in this crumbling dystopia from one of ten classes. As the entire experience is constructed on having multiple scenarios dictated by what choices the player makes, who you choose to play as is extremely important. From assassin, to thief, to loremaster, whomever you choose will have an impact on the way you play the game and whom you encounter on your journey.
You also have a chance to distribute stats, which seems familiar enough, only here your choices remain permanent; there is no levelling up to be done in the game at all. The character build set at the start of the game, which includes determining your strength, HP, and charisma, stays the same throughout the whole playthrough. Therefore, the pressure is on to choose wisely. The game does feature skill trees though, one for combat skills and the other for general skills, which act as the closest thing to levelling up, as the player will gain skill points to add to these attributes when they complete certain story missions.
The character creation screen immediately demonstrates the unsympathetic nature of The Age Of Decadence. The game makes it surprisingly easy to fail before you even get started. If you approach it with the attitude that you’re going to try and master every aspect in one playthrough, creating a well-rounded and unstoppable character, then you’ll swiftly find yourself flat on your face in a pool of blood. The most important thing to bear in mind when starting to play is this: you will not be able to complete everything with one character, so don’t even try.
The game is designed to be played through using a different class and stats each time, to be approached with a trial-and-error method for the player to see where each character choice gets them. Therefore, it is a lot better to commit to developing one or two particular stats, such as persuasion and streetwise, and focus on getting by with just those. This is made especially true since skill points aren’t exactly easy to come by; very few missions award them in large amounts.
The Age Of Decadence is structured like a 3D ‘choose your own adventure’ book, by which I mean it’s non-linear, and there is a lot of text. The primary focus of the game is on the dialogue trees and descriptive prose, as opposed to adventuring and battles. Your first stop is in the dilapidated city of Teron, where you wander around in a top-down view, with key interactions triggering text screens.
It has to be handed to lead designer Vince D. Weller for writing such a well thought out, complex universe. The amount of detail that has gone into fleshing out the cities’ whole history with their own lore and interwoven backstories is astounding; the sheer length of the numerous paragraphs are enough to rival the depth of George R.R. Martin’s work. As mentioned before, you need to play as each class in order to get the full picture, with each character’s journey giving new insights into the world and its inhabitants. The more I played, the more I found myself wanting to discover all the ins and outs of the world.
If there is a fault to be had with the writing, it’s that it lacks the humour needed for it to go down a bit easier; page after page of text can be quite intimidating, especially when they are all dense with information for you to take on board and process. If I really wanted to be picky, I did come across a few typos here and there, but nothing major to ruin the experience.
There are some issues with the overall appearance and presentation of the game, however. Most noticeable are the graphics. While perfectly adequate for the text-driven style, the game still looks very out-dated. This becomes more apparent with the camera zoomed in, where the lack of polish on the character models becomes blatant. The animations during combat also look very basic and lack any sense of character; instead, they just look like lifeless dolls hacking each other to bits. In addition, the text screens themselves look quite dull; there is no animation or voice acting whatsoever, just screenshots of the characters. This is understandable, however, given the vast amount of dialogue that would need to have been recorded.
Now, onto the combat system. From the outset, The Age Of Decadence makes its world grounded in brutal reality. Every fight is intended to have an impact, and dying is not to be taken for granted. “The best way to survive a fight is to avoid it entirely,” says a character in the game’s training mode. This turns out to be crucial advice to take heed of. In case you didn’t get the message, already made abundantly clear in the game’s preamble, the fighting system is relentlessly unforgiving. You will often find yourself outnumbered against much stronger opponents, not being allowed any ability to heal mid-battle. The system is turn-based, with your set action points ruling how many moves you can execute, and you can visit different merchants in town for weapons and armour, as well as using alchemy to concoct damage enhancing potions.
There really isn’t a whole lot more for me to say about the fighting apart from its difficulty. I pretty much avoided it altogether; I learnt early on that if I ever wanted a chance at progressing, it was best to avoid any unnecessary rough-housing with the city’s inhabitants. If you do want a chance of ever coming out of a fight victorious, then I suggest you invest heavily in good armour and spend all skill points on weapon handling.
One last note on combat: make sure you save just before entering into a battle. The game autosaves as soon as it enters combat mode, meaning if you’ve gotten yourself into a fight you can’t win, you are then stuck in it unless you have a prior manual save you can go back to.
Needless to say, The Age of Decadence will not appeal to everyone. It’s targeted to a very specific niche of hardcore RPG gamers, a group that I don’t consider myself to belong to. It took me a very long time to eventually get used to the gameplay style and finally start to have some fun. It’s like nothing I have ever played before, which both frustrated and intrigued me in equal measure.
It is completely possible, and even very likely in the case of a novice, that you can work yourself into a dead end by not completing objectives at the right time or by rushing into a challenge before you have good enough stats. I have to admit, I did this quite a number of times. In fact, it took me several hours of gameplay before I finally felt like I had made any substantial progress.
During my time with the game, I mainly tried out two characters. One playthrough as a drifter where I focused on intelligence, charisma and persuasive ability; the other as a mercenary where I pumped all of my stats into strength, sword-fighting, and critical strike ability. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I had a heck of a lot more fun with the former. I feel like the game offers a lot more to players who choose intelligence and charisma over strength and dexterity. Despite eventually managing to win a lot of the battles I started, I found myself becoming quickly bored with the combat-heavy Mercenary, feeling like I rapidly exhausted every option and was left with nowhere else to go. It seems to me that the game is a testament to the idea that a sharp wit can be more effective than a sharp sword.
For those willing to delve in and spend a lot of time with The Age Of Decadence, the game will reward you with a rich, story-driven experience. As there are a multitude of so many different paths to go down, the length is very extensive. After spending twenty hours with the game, I still feel as though I have a ton of roads to take, different people to interact with and loads of achievements left to unlock, and I am looking forward to adventuring on.
Overall, The Age of Decadence is a game whose sentiment appears to be ‘welcome to the real world, asshole’. Iron Tower Studios have sacrificed common RPG tropes such as whimsical characters and magic; instead, they’ve tried to emulate real world logic and consequences as much as possible. There is no margin of error, no room for experimentation, and no use in relying on luck or second chances.
You want to confront a gang of thugs? Then you best make sure you have a powerful character with good armour; otherwise, you’ll get stabbed to death in seconds flat. You want to put your trust in a dangerous assassin? Then you had better stay on your toes with your wits about you; otherwise, you’ll get betrayed (and eventually stabbed to death). I found the end result both refreshingly unique and unbelievably maddening.
At times, the game feels like a blunt morality lesson about the consequences of violence; when the opening message says that combat isn’t always the answer, they really mean it. It’s a game that’s almost nihilistic in its tone, expressing a very pessimistic view of the human race as a load of lying scumbags who can’t be trusted, and that if you ever want to make it in an immoral world, the only person you can trust is yourself.
This review is based on a PC copy of the game, which was provided to us.
Although its unforgiving difficulty may only appeal to a minority, as well as being tarnished with out-dated graphics, The Age of Decadence is still admirable for what it aims to achieve, offering an impressively deep storytelling experience for anyone willing to invest the time required.