The Age of Decadence R4 Preview

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Iron Tower Studio
Developer:Iron Tower Studio
Release Date:2015-10-14
Genre:
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Isometric
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The last major character system change is the addition of skill synergies. These apply only to combat skills, and effectively answer the question of "why can I learn to use a bow and arrow but have no idea how to use a crossbow?" Generally speaking, my opinion of synergies is that they are a rather pointless attempt at bringing realism into RPG character systems which are, by their nature, unrealistic anyway, and therefore are pretty pointless. The Age of Decadence's synergies aren't really a problem, they simply strike me as unnecessary since most players will only use one melee and one ranged weapon type to begin with - and melee and ranged weapons tend not to have synergy with each other.

Philosophical Differences

I admit, I loved The Age of Decadence when I first played it, and in many ways I still do. The world and its lore, the characters, the dry wit and cynicism, seeing the story from many different perspectives, the fact that your choices do significantly influence the game's outcome and your path through it, the attention to detail and the intelligent quest options that let you do some really great things that I often found myself wishing to do in other RPGs, that's all there.

However, when I first played it, I also assumed the game would have grown and evolved a bit more with time. While it definitely has in several ways, with more quest options and, of course, a brand-new city, I can't help but feel as though it's still lacking in some fundamental ways. The game is, mechanically, pretty complicated, but that all takes place in barely-interactive dialogue trees, or within combat. There's no real exploration, no puzzles (except the puzzle of when to put skill points into what), no skill use in the environment, little resource management or attrition to deal with; even crafting and alchemy have no use for non-combat characters at all. All those other little game mechanics and systems that flesh out an RPG into more than the sum of its parts are simply absent from The Age of Decadence.

This leads to what I consider to be The Age of Decadence's biggest weakness. Its gameplay for non-combat characters feels like it boils down to playing Windows Calculator - trying to figure out how many skill points are available, and exactly what combinations of options for quests are feasible based on how one's skills can be levelled up. This renders it little more than frustrating trial-and-error, where rather than building a character that fits your vision of what's useful, you have to hoard those skill points and only spend them when you absolutely have to, on the options the developer has decided to offer. If you happen to find a situation where you can't get more skill points, or allocated points the "wrong" way - which is very possible - it's game over, either due to an instant death in-dialogue, getting stuck in a fight you can't win, or simply having no more options available, and your only recourse is to reload an old save, or start a brand-new game entirely.  There's no free world to explore, no enemies to grind more skill points on, and your path through the game is ultimately on rails; and it can grind to a halt in a way that's extremely jarring.

Now, this definitely in part down to a difference in design philosophy - The Age of Decadence is a very focused and lean game, with little unnecessary bloat. But, the more I play it, the more I feel that this philosophy does not work for me - two years on, and what I could accept as "design choices" are things I am beginning to feel are real flaws. The fact is that skill checks, in themselves, aren't really an engaging or fun mechanic - and lacking a lot of those extra features and gameplay elements one expects from an RPG, The Age of Decadence feels lean to a fault. If you aren't involved in combat, when the great writing and quest options fall away, and all you can do is crunch numbers, figuring what quests you can do in what order and with what options. Frankly, the game simply isn't very much fun.

Closing Thoughts

All that said, The Age of Decadence is still a very accomplished title, and is definitely beginning to follow through on the promise it's demonstrated for the last several years of its development. The things it does well, it does very well - probably better than any other RPG on the market right now, if I have to be honest, and that includes heavy hitters like the upcoming Wasteland 2. However, now that the initial shock and awe factor has worn off, my opinion of the game has cooled. And, part of me thinks that what I value in RPGs has changed a bit since I last looked at it.

Either way, I am definitely excited to see how Maadoran is fleshed out over the coming months, and perhaps even more, how the game will finish up once its final city is introduced. More than any, The Age of Decadence has crafted a truly reactive story and world, and I am eager to take part in its conclusion once the full game is released.