The Age of Decadence Review

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Iron Tower Studio
Developer:Iron Tower Studio
Release Date:2015-10-14
Genre:
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Isometric
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay

Introduction

Originally announced in 2004, The Age of Decadence is an isometric CRPG developed by Iron Tower Studio. Set in a post-apocalyptic setting inspired by the fall of the Roman Empire, the game features brutal turn-based combat, a complex branching storyline, and a plethora of skill checks. For a long time, it was one of the few titles that promised a return to the design values of games like Fallout and Darklands.

However, the RPG landscape has changed dramatically since the announcement of The Age of Decadence. Crowdfunding happened. Titles like The Banner Saga, Shadowrun Returns, Wasteland 2, Divinity: Original Sin and Pillars of Eternity might not have been to everyone's taste but did a lot to serve a previously ignored niche.

The Age of Decadence can't simply sell itself as an old-school CRPG anymore. It has to stand on its own merits. The question then is: does the title have something to offer in a post-Kickstarter landscape?

A Decadent Setting

The game's story takes place in a post-apocalyptic world that is strongly inspired by the fall of the Roman Empire, though it's still an original setting and still includes some low fantasy elements.

Because of its inspirations, The Age of Decadence's setting doesn't need to waste time explaining itself. It also feels fresh, however, because the idea of a Roman-themed post-apocalypse is so rare compared to the average pseudo-medieval fantasy.

Long before the events of the game, a war between the empire that had conquered most of the known world and the "barbarian" tribes of the Qantari escalated to the point where both powers sought the help of extraordinary otherwordly beings.

Accounts vary on how exactly those events transpired (and, indeed, much of the game can be spent piecing them together) but the results are obvious: the world is in ruins. Precious few towns dot the arid, poisonous deserts that were created by the apocalyptic magic used during the war.

In spite of the scale of the conflict, however, The Age of Decadence is extremely grounded. It's a game about political intrigue and men's schemes and plots. Its story starts with the discovery of a map that is supposed to lead to an ancient temple and can branch in very different directions depending on various factors.

The Age of Decadence delivers choices with consequences in a way that puts most other titles to shame. Each of the game's backgrounds changes the start of the game dramatically, and the guild plotlines have several branches and outcomes. There are several ways to accomplish an objective... and several ways to fail to accomplish it.

Attributes, skills, previous choices, reputations forged with the various factions, snippets of lore learned along the way, and even the items collected all come back into play during the game's quests, for good and ill.

For example, I managed to convince a preacher in the starting town that I was chosen by the gods, which later helped me access a holy city. Failing to convince him, however, would have damaged my reputation with the noble house that governs the city. Those are just minor examples too. The same city could end up under the control of very different rulers, depending on the player's choices.

Along the way, the game slowly but surely shifts its focus. At the beginning, legends of the war and the lords seem distant, while the focus is firmly on survival. But if a character manages to survive enough to progress throughout the story, those elements come naturally into play.


What remains constant, though, are the themes that are imbued into every element of the setting. The Age of Decadence is an RPG that embraces cynicism like no other. The game has a very dark view of humanity and tragedy. The first is fundamentally evil, while the latter removes all the shackles that make it possible to keep humanity's evil nature at bay.

The game also touches on the impossibility of accurately transcribing and conveying history, the use of religion as a tool, and the formation of social hierarchies. Unfortunately, the impression is that the developers were only interested in those subjects inasmuch as it allowed them to pontificate on the evils of mankind.

It's a pity, because the writing prowess on display here deserved more interesting material. The characterization is sharp and, for the most part, the prose is concise and committed to its style and tone. The game paints vivid scenarios and characters with a few lines of dialogue, but they're rarely interesting ones. It pains me to say this, but I felt I'd seen most of what the game had to offer writing-wise in the very first hour or so of gameplay.

I was also surprised by how often characters would be introduced with a clunky explanation of their past history and personality, information that my character couldn't realistically have known. Considering how long the game has been in development, I'd have expected an editing pass to iron that out.

Finally, and I admit this is a nitpick, the game's prose stumbles when it attempts to gently prod the fourth wall and comment on RPG conventions. Sometimes it's just clumsy, while in others it reminded me of a frustrated and vindictive AD&D Dungeon Master.

Character Progression System

Each The Age of Decadence playthrough starts with character creation. It's arguably one of the most important moments of the playthrough because your character build matters a lot in this game. There are a lot of possible builds, some of which are very interesting and unconventional, but there are also many unworkable builds.

Firstly, a player is presented with a choice of gender and eight possible backgrounds, plus a limited number of cosmetic choices. The character's origin is the most important choice here. It alters the beginning of the game (with implications for the rest of the main quest) and the starting reputation with each faction. Very rarely, a character's background is also checked during conversations.

The second part of character creation consists in the selection of attributes and skills. Attributes are frequently checked in dialogue and gameplay and also determine the secondary statistics of the characters. For example, Strength influences the character's carry weight, while Perception adds a bonus to Hit Chance.Additionally, Strength, Dexterity and Constitution scores determine the starting skill points pool for combat skills, while Perception, Intelligence and Charisma determine the starting skill points pool for "civic" skills, the skills that don't directly affect outcomes in combat.

Combat skills are a straightforward affair. Most of them handle the different weapon categories, like bows, crossbows, hammers, swords, etc. Some of these synergize too. For example, raising the Bow skill gives a minor bonus to the Crossbow skill. There are also two skills that deal with avoiding damage, Dodge and Block. A player can choose to raise both, but they are designed to be mutually exclusive. Finally, there is a Critical Strike skill that influences critical hits and is also very useful in text-driven interactions to get the jump on enemies and assassinate them.

Civic skills include skills that deal with dialogue and general knowledge, like Impersonate, Persuade, Streetwise and Lore, crafting skills such as Crafting and Alchemy, and thieving skills like Sneak, Lockpick and Steal. It should be noted that The Age of Decadence has no gameplay systems for stealth and that the related skills only come into play during text-driven interactions and conversations.

Quest rewards in the game come in the form of direct skill points that can be either stored for later or used right away, but otherwise there is no leveling system. The initial attribute decisions are final and the initial skill points allocation has an enormous influence on the rest of the game.

The system is straightforward and surprisingly intuitive when one takes into account both the design inspirations and the harsh difficulty curve of the game. There are a few quirks, however. A very small number of quests and actions award skill points that are exclusive to the combat and civic pools. It's more of a puzzling design decision than a flaw, considering how rare the occurrence is and how it seemingly solves no design problems whatesoever, though perhaps I just missed something.

What feels like a real flaw, however, is the way the game encourages skill points hoarding. A couple of premises. The Age of Decadence is a hard game. It's also a very strict, structured game. There is a lot to say about the effects this has on the entire game and I'll get to it later, but for now I'll limit myself to the character progression system.

Because a skill check can make the difference between life and death in The Age of Decadence and because points can be saved until later, the game encourages a playstyle where points are spent to meet certain challenges rather than to naturally develop the character.


It can be argued that a similar playstyle is encouraged by any game that uses skill checks, and to a degree that's true, but the vast majority of those games don't punish failure as harshly as The Age of Decadence and feature far more bountiful resources for character development. There are no random encounters or other systems that hand out experience in The Age of Decadence, for example, and there are very few optional side quests.

And, as mentioned earlier, figuring out how to allocate the initial points is also important. Extreme combat-focused or civic-focused builds tend to work really well and are straightforward enough to build, but more hybrid builds need some experimentation to be figured out. A bad build is punished very heavily by the game, though, and that experimentation will be punished with several deaths and unfinishable playthroughs.

To be fair, a lot of those flaws aren't really inherent to the systems design in a vacuum, but are due to how it interfaces with the game's content. This is also evident in the crafting and alchemy systems. They're very robust and in-depth by themselves. A crafter can craft various weapons based on schematics, and do so by choosing one of several different possible materials that will determine the final quality. It's also possible to apply different techniques to weapons and armors, further enhancing their properties.

But there is a limited amount of materials in the game and not a lot of room for experimentation. The developers were clearly aware of this problem, as evidenced by the option to dismantle existing armors and weapons into their basic components. Even with that additional option, though, there are only so many crafting materials available through the game and no real way to make up for choices that are bad only in hindsight.

In the end, whether it was intentional or not, the game punishes players that can't divine its rules right away.

Murderous Rampages

The Age of Decadence utilizes a heavily stat and gear-based turn-based combat system. The player has only control over one character, while allies and enemies are controlled by the game's AI. During a turn, it's possible to choose from a number of actions such as various attack types, movement, and item usage, all of which are governed by action points.

While understanding the nuances of the system takes some time, the basics are surprisingly simple. Everything, including the percentage chance to hit, AP costs, and the range of every attack, is displayed very clearly. And that's very good because the game's tutorial itself is poor. It explains the very basics with some painfully on the nose dialogue and then proceeds to give the player a large variety of tools and the chance to experiment with them in progressively harder battles.

It's very good for players who have already a decent understanding of the system and would like to experiment with new strategies but very poor for novices that are overwhelmed by the amount of tools available. The presence of tooltips that are accessible at any time does little to ameliorate these issues, though I appreciate the additional insight into the game's stats system.

In spite of the poor tutorialization, The Age of Decadence's combat system is robust and enjoyable. There is a large amount of combat playstyles available, and every combat encounter is handcrafted, down to the smallest confrontations, which helps keep the feeling of repetition at bay. It's not, however, an outstanding system. Grounded, single-character turn-based combat has its limit as far as strategies and encounter variety is concerned. Sure, some weapons have special attacks and properties, and there are items like nets and liquid fire to break the monotony, but even that can only go so far. It can be a little dull, in other words.

That said, many players will probably avoid combat, because it's very, very hard, especially during optional battles. Even a build specializing in combat can struggle often, and the game makes no attempt to ease the player into the mechanics. It's even possible to die during the very first combat encounter of the game, and the player is even awarded an achievement when that happens.

In many ways, The Age of Decadence's combat system is the perfect fit for the kind of game it is. It's unapologetically hard, robust and deep but also not very exciting or interesting.

An RPG Like No Other.. For Good and Ill

The Age of Decadence's biggest problem is its own structure. It's a very carefully crafted game with no fat whatsoever and precious few actual gameplay systems. It's a game that punishes players heavily as they are figuring out how the designers want them to play and gives little to no opportunity to remedy mistakes.

It's a game that kills as many characters as a roguelike but lacks the thrills of a new playthrough that are embedded in the very DNA of those games. Every single scenario, every single interaction was handcrafted by a developer. As a result, often the challenge lies not in understanding the gameplay systems but in learning the developers' logic and the content of the game. Making a new character just to have enough points to pass a skill check isn't really an interesting experience, just a tedious one.

The Age of Decadence is very obviously inspired by Fallout (it even borrows the game's poor inventory interface) and titles of its ilk and yet misses the freedom and system interactions that characterized them. In Fallout 2, it was possible to kill pivotal characters without alerting guards by applying super stimpaks to them in large numbers and waiting for the aftereffects to kick in. It was arguably an exploit, something the developers didn't intend, but it was also very clever.


The player almost never has a chance to be clever in The Age of Decadence. The designers had clearly a lot of fun coming up with interesting options, but there is no way to divine what they will be ahead of time, and they are always the only options available. The game has no core loop, because that requires unrealistic concessions to gameplay over gritty storytelling, and also lacks gameplay-driven systems outside of combat, which is completely optional.

As a result, The Age of Decadence feels like a Frankenstein game held together by duct tape. There is the Choose Your Own Adventure game with skill checks, the isometric RPG with empty maps and almost no interactive element, the turn-based combat simulator, and even the dungeon crawler, in a very limited number of locations, and none of them feel like part of the same game.

In fairness, there are wildly different gameplay systems and scenarios in most RPGs too, but most of them tie them together far more elegantly. Even uninspired RPGs can work simply because they mimic the same loop that was pioneered by far better titles. The Age of Decadence is a game that lacks many classic RPG staples like loot and random encounters by design but also lacks a clear idea of how to replace them. It removes and adds from a baseline, but the experience should have been rethought from the ground-up.

As a thought experiment, I tried to imagine how The Age of Decadence would look if it was presented mostly through text, and the battles were the only element to use the 3D isometric controls. It wouldn't need many changes at all. The game doesn't take advantage of the unique opportunities provided by an isometric camera and explorable 3D areas at all.

A lot of craft is on display in the game's minute details, and a lot of thought went into its system. That's exactly why it's so disappointing that the way the experience works as a whole didn't receive the same attention.

Graphics, Soundtrack, Technical Features

The Age of Decadence's soundtrack is fantastic. It doesn't include a lot of tracks, but the ones that exist do a fantastic job at evoking the mood and texture of the setting. Just listening to them immediately conjures images of dying towns and hopeless peoples, barely echoes of the grandeur that came before.

The art style doesn't quite live up to the images conjured by the soundtrack, however. The concept art used during the loading screens is great, although stylistically not quite cohesive, but the poor polygon-starved environments and characters detract significantly from the presentation, an issue further compounded by the few clumsy animations included. Torque is an old engine and, well, it shows.

In spite of the game's 11 years of development, The Age of Decadence feels slightly unfinished too. Most background NPCs don't even have a line of dialogue, the ambient sounds are sparse, and there is very little movement in the game's cities, even when the text portrays them as bustling with life, trade and commerce. The game also lacks fog of war or any other way to hide visual imperfections, and that's something that would have really helped with some maps. For example, the initial location is conspicuously surrounded by a black void.

Finally, while the game's scripting holds up surprisingly well in spite of the many, many branches, the game has a serious problem with crashes. They happened very frequently during my playthroughs and most often while transitioning to a new area.

Conclusions

The Age of Decadence has value in a post-Kickstarter world because it does what no other crowdfunded RPG has done: it toys with the very structure of the genre. Sure, it wears its inspirations on its sleeve, but it's ultimately its own thing.

However, the problem with experiments is that they don't necessarily all give good results, and The Age of Decadence is very much a failed experiment.

Sure, it's a game that has much to offer. It includes a completely optional sidequest that can only be found by repeatedly perusing the services of a town healer and allows players to confuse stone demons by using the demon's own logic against it. It even offers an entire story path focused on the study of history and its practical applications.

But its praiseworthy elements don't quite work together in concert and the game ends up feeling schizophrenic as a result.

Unfortunately, it just doesn't quite work.