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
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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.