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It's been close to 2 years since I last took a look at The Age of Decadence, but with the newest major version, R4 up and running, and the game's availability on Steam through the Early Access program, I figured it was time to see how Iron Tower's premier title was shaping up. The biggest addition to the game is the desert city of Maadoran, as well as an overhauled character system and some UI updates. With a full two-thirds of the game available, not counting side-quests, we now have a good idea of how The Age of Decadence will play out, though perhaps not how its final chapters will resolve.
For more general information on the game, covering more details on its story, please feel free to refer to my original preview.
Following the events in the crumbling city of Teron, your character will be sent, either on his or her own terms or at the orders of a commanding faction, to Maadoran, one of the last remaining "true" cities in the post-apocalyptic world. Maadoran is a different place than the relatively sleepy and poor Teron: the city is bustling, the stakes are much higher, and death comes much more easily to people caught up in its political machinations. If all the drama, backstabbing, power plays and twisted conspiracies were your fancy in Teron, Maadoran has it in spades, though I expect that it will evolve even more as Iron Tower Studios refine things further.
The story in Maadoran is, like what plays out in Teron before it, very open to change depending on the faction you're aligned with; I won't go into detail about it, because one's goals and path will undoubtedly vary a lot based on one's previous actions. However, it's worth noting that the "main plot" still doesn't really take priority, and it's possible to nearly ignore it if you want to and focus wholly on the faction intrigue, which is a rare and interesting thing to see in an RPG. There's just as much choice & consequence to it as in Teron, though those consequences from Teron are also highly deterministic and can, paradoxically, feel a bit limiting. If Teron was the setup to get the ball rolling, Maadoran has that ball in full spin, sometimes quite out of your own control.
Unfortunately, while the atmosphere itself in Maadoran is excellent, with some fantastic music and a completely different look to it, right now it feels light on extra content compared to Teron, which is strange considering it's supposed to be a bustling trade city. There are no dynamic characters walking around, no merchant caravans, and even the stalls in the market are mostly empty. It simply feels rather dead and lifeless, and it lacks in extra characters to talk to and extra encounters to take part in that I expected to see. However, playing through Maadoran a total of three times, it's also worth noting that you may see substantially less or more of it depending on what faction you've sided with - my initial impressions were that it was lacking in content, but that may only be true of some paths.
The other major change since I last played The Age of Decadence is that its character system has been overhauled substantially, though the attributes and skills themselves have stayed mostly the same. Rather than skills fitting into a 100-point scale, now they sit on a 10-point scale instead, and the cost of increasing them goes up as they raise in level, making it a pretty big investment to specialize. This is nice, in effect, because of the way skill checks have been changed. Many skill checks now actually rely on two skills used in combination rather than one, which encourages you to spread your points out a bit, but also makes characters a bit more versatile than they used to be.
Another change is that skill points have been divided up into three kinds. There's general skill points, which you receive for completing quests and are more or less "fixed income" you can depend on throughout the game. There's also civil skill points and combat skill points. These are awarded specifically for making use of either combat or non-combat skills, and can only be spent on skills of the same type. If I have to be honest, I don't really like this change, because it streams characters that focus on combat or non-combat styles into specializing even more. If you play a character centered around using civil skills, then this system makes it even harder to try to train up your combat skills and play a hybrid character, for example. It may be more "realistic" but I can't say it's more fun and ultimately just seems like needless bloat.
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.
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.
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.