Editor’s Note: GiN Reviewer Vincent Mahoney kindly contributed heavily to this review.
This review for Age of Decadence was one of the hardest that I ever had to write. I’ve gone back and forth with this one so many times. At one point I even gave up in frustration and cursed the game for all time. Thankfully, Vincent Mahoney stepped in and helped me out in a few places, and got me back on the RPG horse. I’m still not in love with Age of Decadence, but I can appreciate what the game is trying to do, and the fact that some gamers will like its style and system over a more modern one that most RPGs follow these days. But more on that in a bit.
Age of Decadence is a top-down isometric type RPG where you walk around in real-time on the main maps but then drop into turn-based combat when needed. It’s set during the dark ages, sometime after the Roman Empire fell. It’s a very dark time in the world, hence the whole dark ages moniker. People tend to think pretty small, and even earth-shaking plots sometimes only involve the fate of a single town or guild. Mostly everyone is just trying to survive for another day. In short, it’s a perfect setting for a dark RPG. It’s not quite post-apocalyptic, but perhaps apocalypse light. There are still towns and cities, something that passes for law enforcement and all that. But life is cheap and very hard.
Your character in this world can be one of several, from a scribe to a mercenary. This will effect several things beyond your initial skill choices, such as the type of missions you can undertake and your general reputation in the world with the various factions. You can buy into any skill that you want after the fact, so a scholarly or merchant character can eventually become a warrior or vice versa, but there are never enough skill points to go around, so your initial skill choices mean more here than with most games. Your reputation also is in flux, but again, it takes a lot of effort to move it, and it’s easier to lose rep points than it is to gain them.
Also, keeping with the dark theme, it seems that almost everyone in Age of Decadence is out to get you. Even seemingly friendly NPCs are likely trying to con you, or at the very least, will stab you in the back if they get the chance or there could be the slightest advantage to them in doing so. You likely won’t be able to play a traditional “good guy” character either, because survival seems to depend a lot on doing bad things to others before they can do it to you. I suppose it’s possible, but let’s just say that trying to be a traditional hero type will likely add another level of difficulty on top of an already hard game.
It’s also important to note a couple things about the combat in Age of Decadence. It’s brutal, almost to the point of being unfair. There are literally several set piece fights given to players in the tutorial section of the game that are impossible to win. Yes, I would say impossible for that one, and yes, in the tutorial. You can abandon those quests and try to come back to them later, but the message the game is sending is that combat shouldn’t really be used in most cases. Again, unlike most RPGs where your character is basically better than the NPCs, here, combat will get you killed more often than not. Especially if you are not a purely combat-oriented character, getting into a fight, almost any fight, is going to spell your doom. You’ve been warned.
Having combat be really difficult is okay, but I have a problem with it when quests really funnel you into combat situations which the game developers must know that you can’t hope to defeat. It’s kind of like playing pen and paper Dungeons and Dragons with a bad dungeon master who thinks it’s funny to wipe out all his players. For many quests, avoiding combat is not all that easy to do. In order to complete quests using other means, you have to make a lot of skill checks. Many of these skill checks are at a very high level, and Age of Decadence does not tell you what you actually need to complete a check. You might need six points in a skill and only have three, which means it will be at least two levels or so before you can complete that task without resorting to combat, which again, is also nearly impossible in many cases.
Apparently Age of Decadence wants players to save and load a lot, which normally is akin to failure in other games. In this one, it apparently is not so, because there are some quests you simply cannot complete fully with some character builds, and there is no way of knowing which quests you can and cannot complete before trying and failing them. Some of these are available very early on, for no reason other than to be a brief stumbling block for a player. For example, early in the game a man named Aemolas asks you to sneak into his old village, now a bandit camp, and retrieve a bag of gold he hid there. Unless you specifically plan for it, you are never going to pass a Stealth check of 6+, followed by a Stealth Check of 5 and then a Critical Strike check of 4. Or you can have a Streetwise of 5 and Impersonation of 4, which is also really unlikely that early in the game. Remember there is no rolling like in Fallout 4. If you don’t have the secret prerequisite, you won’t complete the check. You just have to load again, level up, and then go back to that quest to see if your new numbers are high enough to make it. If not, load again and repeat the process all over again.
I didn’t find that to personally be very fun. For the most part I spent hours wandering around, trying to find things to do so I could earn a few skill points that would allow me to pass some arbitrary checks. It’s all trial and error. And failure normally means death, or some huge penalty like having your hit points permanently reduced. Because the penalties are so harsh, I imagine most players reload rather than actually deal with them, which is unrewarding and ultimately disappointing.
This system also severely handicaps some skills. Impersonation, for example, seems to be a great skill, except it never seems to come up unless you’ve spoken to the right NPC before getting roped into the conversation where you can use it. So it requires knowledge of the prior NPC to complete the check. Without a guide or spending hours talking to every single NPC in every area in exactly the right order, I cannot see Impersonation being that useful to anyone.
Age of Decadence is not a bad game. It’s internally consistent and has no bugs or anything. But having reviewed hundreds of RPGs over the years, I do think that Age of Decadence is overly punishing due to giving a player too little information, because the game refuses to give it. This forces you into a save and reload mechanic that is practically a core part of the gameplay mechanic. Age of Decadence bills itself as being difficult, but it’s a false difficulty because the game is being deliberately obtuse with its players, not giving them enough information to make the right decisions and making combat so challenging that it’s a poor fallback option.
I suppose players who complete Age of Decadence can wear that achievement as a badge of honor. I certainly would respect them for doing so. But with so many great games to play and the recent resurgence in RPG popularity, hitting constant walls and frustration with Age of Decadence was just too much. I know that some people will really embrace this style of gameplay, but for me – and I suspect a lot of others – choosing another RPG to play is probably going to be the one choice that makes the most sense when considering Age of Decadence.