It was a dark and stormy night in Age of Decadence

, | Game reviews

The reason to play Age of Decadence is singular: the writing. Singular in the sense that it’s very good, singular in the sense that it’s unique among fantasy RPGs, and singular in the sense that it’s pretty much the sole reason to play.

After the jump, no ring to bind them all.

Unlike the usual fantasy RPG — even most of the good ones — Age of Decadence isn’t about a Doo-dad of Unimaginable Power. It’s not even about your garden variety Evil Wizard or Conquering Demon Army. It’s a mystery about what happened to make this world the way it is. Namely, broken down, dissolute, barren, a failed state ruled by petty squabbling Houses. The tone is closer to noir than fantasy.

As the mystery unfolds, a lot of the dramatic tension is between the supernatural (i.e. high fantasy) and the plausible (i.e. low fantasy). Suffice to say the developers at Iron Tower have a very specific preference. Would it be a spoiler to say I didn’t palaver with any elves, fight a dragon boss battle, or cast a single fireball spell? Frankly, I consider those bullet points rather than spoilers. Age of Decadence is a welcome alternative to the usual fantasy nonsense, which feels more like a habit than a creative choice. Plus it’s the safest thing to do. Why reinvent the kobold?

But Age of Decadence wants nothing to do with kobolds, just as it wants nothing to do with Doo-dads of Unimaginable Power. The overarching idea is a crumbling society divided among three noble Houses, each fumbling around in its own version of darkness to comprehend what destroyed the world. That’s the central mystery. It plays out like noir in that you are the detective, piecing together what really happened from differing accounts, all vividly written with clear voices and efficient prose. And like a detective in a noir yarn, you can’t help but become part of the central mystery, effecting an outcome you might not have intended. Age of Decadence might run away from you.

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It helps that Age of Decadence sidesteps the thorny issues of gameplay. On my first playthrough as a loremaster, I didn’t fight a single battle. Well, I should say I didn’t win a single battle. I did fight a few, despite my attempts to avoid them. At which point I died immediately and had to reload from a save point before the battle. But the game was more than happy to let me avoid battles. If there’s a boss battle somewhere at the end, I sure didn’t see it. I couldn’t get into a few areas because they were gated behind mandatory combat. I was expecting that I’d be able to hire bodyguards or maybe add a tank to my party. But Age of Decadence doesn’t believe in parties. Like a noir detective, you work alone. So by the time it was over, I hadn’t killed anyone. Not directly, anyway. Thousands died as a result of my decisions, sure. But because I didn’t personally wield the sword, bow, or dagger, I have plausible deniability.

Is it a good idea to let the player sidestep a huge swathe of gameplay like combat? That’s up to you, because Age of Decadence has made a firm decision. Combat here is analogous to ducts in Deus Ex, a game where you get past every door by either finding a key code to unlock it or crawling through a duct to circumvent it. Deus Ex won’t judge your choice because it just wants you to get to the other side of the door. That’s how combat exists in Age of Decadence. It won’t judge your choice because it just wants you to get to the next story beat.

One of the upsides of nonviolent gameplay is that it moves quickly. When story happens, you don’t have to connect it to something you read ten tactical battles and fifteen loading screens ago. Names and places will be immediately familiar and easily remembered. Events are referred to several times over. Besides, there are only three cities, huddled together on a tiny map screen. How much narrative sprawl does such a world allow, whether you’re interrupting it with tactical battles or not? This is a small and tightly knit cast of characters in a modestly built world.

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The modestly built world will be a problem for people who want production values in their fantasy. Age of Decadence starts out implying rich detail in a broad world. But the more you play, the more the detail falls away and you find yourself zipping along a rail down the central storyline. Which actually makes sense. The time to pick your way through side quests and world-building is the early game. Once you’re hip to the central mystery, it rightly demands all your attention. You don’t even have to mess with pointless travel. The game is more than happy to just bop you over to the next important conversation whether it’s across town or across the world map. Geography, smeography. Age of Decadence has a story to tell and I don’t mind that it trimmed away so much cruft that it told it in seven hours. How long would it take me to read something by Robert Jordan or one of those elfstones of Shanarrah things? I’m pretty sure I made the right call.

It reminded me — and I say this as a good thing — of an Infocom adventure, with the focus on text and decisions. Sure, the dated graphics could have been a module for Neverwinter Nights (the game engine dates back to a 2001 shooter and it shows). Yeah, I had a character screen where I assigned points to skills, which I started out RPing, but eventually saved up until I needed to boost a skill for a specific decision. There was even an inventory in which I carried around gear, alchemy herbs, and crafting ingredients before realizing I was never going to use them, so I sold them for gold I never needed to spend. The text was always the thing. Everything else was incidental.

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You could play Age of Decadence as a more gameplay oriented RPG, but I don’t recommend it. Unfortunately, this is what will happen if you want to play a combat-based character. I chose a mercenary for my second playthrough and eventually decided I couldn’t be bothered with the combat. For a system with so much detail — you can choose to aim for an artery when you swing an axe — it sure does feel pointless. Age of Decadence even warns you before you start playing. “Hey,” it says in a politely worded message, “you might want to consider avoiding combat, because we made it kinda hard.” I’ll say. Pass. I’m here for the story. If I want detailed tactical combat, I’ll go back to Pillars of Eternity. If I want visual spectacle, I’ll go back to The Witcher 3. It’s worth noting I didn’t finish the storyline in either of those games. But I sure as hell did in Age of Decadence.

  • Age of Decadence

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • The Age of Decadence is an isometric, turn-based, single-player role-playing game set in a low magic, post-apocalyptic fantasy world, inspired by the fall of the Roman Empire. The game features a detailed skill-based character system, multiple skill-based ways to handle quests, choices & consequences, extensive dialogue trees, and combat that you can totally skip if you want.
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