Aimlessly Going Forward

blog by Tomas Sedovic

Age of Decadence Impressions

In Summer 2004 or so I have finished playing the last great (computer) RPG1. I'd played both Fallouts2, Planescape: Torment, Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines. And Arcanum: Of Steamworks, Magick Obscura and Ridiculously Long Convoluted Titles.

I'd played all the decent ones as well: Baldur's Gate 1 & 2, Might and Magic VI - VIII, Gothic I & II. And I was thirsty for more! But nothing else existed. And would never exist, it seemed3.

Which was weird, because there had been a huge amount of games calling themselves RPG! All the Diablos and their ilk, all the Final Fantasies and theirs. All The Elder Scrolls. And yet, somehow, in a way I could not articulate, none of these were the "real RPGs". More importantly, none of them were really much fun to play for me.

The last good RPG had been written and the genre was dead. The words "RPG" were always followed by "elements" and meant skill points to make a shooter game more interesting.

And in that climate, via a small RPG Maker game of which I remember nothing, I discovered indie RPGs. The last bastion of hope: games not beholden to the market forces that drove all fun out of my favourite genre.

It is thus, that I learned about Age of Decadence. An independent game in the making, by people who seemed to understand what was good about Fallout and Arcanum and PS: T.

But it was not out yet, the info was scarce and the game forgotten for a few years, until I checked it again and found the writings of one Vince D. Weller, the lead designer. His name being a Fallout pun was a great sign.

It has been a revelation. His What's a role-playing game? resonated perfectly. It pointed out the elusive quality that all my favourite games had in common ("Classic" RPGs in the post's nomenclature).

His other essays, reviews and interviews, strewn over the AoD forums kept me hopeful. There are people out there who care. There are people out there who understand! Who in fact understand this better than I do and who are doing something about it.

Thus Age of Decadence became my most anticipated game of all time. The Holy Grail. The game to save all gaming.

So I waited. I finished high school. I've finished university. I've moved several times. I got a job. I got married. I started writing my own game.

When they announced the pre-order, I went for it immediately and got the Patron of the motherfucking arts badge. One of my proudest achievements to date:

Patron of the Motherfucking Arts badge

Age of Decadence was officially released on the 14th October, 2015. They were adding content for months after and it is only last month (March, 2019) that I finally got to give it an honest go.

All this is to say that this game and its developers had been on my mind for over a decade. I have not looked forward to a game more than I ever did for AoD. I probably never will. Nor have I held any other game in such high hopes.

Uh...

There was no way the game could have lived up to what I built up in my mind. Nor could it match the big commercial games in the graphics, size or polish. Realising all that, I still bounced off it twice before it took hold.

The game's not exactly great looking, but that's the easiest thing to get past.

Game screen

It has a free-form isometric-like camera. Meaning the game has an isometric look, but you can zoom in and out and you can rotate the view. This generally means that you have to constantly fiddle with it. You need to rotate it to see things hidden behind walls, you have to zoom in when you enter a building and zoom out when you leave. It glitches out when you're at the edge of a map or near a tall wall.

I generally prefer a pure isometric view -- one that you can't rotate. Yes, it's less realistic and constraints where the designer can put objects, but it absence of faffing about with the camera controls is well worth it.

That too one can one get used to quickly.

I think my biggest issues lay with the game's map. I have almost gave up on AoD because of it.

In the finest tradition of classic RPGs, there is no minimap. You can press the M key to bring up a map of your surroundings (e.g. the city you're in) or the world.

And here's the absolute clinker: you don't see your character in it. It's a static map. You can't add notes to it, you don't see NPCs in it and you don't see where you are within it.

Map

Which is perfectly realistic and somehow, for me, nigh unusable.

I've got a terrible sense of direction an orientation. Saying that I've got a nonsense of direction would probably be more accurate. I get lost incredibly easily and have been doing for all my life.

The minimaps -- those little things in the corner of your screen that show you your immediate surroundings and orientation? Those are my lifesavers. People don't think of these as accessibility features, but for me, they absolutely are.

And if a game doesn't have it, at least they tend to show you where you are in the big map you bring up by pressing M.

Without that, I am quite literally lost. And it's not just a minor inconvenience: I enter a building, talk to someone, leave the building (having shifted the camera) and I've no idea which corner of the map I've explored and which one I should go next.

It seems like such a tiny thing, but I found it really, really difficult.

This is compounded by my other issue: difficulty remembering names. When there is an item in the quest log saying "Go check up on Quintus again", I have no idea who that is, where can I find them or what was the context I'd met them before (which might potentially help me remember).

I understand these are things that take extra work arguably better spent elsewhere. I also get that RPGs did indeed use to work that way. But it still made it really hard to play Age of Decadence.

I do wonder whether other people just don't have these issues -- I do have some observational evidence that I'm just really bad at directions, spatial memory, names and faces.

But this really almost made me stop before I even got to what the game has to offer.

Oh?

There are good things about the game's interface, too.

The local map shows you many of the locations you may want to visit repeatedly (shops, healer, guilds, taverns) and lets you click to teleport there.

You can always leg it -- and indeed that's what you should do when you first explore an area. But after that, going to a shop should not mean five minutes of clicking and scrolling.

The pointless walking around areas that you've thoroughly explored is one of the annoyances that are present in almost every RPG I can think of and AoD shows us how to do it right.

Second, the game has no random combat encounters when you move about. Those are pure garbage. They've managed to single-handedly ruin an entire genre (JRPG) for me. As is right and proper, they have no place in here.

Third, the overall interface (on-screen display, combat, inventory) is very Fallout-like. That is as excellent default if you don't want to spend the time/budget to invent something else. It works great.

Inventory

And finally, Age of Decadence uses its dialog system properly. Following in the footsteps of all the great classics, the authors use it for way more than just gabbing.

The dialog system can teleport you from the quest giver to your destination, it can present you with descriptions and puzzles that would be hard or impossible to represent in the graphical world. A typical RPG system is a fantastic interface for choose-your-adventure-style of storytelling.

This is of course nothing new, but I am extremely glad games are starting to use this more and more because it is excellent. With a good writers it can greatly expand what the players can get to do with a fraction of the budget.

And of course sometime it's better to tell not show. Being explicit a 100% of the time is not a good idea.

Other great recent champions of this style were of course Pillars of Eternity and Torment: Tides of Numenera.

Ow!

The combat. It is hard. This has been advertised and actually, I was excited about this. Not because I like combat in games, but precisely because I don't.

By making the combat hard instead of the default option, Age of Decadence was supposed to give you enough tools that you weren't even supposed to need to fight unless you really wanted to.

This sounded really great in theory, but it turns out I was running into combat an awful lot anyway. Even though my character was not particularly well-equipped for it.

And the really shitty thing is, it seemed like I'd be missing a lot of the game if I just walked away.

A lot of that is my fault. I've chosen to play an assassin. Don't ask me why. I also did not design my character particularly well I reckon. And let's just say that the first really serious mission of the assassins' guild involves a ton of combat that you kind of just need to do.

But I have also been burned many times by the promises of exciting replay opportunities and with a few notable exceptions, it always turned out to be underwhelming.

So the frustration here was mainly that I did not trust the game to be true to its promise, really. I wanted to see as much of it as I could on a single playthrough.

So after some frustrating time, I did what any self-respecting gamer would do: I cheated. Not too much, but I did improve my character's odds a little and gave myself a bit more Lore and Persuasion (two characteristics that I deemed most important) to see what the game is really about.

Ah!

Age of Decadence is set in something that very much resembles the Ancient Rome, but not exactly. It is a post-apocalyptic game and there are remnants of the previous civilisation around.

It is clear that something happened, but it takes time for you to figure out what and even then it's fragmented. Age of Decadence is low sci-fi. Yes, it's there. But it's not in your face -- you need to work for it.

I like it -- of course you won't be running around lasers in a power armour when you get started. Chances are your character won't even know what a laser is when you do see it.

The world of Age of Decadence is a harsh one. It is in decline and people are right bastards to each other. You won't find many friendly faces.

But it is really well put together, with interesting factions and people and things to explore. I've had great fun exploring it, learning how it ticks and how can I influence it.

That is what I came here for -- the writing, world building, making choices and feeling the consequences. And once I managed to move past the gameplay issues, I've enjoyed myself thoroughly.

I also need to point out one positive aspect of this being a project of a small team and budget: the game is not very long.

My ten years younger self would probably not agree, but I'm thirty three so here goes. Most RPGs are way too long. I don't have a lot of time and frankly, a ton of energy to deal with bullshit. I like to finish my games, but if it takes 120 hours (and I tend to be slower than the average player), well, that can take six months to a year.

Or multiple years as I'll likely want to play other games in-between.

AoD probably took me about 25 hours start-to-finish. And I've tried to explore every nook and cranny, experimented a lot and did a huge amount of reloading. It's got three big areas a bunch of smaller locations to explore and an ending. That scope seemed pretty much perfect for me. I wish more games were closer to this size.

Random notes

The combat uses square tiles, not hexes. This is not great. Squares suck big time. Having some gamedev experience now, I can imagine why they did it, but it's still annoying. The combat is turn based though, which is a Good Thing.

There are three separate skill pools: one for combat (daggers, swords, shields, dodging, bows etc.), one for non-combat skills (persuasion, lore, trading, alchemy) and one that can be used for either.

This means that you always get some amount of skill points that go into combat (or non-combat if you're inclined the other way). You can still screw your character up royally, but they won't be a one-trick pony.

There is no character level -- it's all about the skill points. In particular, you can't improve your character's base stats (strength, endurance, charisma, etc. -- they're very Fallout-y by the way). You can't improve your hit points. What you start with is all there's ever going to be.

There are several times where the time passes and something irreversible happens. This only happens a handful of times and it's not always clear what triggers it or when it's going to happen.

Indeed, the first time this happened to me was at the end of a big quest with a long combat. As soon as the combat ended, shit happened and anything you've left undone just resolved itself. If you didn't like that, good luck. Feel free to load a two-hours-old save.

I like that time passes and the world moves on without you. But not knowing when that happens is frustrating. If I knew, I would have tried to wrap things up before embarking on that quest.

And it's not very consistent. In general, this happens when you enter a new big area. Which might indicate that it's about the passage of time. But that's not really true when you take a look at the other areas of equal or greater distance that you can travel to and from without anything happening. And sometimes it's just about entering and leaving a location -- but not always.

It is a great idea more games should pursue, but the implementation could be better.

Depending on which background you choose, you get a very different gameplay at the beginning -- different quests, areas and people to talk to. Think the first Dragon Age. This is excellent and I wish more games did that.

And it's got an unusually good ending for a computer game.

Most games' endings vastly overstay their welcome, stretching for a long time, often introducing bullshit you never had to deal with before and changing the rules of the game.

Not AoD. The ending is short without being abrupt, you get plenty of choice and it does have weight.

Final thoughts

Overall, Age of Decadence is a really good RPG.

Some of the issues I've had with it stem from my situation: I have much less time for playing games these days, I'm less trusting to the authors' promises and I have way less patience.

I wish I played this game 10 years ago. I am almost certain it would have been brilliant gem for me on par with Planescape: Torment.

But it arrived ten years too late and therefore it's just a really good game with some fantastic ideas, great writing and world building and a few problems that made me almost give up.

I'm really glad I didn't and I do intend to get back to it. It seems to have enough to offer for multiple replays. A no combat playthrough is a thing I definitely want to try.

If I could send myself a message when I started playing Age of Decadence, it would be this:

Don't worry about the combat and don't worry about missing stuff out. The map sucks and you will get lost -- try keeping notes. It is all worth it.

Hearing that from someone I actually trust would have made me enjoy the game even more.


  1. I don't remember which game it was exactly. Probably either Planescape: Torment or Arcanum.

  2. Every time I mention Fallout here, I mean Fallout 1 or Fallout 2 by Black Isle. Not the more recent Elder Scrolls reskins.

  3. Thankfully, that was not exactly correct. I had missed a few gems (Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines, Mask of the Betrayer) and other great games would come: Dragon Age: Origins, Pillars of Eternity, Torment: Tides of Numenera.

Tomas Sedovic on 13 April, 2019