The Age of Decadence (AoD) is a gem that captures the essence of role-playing games, putting choice and consequence above everything else. Since there are so many clichés and misconceptions about what a RPG should look like nowadays, some warnings are in order. This way we can begin to talk about the game in comparison with what it is not. First, it is worth mentioning that if your idea of RPG is that of an action game in which you just push buttons to kills everything in sight, you will be disappointed. AoD is not the typical action RPG. Combat is brutal. If you don’t think tactically, you die horribly. If you pick up every fight, you are history. The game has the same unforgiving learning curve than Gothic 2, if not harder. However, despite its combat system being difficult to master, it is fair.
Second, AoD is not a traditional RPG full of self-indulgent common places and bland quests. Don’t expect to get a job in the tavern to kill rats in the basement. You don’t have a group of buddies that will be part of your team. Do you want to be the Mr. Nice Guy that careless helps anyone that cross your way asking for help? Good luck with that. People will take advantage of you and gut you like a fish. You cannot be successful in every quest without ruining other people’s interest. If you defy powerful people they will mark you for revenge. AoD looks like a Hobbesian state of nature or the world of Game of Thrones without the most superficial characters. There is no space for quixotic dreamers here and you can’t survive for long if you don’t stay alert all the time.
Of course, you can’t “invent the wheel” in the RPG genre and quests involving backstabbing and scheming for power are old news. However, in what AoD purposes itself to do, it does very well and without gratuitous self-indulgence. The character system was carefully designed and integrated with an immersive and addictive gameplay. Every single stat and skill have relevance and could make a difference between success and failure. Do you need to pass unnoticed by the guards? You have to sneak. You can’t sneak? Try to fool them with your disguise or persuasion. You can’t fool the guards? You have to fight or you are dead. Reactivity is key and your choices matter. There are no cosmetic decision here. In my second playthrough as an assassin, I end up on a very distinct path than the first and I suspect that in a third playthrough as an assassin I would still have many open possibilities. Considering that the game has seven backgrounds/professions at the start of the game (assassin, merchant, grifter, drifter, praetor, loremaster and mercenary) and each has unique quests, replay value is enormous.
All the elements of the game are top notch. The instrumental soundtrack is beautiful and captures the atmosphere of a post-apocalyptic world “inspired by the fall of the Roman Empire”. The graphics are good, but don’t expect the next generation graphics here. This is not a game full of cinematics that push your PC performance to the limit. Which is fine given the circumstances: we are talking about a cRPG produced by an indie studio without kickstarter funding.
But what really stands out above everything else is the writing. The writing is strong and consistent. There is always a risk that a game with so much writing end up being compared with Planescape Torment, the classic that pushed the boundaries of game writing to insane levels. Fortunately, AoD achieved the feat of being even better. The lore is sophisticated and since every single quest is connected to the main plot, the game feels truly dense. The absence of filler quests is irrelevant, since there is much to explore. The biggest city of the game, Maadoran, is not gigantic as Athkatla of Baldur’s Gate 2, but it is definitely more meaningful. NPCs and their motivations are believable. Dialogues and quasi-literary “scenes” are memorable, reminding us of the scripted interactions of Darklands. And even in the middle of all the backstabbing that are some moments genuinely warmhearted – came to mind the dialogue with a farmer that cries about his tough life.
AoD have been in the developing process for 10 years, which is perfectly reasonable for a RPG of that caliber, especially one made by a first timer indie studio (let’s not forget). Some little design tweaks and polishing of rough edges are necessary, but 70% of the game is already finished and 16 locations out of 22 are available in the Early Access build. I have a fear though that because AoD took so long to see the light of the day it will fail to live up to the hype of its hardcore fans or end up being treated with indifference for most RPG gamers. I hope that I’m wrong. AoD has all the marks of a classic. Let us give it all the praise it deserves.