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Preview into Age Of Decadence - Open Beta (2012, PC)

Sunday, 25 March 2012

What Is Age Of Decadence?

Age Of Decadence you say, I never heard of it. What is Age of Decadence? Well you might as well have missed this one even if you were Pc gaming regular. Age of Decadence is an indie computer role-playing game developed by Iron Tower Studios, set in post apocalyptic fantasy world inspired by the fall of Rome. The game plays as isometric top-down 3D with controllable zooming and rotating the view and uses Torque Engine. Age of Decadence's world is low magic universe, and by playing open beta you probably wouldn't even recognize it's supposed to be post apocalyptic by it's art. There isn't much destruction in the world visible in beta, where you can do questlines for one town. But it's definite Roman setting. Almost feels like you were in historical setting, unless you read the dialogues carefully.

Open Beta let's you explore the first, relatively small town, and it's quests - containing hours of gameplay. After starting up the game, you're thrown into game's main menu screen with fantastically drawn concept art picture and surprisingly good atmospheric main-menu tune. The drawings really bring character to the game's art, too bad they are not used much other than at menus and character portraits, which are also great. This gives promising initial feel of the game.
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(Concept art is totally inspiring)

Character Creation

Next step is character creation. Another part that may please fans of the bit older computer role-playing games. It's presented with quite stat-heavy character creation screen, but the screen is split into areas very reasonably. It's also nice to see that while hovering over any stat-name or skill, practically anything in the screen, the game gives you better description what the particular stat means, and what it does in the game. You can also modify your character's looks. However as a minor complaint character portrait editing screen is way too small. It's impossible to see closer details of your character's face. The screen is also too dark. I'd had rather just picked out hand-drawn portrait or something. Other than that, no complaints.

The character creation is particularly interesting with several choices. Most of the skills are commonly known from AD&D style rpgs (although AoD uses it's own ruleset), and work quite similar. However there are some differences, but we'll return that later. You have six stats such as Strength and Charisma, which do play large role indeed. In AoD it's not adviced to try and play jack-of-all-trades hybrid class, and trying to be master in everything. You'll end up dead pretty soon. You'll have two choices either master on one thing only, or being at least emphasized for example on combat, while having some diplomatic skills as backup. Just don't spend everything evenly.

(Character creation is quite in-depth with nice touch)

Skills are split in two divisions: "combat skills" and "general skills". Once again if your character has high intelligence and charisma, you'd better off emphasizing on general, rather than on combat skills. While forcing players to focus on certain type of character and restricting players to try master everything may be more restrictive, it makes you to play certain "role" better way. Combat skills contain eight weapon types from melee weapons to bow and crossbow. In addition there's three general skills, of which "Block" and "Dodge" are defensive, and "Critical strike" is offensive.

Weapon Skills And Combat

Your weapon of choice does matter in combat. For example dagger is a good weapon against lesser armored opponents, with it's piercing damage, while hammer and axe might be better at heavily armored opponents and can also known enemies down. Bows are better against enemies without shield, which seems to parry arrows very effectively - being archer's nightmare. Block may offer better overall defense than Dodge, but Dodge skill provides chance for a counter-strike and is somewhat more effective against weapons which do high damage against armor and shield. Talking about shields they can get broken too, even more often when struck by heavy weapon. The thing noticeable is also, that combat skills are not only used in combat, but also in dialogue options, when conversation leads to a situation where it makes sense.

Iron Tower Studios have included several nice little twists to the combat system making it more realistic and varying. It reminds me of Fallout franchise, being turn-based relying on "Action Points", which you can spend every turn certain amount depending of how high Dexterity skill you have. You can also choose different hitting/slashing styles with weapons, or aim to specific body part, which affects how many action points that action takes. I'd say that the system is more varying than Fallout's, and takes several additional things in account at combat. Battles are also square-grid based which makes it clearer to keep track of movement. Bright colors of the grid don't really fancy me, but luckily you can change grid opacity and tune it down in the menu, so it doesn't bother.

(Combat is one of the games best parts)

Combat sequences tied to quests seem to be interesting and very challenging. *Spoiler warning!* At one point me and two imperial guard initiates disguised as raiders were set to kill merchants. This was our initiate mission to join imperials. The battle against merchants and their guards was tough 3vs4 with us underhanded. While I finally managed to get alive through the combat, being not fighter, and only decent archer, we were set back to Barracks to report of our success. Good news is that our little qualifying test to join Imperial Soldiers was successful - bad news is that we the three initiates are standing on dark narrow alley with no way out, and our commander tells us that they don't need three new members but only one - kill the rest!. Holy crap.

No chance to save game in between. Lucky for me the other two were equally competent in melee with each other, and while the other tried to hack me with sword, I ran off from in between the two to a most far corner I could find, and luckily the other two started fight against each other leaving me in peace. I loaded my crossbow and shot at whoever was winning. At the end there was two "almost dead" contenders, and when other went down, I successfully shot an arrow to the remaining guys chest. Lucky me, because I'd never had won melee battle against either of them. Great moment in Beta and one additional way of playing that sequence smart.

(A moment of glory!)

General Skills And Dialogue

Age of Decadence has twelve skills from roguelike lockpick and sneak skills to persuasion and streetwise. Surprisingly Pickpocket is missing. Unlike in many other computer rpgs, Age of Decadence's skills are used heavily in character conversations and dialogues, but are rarely used in exploration mode. It's both good and bad. I was first annoyed that when I explored an Inn, and found some chests lying around in rooms, I wasn't able to even try to lockpick and open them. Later on I learned that they were just decoration, and that you cannot lockpick anything unless you're in story mode and within dialogue - in case the quests involves action such as that. That means no rewarding free exploration for loot, at least not so much. Bit disappointing on that part.

So skills are mostly used only in dialogue mode, but that's where the beauty of Age Of Decadence also lies. The dialogue itself is totally fine, and is presented with "storytelling"-like fashion. Dialogue is very descriptive and atmospheric, and usage of skills within conversation truly shines, perhaps better even than in Fallout. You get several choices in conversation depending of your skills, and your answers choices really seem like connected to certain skills. You're also sometimes brutally punished for being an idiot, or trying to achieve successfully a dialogue option requiring skill that you don't really have. Great thing is that if you decide to for example threaten some character to accomplish your goal, there are several possible effects: he may do as you will, or he may do it but remember your threats in your next quest sequence and refuse to help you in a future making you to achieve your goal harder way in future quest sequence, he may just plain refuse, or he may get offended enough to actually kill you where you stand.

Age of Decadence makes you think your answers to player characters wisely, and outcomes can be greatly different on each play through. Conversation system makes you feel like you're really "playing a role". It's remiscent to Fallout system, but at least in the first town dialogue branches were totally cool. Also special mention about totally great, dark humor flavored death screens with description related about how you died. Really exemplary work with this part Iron Tower!

(Conversation example and a "moment of shame")

For example if you need to get worst competitor out of the town, you may lure him to an empty house and try persuade him to leave, using persuasion skill - but you may also have an option tied to trading or streetwise. If you fail, you can try full out combat. This is far as regular game would go anyway. In one episode I tried just that, but after the game claimed that I had successfully persuaded the target to leave the town, my instincts looking the guy into eyes while he was about to leave told that he was lying about leaving (high perception skill revealed this). Now I have an option to let him go or try and backstab him while he turns away, relying on "critical strike" skill. While I was no combatant, and my crit strike was low, I failed miserably the assassination and was forced into a battle with dagger. I eventually won by re-loading the save several times. Perhaps there would had been even more optional choices, if I didn't want to fight it out - but that was left unfigured.

That's just a simple scenario even, which tells something about the game's dialogue complexity and it's ties to the skills of your character. There's one area of the character creation yet uncovered, which is your "background". You can be either: Assassin, Thief, Praetor, Loremaster, Grifter, Drifter, Mercenary or Merchant.

(Threatening assassin's guild is perhaps not wisest idea)

Choosing Your Background

All of the backgrounds have unique game beginning with unique relations to several of the game's factions. The "Background" sets general tone of your relationships at the beginning of game, and who you start as friends with. This influences your first quests, who you work for and so on. But all is bound to change due in time, if you wish to help another faction instead. There are eight factions in whole containing for example "Imperial Guards", "The Forty Thieves", "House Daratan" and "Commercium" - which is merchants faction. Enough factions to cover interesting story with such excessive dialogue as it stands in this game if you ask me.

Good Craphics For an Indie Game but?

Lets talk a bit about graphics. They are definitely fine for an indie game, but how about compared to other games in general? Well, graphics manage to hold their own. The game basically looks like of early 2000's regular release. The textures look quite nice, and lightning effects along shadows make the world bit more vibrant. The game isn't overly heavy either and should run on bit older computers, although do require relatively much power.

What sucks? Well character models look quite poor, especially females who look like men, but in general also. They are low detailed and lack personal looks. Same could be said about the house and object models around the first town. While textures are pretty good, there's no enough varying objects and other art to spice up the city fully, leaving it looking bit too plain. I'm comparing to all games now, not just indie part. Graphics lack a bit artistic style in general to bring life around the environment, but hold their ground nevertheless. Isometric 2D with artistic style probably would had been better choice though. It's sad that the great hand drawn art is used only in portraits and menu screen, because it really kicks ass.

(Graphics are actually quite nice at some parts)

3D view doesn't come without problems either, because while it's "ok" to use, view ends up being too narrow sometimes with objects blocking your vision. You can freely zoom and rotate camera to some extent, but it just doesn't seem to do such a great job. Zooming with middle mouse button is way too slow anyway, and after any conversation, which zooms in to character, the game leaves you with zoomed-in view and you have to zoom out seperately after each conversation, which is kind of irritating.

Menus and inventories, along other screens are informative and good. Seemingly Fallout inspired inventory screen is pleasing, only that it's a bit improved version of Fallout's having old-school "paperdoll" included, with a grid covering all areas of your body you can place an item to (left hand-right hand for weapon shield, head for helmet etc.). Crafting menu is also here, although I didn't have time to create crafter character yet. Only complaints about them would be item descriptions for example that are overlapping from the boxed area where they are meant to fit, and dialogue text font being tad too small in conversations. I believe such errors would be fixed to the final release. Some desrciptive icons for actions would be nice, such as "go to stairs" or "talk", and the neon green movement cursors "blob" looks plain horrid. The game also contains area map, with important places pre-marked at it, so you can fast travel between them. It's completely fine, but it lacks one important thing, a marker that shows where you're currently at and what direction you're looking to. Small thing as that would make navigation much more easy.

(Fallout inspired character screen taken one level beyond)

Sounds are also bit lackluster in Beta. While music is pretty good, there's no much other sounds included (at least yet). Some menu clicks and hit sounds in battle are in. But anything else is out. Ambient sounds such as loud conversation at the market area, clashing of the swords in barracks training area, and so on would help creating atmosphere to even higher level.

The Gameworld

The gameworld at least in first town is same time great and mediocre. When you're on the quest, the roleplaying experience is top notch with great dialogue. When conversation ends with one guy and the quest sets you to visit another character, you're teleported directly at the new guy. It's good thing for cutting filler material, but tunes down feeling of free exploration a bit.

It may be good thing in Beta, because the less good thing about exploration seems to be "free roaming" that isn't much rewarding that least in starter town. While there's much of things going on within the quests, traveling across the town feels tad too empty and hollow experience. There's no much other things to do than talking to the quest characters. No really joy of discovery. Only way you bump into events is talking to someone, or walking 'till you "bump" into someone, which automatically leads you to conversation. Other than that there's no much interaction with environment. Hopefully Iron Tower comes up with something in final release that will also please those wanting to explore areas freely. Some sort of running events in the town would bring it to life. Rare descriptions "You see x" when adventuring are nice touch though.

(At some parts the town feels empty and hollow)

Lore and Streetwise skills play important role, because post-apocalyptic Rome is greedy place with scam-artists and such selling junk and cheating money from the stupid. It's very cool feature that Age of Decadence features people that will cheat you, unless you're smart and/or have skills to call out a cheat. Player characters can rob you, or sell you an item claiming it's ancient artifact with magical powers, while it's just junk. More the Streetwise skill, better you're at spotting scammer, while Lore should affect on giving better item descriptions on anything. Noteworthy thing is that no magic item ever presents it's stats. As I understood you may either get accurate or inaccurate descriptions for items depending of your skills, but you may never know their stats. I read that Iron Tower did this to prevent people just stat-grinding for magic items.

It actually made me laugh in awe, when within first hour of play I had been already lured to an empty house to buy items for "deal too good to be true", robbed for buying kebab, and given money reward for completing quest - then buying scam item from the very same person by all my quest reward money in belief of getting "ancient artifact", which turned out to be junk. Cool.


The game ran mostly very fine, although there were few of crashes and bugs I encountered. Hopping between Windows and the game made me lose all combat icons, and when I entered combat, I could not hit, only receive hits. The game makes me enter one quest specific combat empty handed every time although I have weapon pre-chosen, which is sort of bad since the game's combat is challenge anyway. It makes you miss one turn, that can be lethal in combat. The game crashed few times in few days, not that much, but still proves that code can be optimized.

Age of Decadence Beta isn't perfect package in all areas, but it definitely has it's fascination - despite inconsistency. Beta leaves things to be fleshed out for final release while leaves hopes up for a great game. The game stands out in story mode, quests, dialogue, and is very good in combat part too. It lacks a bit in graphics, especially environments design, for the town feels bit hollow at times. I'd assume more sounds to come in at final version but we'll see. Best thing about this indie rpg is that it really makes you "play the role" in quest and story mode, and does it great. Being one of the best games in that department released for quite some time. Don't ditch this just because it's "indie release"! Age of Decadence sends quite big promise, and deserves recognition from role-playing fans.