As soon as Brian Fargo tweeted ‘So, the awesome Fallout-inspired RPG Age of Decadence in now on Steam early access’ I jumped online and bought the game sight unseen. It’s been since Skyrim that I’ve played a decent RPG and I’ve been looking for something to keep me busy until Wasteland 2, Mad Max, or WildStar, but having spent a good day and a half on the game so far and progressed not much at all, I’m thinking I may have to just wait a little bit longer.
Any game that soaks up 9+ hours of my time and has me progressing no further than the first two introductory missions is either way too punishing or an indictment on my gaming skills, and as a veteran RPG’er I would sincerely hope it’s a case of the former rather than the latter.
My first issue with the game (and there are many thus far) lies in the descriptor. Why bill a game as a ‘low magic , post-apocalyptic fantasy world, inspired by the fall of the Roman empire’ when there is no magic and the the definition of post-apocalyptic has been stretched to mean ‘post-war’? By that definition Prague in 1918 would fall under the same category of ‘low magic, post-apocalyptic’ and I doubt many people would rush to play a game set then and there. At this stage in game development and marketing, especially given the strength of titles such as Fallout, , Rage, and Last of Us, terms like ‘post-apocalyptic’ carry with them a weight of expectation. To label a game such, and not deliver, is a disservice to customers and misrepresents the title.
The Age of Decadence is inflexible and unapologetically so
Three hours of game play later and not progressing beyond the starting area I begrudgingly acknowledged my second issue with this game; it’s punishingly difficult. Now I don’t have a problem with difficult. I regularly play through titles on harder settings for a challenge, and there are some fairly simple ways to increase difficulty without it feeling like the AI is unreasonably strong. Baldur’s Gate, for example had a simple sliding difficulty scale that altered enemy damage output by a percentage. Skyrim has a similar mechanic that can also reduce the player character’s damage output. These are fairly simple ways in which players can give themselves a challenge appropriate to their skill level or playing style. Age of Decadence however, is inflexible and unapologetically so. The introductory screen warns that ‘The Age of Decadence is a hard game…a single mistake can prove fatal’. This is on normal difficulty. Your only other option is to play the game totally unchanged, but with a pre-made character that will ‘make short work of even the most dangerous enemies’. My pre-made character died in his first fight, in the first round, but this is not the punishing difficulty I’m talking about. I’m referring to unrealistic expectations the game has of players, and it’s refusal to empower them to achieve.
Knowing that the game is designed to be hard, and expects players to invest in their character’s appropriate skillset, I rolled a rogue and made sure I had good sneak, steal and lockpick abilities, raised my dodge skill, and ignored things like craft and lore. Feeling better suited to explore the world of AoD, I headed out and successfully completed the introductory mission – infiltrate a merchant’s room and steal their stuff. My next mission involved persuading some guards to look the other way while the thieve’s guild moved some contraband. Oops…I didn’t have any points in streetwise or persuade, which meant I had to try to steal a document. No problem, I’m a thief. Oops again…I need a disguise skill to be able to steal the document. I failed, despite my relatively high steal skill, and was forced to run away. Oops again! My Dexterity isn’t high enough for me to be able to run away, so I die. No combat, no options. This all occurs through a dialogue window that reads like a ‘Choose your own adventure’ book, and this is the crux of the problem. The narrative of the game is too rigid and relies too much on set criteria being met before players are able to succeed. This same thief character was able to sneak into the palace compound with his high sneak skills, get into the guard area undetected, steal some guard armor and leave, but the guard armor was useless to me because I didn’t have enough disguise points. I also failed at an attempt to get past some guards in a higher up tower because I didn’t have enough points in critical strike. As with the document theft scenario, the penalty for not having an appropriate skill was death.
Where AoD compounds its ability to frustrate is it’s lack of clarity.
Some players might like this brutality, arguing that it’s an RPG and it reflects a harsh world. That’s great, and I would generally include myself in this group, but where AoD compounds its ability to frustrate is it’s lack of clarity. Thinking that I could sneak into a townsperson’s house using a grappling hook, I found myself unable to do so because I failed a skillcheck using the throw skill. That a thief may need this skill is unintuitive and not flagged anywhere. It would be useful to have a note in the item’s descriptor identifying that its use is dependent on a skill, and what level of skill you might need in order to successfully use it. The tooltips for your character’s skills are similarly vague. At the character creation screen when I was trying to select skills that would assist me, I looked at the ‘lore’ skill and while the descriptor was fine ‘knowledge and understanding of the events long gone, ancient languages…’ the benefit listed was ‘you can write your own name’. I bumped the skill up to 4 and my skill is now ‘you realise knowledge is power’. That’s not of any use when trying to figure out how to build my character and it is about as useful as tits on a bull when it comes to giving me an idea of what this skill level will help me accomplish in-game. In contrast to this, combat skills are clearly defined as a percentage chance to accomplish X or to deflect Y, but the core skills, you know, the ones that let you avoid conflict if you aren’t specced for it, are frustratingly vague.
Ten hours in and I get to my third issue with this game; it pushes me to choose certain skills in order to progress, then throws me a curveball by making me rely on skills I dropped in order to get to the point I am at. An example in point – walking around the streets of the starting city I have my money stolen by a street urchin because I failed a streetsmart skillcheck. I reloaded a save point and dropped some points in streetsmart so the next time she appeared, I was onto her and could prevent her from taking my cash, only to end up in a close quarters fight with three armed thugs. I didn’t have the skills I needed to survive because…I had put them into streetsmart instead. Trial and error is no way to have an RPG run. It just frustrates players and hiding behind a ‘this game is tough’ tagline doesn’t make up for poor game design.
These gameplay issues are, for me, the most offputting. Everything else seems in place; decent graphics, OK music, reasonable lore and good combat. I just get my hackles up in an RPG when I walk around a city and click on a door only to be told ‘the door is locked’. And I’m a thief. With some lockpicks my guild master gave me.