The Lighthouse Customer: The Age of Decadence

By Christopher Livingston on April 28th, 2014 at 9:00 pm.

So you're saying you DON'T want to share your campfire?

Each Monday, Chris Livingston visits an early access game and reports back with stories about whatever he finds inside. This week, isometric turn-based RPG combat (and attempting to avoid it) in The Age of Decadence.

Imagine walking out of a store and discovering that not only have you been pickpocketed while shopping, but the expensive item you bought is actually a worthless trinket. When you complain to a city guard, he suspects you’re the real thief, and when a friendly citizen offers to help, you soon find yourself in an alley surrounded by armed thugs. You’ve been ripped off, robbed, accused, mislead, and stabbed to death, all in a single afternoon. Welcome to The Age of Decadence! A quote from the tutorial seems fitting: “Remember to save, you are going to die soon.”

Feeble Phil is my name, and dying in combat is my game! I’ve just been killed in turn-based combat a dozen times by the same single foe… and this is just the tutorial. That’s right, the NPC who exists solely to show me the ropes has instead repeatedly strangled me with them. The Age of Decadence is getting its message across: engage in swordplay only as a last resort. You’re not some near-invincible warrior and you won’t be slashing your way through scores of enemies. Combat is dangerous. Avoid it. You’re mortal. Act like it.

I like a game that's honest about my chances.

I’m convinced! I give Feeble Phil a few skill points in dodge (so if someone does take a swing at him, they’ll hopefully miss), sprinkle a couple in block (for the blows he can’t dodge), and the rest I funnel directly into his mouth, beefing up his talents at etiquette, streetwise, and persuasion. If politeness fails to placate someone, I’ll try being hip. If hipness fails, I’ll try to convince them not to kill me. If none of that works, well, at least I’ll have a slim chance at not being impaled.

Any town where the assassin's guild is bigger than the guard barracks is trouble.

I’m going to be vague, here, as I don’t want to spoil any storylines or surprises. In other words, I want you to suffer as I have. Let’s just say, Feeble Phil arrives in town, meets a few people, and accepts the tasks he’s given. That’s what we’ve been trained to do in RPGs, right? Meet people, accept their quests, solve their problems, complete their tasks, and get rewarded? Right.

I beg to differ.

Things go my way for a while. I’m happy with my mouth-based skills: streetwise, persuasion, and etiquette all have given me a bunch of extra dialogue options, and have helped me navigate through several tasks safely. I pull off a minor con. I talk my way out of a couple scrapes. I persuade a troublesome person to leave town, as if I pose some physical danger to them if they don’t. All this success without ever drawing a weapon!

But I've died DOZENS of times! Oh. You mean ENEMY bodycount.

I can also see other paths that I’m prevented from taking due to not having the necessary skillsets. The local assassin’s guild won’t even take a meeting since I don’t have a reputation for killing people. Another mission has several apparent avenues to success, and I’m barred from traveling any of them because the skills required (stealth, lore, or disguise) I simply don’t have. This clearly isn’t Oblivion, where I can be a jack of all trades and the head of all guilds. It feels odd to have to completely abandon a quest, but it also makes a certain amount of sense. I simply can’t be a success at everything.

This isn't the beginning of a group hug, is it.

Something else about The Age of Decadence slowly becomes apparent, and that something is this: every NPC in this game is a filthy horrible untrustworthy back-stabbing goddamn liar. I buy something expensive from someone, only to find out later I’ve been hoodwinked by the salesman. I follow a seemingly friendly person around a corner and wind up surrounded by thugs and killers. I get pick-pocketed and chase the thief down only to have him accuse me of stealing, and the city guard takes his side.

My reputation precedes me, and not in a good way.

Even some of my prior successes come back to haunt me. That guy I persuaded to leave the city? Yeah, he’s still here, he hates me, and he’s making my life miserable by defusing a major bit of my con-artistry and shitting all over my reputation. Even walking the non-violent path, this game is no picnic, unless it’s a picnic covered with ants who act friendly, lure you into an alley, and then beat the shit out of you.

Might as well buy a plot. I'm going to wind up here anyway.

Though challenging in pretty much all respects, the game hasn’t felt unfair at any point. In combat, I’m just not that skilled. In relationships, I’m way too trusting. At least the game has a good sense of humor. In many RPGs, fighting giant rats is something of a rite of passage, but an NPC seems utterly perplexed when I ask about fighting some. Another time, I’ve taken off my armor with the intent of selling it, and so I’m running around town in my underpants. Most games wouldn’t bat an eye at this, but the city guards actually stop me and tell me to put some damn clothes on.

You'll have to forgive me. I was raised in Cyrodil.

There is a bit of a downside of and RPG where it seems you can trust no one: you wind up trusting no one. I’ve died so many times in skirmishes, been ambushed so many times by thugs, and been taken advantage of so many times by citizens that I’ve basically stopped accepting new quests. A young man asks me to deliver a package to the Maadoran slums, promising a fat pouch of gold in return. Nope, gotta be a trap. Merchants offer me rare weapons and armor for a steep price, something I’d leap at in a different game. Here, I assume these are ripoffs and don’t dare waste money on them.

Dude, don't wall-of-text the chat.

Ironically, that leads Feeble Phil to a new source of activity: combat. Too skittish to take on any quests, I sign up to fight at the arena, and actually start doing pretty well against the various ragamuffins I face, winning several bouts.

ARE. YOU. NOT. ENTERTAINED?

Hey, after all the deception, lying, and bamboozling I’ve encountered, it’s downright refreshing to face an enemy who is upfront about his intentions.

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48 Comments »

  1. Soulstrider says:

    I wonder how much longer this game take to get a proper release. I have been interested in it for quite a while but I just refuse to get an incomplete game.

    Oh who am I kidding, It will probably only get released in the next decade and I will eventually give in and buy it before that.

    • deadwanderer says:

      Putting the decade in decadence

      • Dave Tosser says:

        Age of Decadeindevelopment

      • BockoPower says:

        I am following this game since 2008. It was first announced in 2004. We are finally close. I hope…

    • SavannaJeff says:

      The first third or so of the game was released to early backers a few months ago. The second third came out this month. Final part shouldn’t be long now.

  2. SillyWizard says:

    So…I like the idea behind what they’re trying to do here, though the demo’s execution left me pretty frustrated. The game is just so rigid in how you need to play it. Pick your class, figure out which stats that class uses, and then pour every effing available skill point you get into those skills, to the exclusion of all others.

    I played through the demo with the Drifter class, I think it was. And I learned (through excruciating trial-and-error), that every single skill point had to go into these two or three stats in order to progress the game. If you tried to throw the occasional point into dodge or sneak or what-have-you, you were fucked — the requirements for each skill check (as far as I could tell, through my numerous deaths and re-tries) were that the necessary skill be maxed out with every available point which could be accrued up until that bit of the game.

    It really made me feel like I wasn’t playing a game, so much as simply being shoved through it by a bully.

    I would have loved to have some mid-way skill checks that let you flounder through less-effectively, if you had a smattering of points in various unconventional places — not enough to perhaps accomplish the desired goal, but enough to at least let you survive and progress part of the way to the next bit.

    I intend to pick this up because again, I think their concept is important and worth pursuing. But I’m still going to bitch about it.

    • Drake Sigar says:

      Yeah, I had to save up and scout out the events because it wasn’t obvious what I should be sinking points into in relation to my class.

    • SanguineAngel says:

      Interesting, many of the situations described in the article sound a lot like he was able to progress through with a somewhat scalable level of success or forward momentum at least.

  3. MattMk1 says:

    Ok, listen:

    “You’re playing it wrong.”

    “You should just save up a bunch of skill points so you can reload and put them into the skill you need when you get stuck.”

    “Maybe this game just isn’t for you, you should probably try a more mainstream RPG.”

    I’ve spent some time following the Age of Decadence community and I’m pretty sure that’s what you’re supposed to say when someone mentions AoD and doesn’t admit that it’s the best RPG ever created at least twice in the first three sentences of their post. ;)

    • SillyWizard says:

      If this is actually the party line, I may need to skip out on this one after all. :(

      • Zorn says:

        The developers of Age of Decadence are actually quiet open-minded and communicative. It’s more that folks who don’t agree with their design direction like to badmouth them.

        • Captain Joyless says:

          Communicative, yes.

          Open-minded? Best joke all week.

        • Continuity says:

          Open-minded LOL, my experience is that the devs, or at least one in particular *cough*Vince*cough* are very far from open-minded and quite rude with it.
          Still, kinda like the game.

      • Imbecile says:

        I dunno. Its kind of irrelevant what the party line is – if you like the look of the game, grab it, if not dont. I’m kinda ambivalent. I like the idea, and think its at least a really interesting experiment, but last I played it felt like too many of the decisions were dictated by your stats. Combined with the difficulty, the lack of padding and the ability to ping between locations meant the game felt very prescriptive. Its odd because in many ways all of those factors are good things, but its a fine line. If the focus is too much on character rather than player skill, you can lose (or feel like you lose) all player agency.

        I’ll probably still pick it up though. I like the writing and the humour – and that goes a long way for me.

    • Frank says:

      The second line has been true of other games I’ve played and isn’t a deal-breaker for me. If true, it reflects very poor design, which would be a surprise, what, 20 years after the heyday of this type of game?

  4. Dave Tosser says:

    Hey, is it time for another RPG Codex hit squad to pay us a visit?

    Come on, guys! We hate turn-based games and never played Wizardry II! We loved Dungeon Siege! We dream of Steam!

    • Matt7895 says:

      Hello from the Codex. Your name is apt.

    • InnerPartisan says:

      Bethesda is the best company – right after Bioware! Arcanum sucks balls! NEANDERTHALS WERE TOTAL DICKBAGS!

      • Harlander says:

        I did not see that last one coming.

      • lowprices says:

        Man, the new Fallouts are much better than the boring old ones, aren’t they?

        *Laughs evilly, then leaps through the nearest glass window without checking what floor this skit is taking place on*

    • Brinx says:

      You registered here later than 2002, thus you’re argument is invalid.

      (Or something in the likes of this. :] )

      • JFS says:

        Also, I heard you are a woman/like women/know women/have at one point in your life had a thought about women, and thus would kindly like to ask you to GTFO.

  5. XhomeB says:

    The game’s an absolute work of art – I can’t emphasize enough how great, fresh and creative it is. It’s difficult, you have to specialise in terms of character development, but that’s the point. You can’t be a Jack of all trades, expect to breeze through every encounter, every conversation, every situation you find yourself in. That of course doesn’t mean it’s impossible to progress, these statements are simply false.

    • frightlever says:

      If you have to specialise then why offer players the ability to not-specialise and potentially screw up their build? That seems like a poor design choice. You have all these options… but most of them don’t work. Reminds me of playing Asheron’s Call as an axeman and being told at level 11 that I had completely gimped my character.

      • Berzee says:

        Hahaha…my first Asheron’s Call character was built on the following principle:

        “I’ll specialize both Axes AND Unarmed Combat! That way if I die and lose all my axes I’ll still be able to fight stuff with my hands!!!”

        o___o

        Later I saw a man with 5 health and ridiculed him, little knowing…

      • XhomeB says:

        I can’t agree with that argument. You can allocate the points earned over the course of the game to skills that don’t fit your area of expertise, but that doesn’t mean those won’t come in handy or that you won’t be able to continue your journey. It merely means certain options won’t be available to you. That makes perfect sense.

  6. green frog says:

    This is the kind of game where I’m glad it exists but rather unsure whether it is something I’d ever want to actually play. Seems like it would require a certain level of masochism to enjoy this.

  7. gealach says:

    Sooo… basically Long Live The Queen in brown 3D?

    The concept of “backstabbing NPCs” and “live with the consequences of your choices” (as long as you’re not dead) sounds interesting but possibly frustrating. I’m curious how well it actually works in a cRPG without the social metagame and humour that exists around a table.

  8. Goblin Rat says:

    Eh, I tried it, and I must say that I’m not nearly as impressed with it. Which is sad, because I wanted to be impressed. It’s doing something different, but it feels like it has an attitude problem about it. It takes every opportunity to flaunt how it’s totally not like any other rpg, how it’s so, so, so lethal and how it’s all grim and horrible. And while those things in and of themselves are fine, the game feels just a bit too proud about it. Even the tutorial NPC very proudly declares how in “some lands”, there are great heroes who can slay hordes of monsters, but here you’re gonna die, die, DIE. And then every NPC proceeds to emphasis the hell out of how they’re gonna “fuck me up” and how I will be “gutted like a fish” at every angle. And it just feels like the game is taking cheap shots at other roleplaying games much of the time instead of actually trying to be its own thing as well as possible.
    This is probably compounded by the fact that much of the userbase (at least the visible part, on the forums) acts very elitist about it all, to the point that pretty much any criticism about the game will be met with big, loud, derisive suggestions that maybe you should go play some other rpg that was meant for casual babies, you big casual baby. This is the land of the hardcore gamers! Leaves a bad taste in the mouth, really.

    Coupled with the fact that there are some pretty big issues as a whole (as mentioned above, you really do need to specialize completely, because requirements for success ramp up rapidly, plus the interfaces, plus general gameplay foibles), it just feels very rough to me. It’s inelegant and ungainly, and I just feel that it could do very many things much better. But then, I guess I’m also just not the target audience very much. I’m just not into the whole grimdark lethality as much as I have been, in the past. Five years ago, I would have probably loved the shit out of it and totally agreed with the fanbase’s general attitude. People who enjoy this sort of thing more will probably get plenty out of it. It’s just a shame I couldn’t be one of those people.

    • Vince says:

      “It takes every opportunity to flaunt how it’s totally not like any other rpg, how it’s so, so, so lethal and how it’s all grim and horrible.”

      I see it as a fair warning, not flaunting. This game is different and the player should be aware of it. For example, in most games where you’re given a task, it should be completed (unless you’re swamped with tasks and don’t really care). In AoD, it’s not necessarily true as your character might not be suited for it or completing the tasks might not serve your or someone else’s interests. The player must be made aware of it and adjust the expectations.

      Same goes for killing evildoers by the dozens. I’m not against these “feature” or heroic fantasy. I like smiting them as much as the next guy, but I also believe that there should be some room for different games and different games should warn the player that they use different “rules” and that I’m no longer a mighty hero of great renown.

      “And it just feels like the game is taking cheap shots at other roleplaying games much of the time instead of actually trying to be its own thing as well as possible.”

      I daresay that AoD *is* its own thing regardless of what you may consider cheap shots.

      “This is probably compounded by the fact that much of the userbase (at least the visible part, on the forums) acts very elitist about it all, to the point that pretty much any criticism about the game will be met with big, loud, derisive suggestions that maybe you should go play some other rpg that was meant for casual babies, you big casual baby. ”

      The game has been criticized (constructively and otherwise) from day one. I don’t think there was a single feature that the “userbase” didn’t tear apart and made suggestions for improvements.

      “Coupled with the fact that there are some pretty big issues as a whole (as mentioned above, you really do need to specialize completely…”
      You really don’t.

      http://steamcommunity.com/app/230070/discussions/0/648816742564581708/

  9. Felixader says:

    Okay, so i have to make a comment to the: “Oh you can’t be a expert in everything! That is so true in life/so real.”

    Yes you can not be an expert in everything. Nontheless you need to be somewhat flexible in life. You can’t concentrate or base all of your daily life on ONE field of epertise. Life will kick you for that sooner or later.

    • Goblin Rat says:

      Except if you’re a professional athlete. Although even then, it’s probably useful to have additional knowhow and experience on different subjects.

      Then again, being a professional athlete really isn’t representive of regular life.

      • JFS says:

        At least in Europey, many of them have solid formal education, and quite a few have (had) actual jobs on the side, being police officers, craftsmen or even physicians.

        Might be different elsewhere, but then again does anyone in the US have real education, pro athlete or not? ;)

  10. screeg says:

    I don’t understand all these negative comments about the Iron Tower forums and user base. I’m on those forums almost every day and I see nothing but helpful advice and receptive devs. You all make it sound like some snide alternate Codex where newcomers are mercilessly bashed. Couldn’t be farther from the truth. In fact, I don’t know if we’re even talking about the same forums.
    As far as game difficulty and the necessity of building a character whose stats make sense, there’s plenty of advice on those forums, advice I regularly seek out myself even though I’ve been playing the evolving versions for years. Take a few of those tips first and you won’t have to spend so much of your time on trial-and-error.

    • MattMk1 says:

      The comments are there because if you go to those forums to look for posts which will help you decide if you should get the game – which means the ones which seem critical of the game – you see a lot of elitism and groupthink. I’ll grant you that it’s usually civil by Codex standards, but still rather obnoxious.

      As for the game “difficulty”, my issues with it (based on some time with the demo and a bit of research – reading the comments of the developers and the long-time players) are the following:

      1. The game designers have admitted that forcing people to approach things through trial and error – or “fail and replay” was intentional. But they didn’t make a roguelike, they made a story-based RPG with tons of written dialogue. I have no interest in replaying parts of a story-based RPG multiple times in a single sitting.

      2. There is WAY too much talk about needing to figure out which skills to have at the right level to pass the checks – which means that a lot of the game’s “difficulty” is not something that can be overcome through skill, only through trial and error / prior knowledge. That is not good game design by any reasonable standard.

      3. A lot of the game mechanics are devoted to combat, but the combat system is clunky and uninteresting.

      4. You generally only control one character, often vs. many enemies. One vs. many doesn’t make for engaging, complex tactical combat.

      5. Even combat specialized characters are expected to die fairly often because of how grim and dangerous everything is. Yay, yet another reason to have to replay encounters.

      If that’s not how the game works, then the demo and the community utterly fail to convey the “real” feel of AoD.

      • SillyWizard says:

        The best comparison I can make is that it’s like reading a book, and at the end of each chapter, you’re required to guess what happens in the next chapter. If you guess correctly, you can continue reading. If you guess incorrectly, you have to start over at the beginning of the chapter, and then read through the whole thing again before you’re allowed to make another guess.

        :/

        • Continuity says:

          Yeah, its essentially like the old choose your adventure books but just with much more sophisticated combat etc. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but its certainly different. I enjoyed the open beta and i’l probably buy the full game when its out, but I remain sceptical.

          • SillyWizard says:

            Key difference being in a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, when you make a choice that kills you off, you can immediately flip back to a previous page and follow the other thread.

            In this “game,” you have to reload from your last save, which could very well have been 45 minutes earlier.

            Games that expect you to have to remember to save regularly as a part of your experience don’t actually want to be played.

      • screeg says:

        Wow. I guess I’ll start at the beginning. “elitism and groupthink” As I said, I’m on those forums several times a week and I don’t see it. To say the devs bend over backwards to accommodate every opinion, and often very difficult personalities, would be a huge understatement.
        Now your points:
        1. Agreed, if you don’t like a lot of reading, or this style of game, then it’s not for you.
        2. That’s your opinion, not going to argue it.
        3. Saying the combat is clunky is just completely backwards. This system has evolved over years of active testing and community feedback. It’s incredibly complex, difficult and therefore satisfying. You’re so turned off by the game I can only conclude you haven’t gone into it at all.
        4. See (3)
        5. The system has to be learned, which you don’t have to do through trial-and-error. As I said before (and this applies to non-combat play styles), there’s tons of info on the forums and a friendly, welcoming community.

        Having said all that, it occurs to me that people visiting the forums who complain that the game is too difficult, that there’s too much reading, etc. *AND* follow that up by suggesting the devs overhaul everything to give it more mass appeal, some community members might not be so welcoming. But nobody is getting bashed.

  11. Divine says:

    AoD Wiki: http://ageofdecadence.gamepedia.com/Dodge
    Each attack can be countered either by block or by dodge, never both at the same time.
    Dodge also chance for counterattack, while shield only blocks damage up to block value.

    For Telor combat no weapon skill >5 required.

    <3 cutthroat dialogue options!