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