There’s a certain appeal to post-apocalyptic settings – games like Wasteland and Fallout, movies and comic books like Mad Max and The Walking Dead, are all here to prove that. Age of Decadence takes this trope and wears it over a setting that will remind you of a collapsed Rome, from the noble houses vying for power to the apparel design, with its splintered cities and uninhabitable wasteland living in the shadows of a bygone, advanced empire with ambiguous amounts of technology.
The first thing that came to mind once I played Age of Decadence was Fallout (1 & 2): from the decadent setting to the broad character creation, this impression kept being proved correct time and again as I played and the game showed its wide breadth of quests and means to solve them, capitalizing on something tabletop role-playing games and, to a lesser extent, certain cRPGs, like Planescape: Torment and Divinity: Original Sin, do very well: give the player freedom of choice.
During my first playthrough, where I was a cunning, silver-tongued merchant, the lord of the first region gave me two tasks – to rescue a relative of his captured by a group of bandits, and to drive away a group of explorers that belonged to another house. With my guile, I managed to kill two birds with one stone: I convinced the bandits to give me the captured nobleman in exchange for a job, which was to clear the nearby mining facility and in return they could keep whatever they found within. Oppose that to my playthrough as an assassin, where I simply murdered the bandit group’s leader before he could react, prompting them to leave in fear, and then proceeded to infiltrate the facility by means of stealth and sabotage the machinery they were investigating, prompting their departure, and the variety of options becomes immediately clear: with its seven factions depending on different skill sets, from your capacity to persuade to your knowledge of the world’s lore, how you approach each situation depends entirely on how you’ve created your character.
Character creation itself is as varied as your options in the game: there are six attributes, twenty-three skills and eight backgrounds to choose from – Mercenaries, Merchants, Thieves and more – as well as eight factions (some of which are the same as your starting background) to improve or decrease your reputation with. Both your faction reputation and attributes and skills are constantly checked in your interactions with the game world and its denizens, and it’ll quickly become evident that any single playthrough will miss out on hundreds of interactions and possibilities not only because of past choices, but because of your inability to perform certain dialog checks or actions.
Each playthrough is divided in the rough equivalent of three acts – related to the three major cities you visit, each with surrounding locations you can discover (or not) and go to – and regardless of which faction you choose, the places you go to follow a more or less linear order. That doesn’t mean repetition sets in as you play it multiple times, as your interactions and how the NPCs react to you vary radically according to your creation and in-game choices.
Combat is a relatively simply thing, working on a turn-based grid and with you controlling only your character (at times other people will join your side, but you don’t control them). While it’s relatively balanced and functional, with fights being something you’ll want to steer entirely clear of if you’re not proficient with and avoid even if you are, it suffers from something several other elements of the game also do – map, character control, menu and interface are all on the clunky and obtuse side.
Along with the varied possibilities and choices, what kept me invested in Age of Decadence was its setting. This is a world built on the ruins of an advanced civilization, which didn’t exist that long ago in time but of which records are now sparse and mercurial. The texts you find and the loremasters you hear will vary in their tales, speaking of divine forces and demonic enemies as well as of ancient technologies. This is a world where after dispatching a pair of bandits with your copper gladius you’ll find a sentient automaton, who then guides you to a teleport pad.
The presentation itself suffers from poor graphics and a muddy color palette, used to reflect the post-apocalyptic scenario but which is dull nonetheless. Animations are simple and repetitive, though death seems to have an abnormally large amount of variations. On the other hand, the soundtrack hits all the right notes in conveying this Rome meets Sci-fi setting.
Much like its graphics, Age of Decadence is an old-school RPG. There are walls of text to read, there are no quest markers to guide you and the character creation is as intricate as it is varied. It’s also a role-playing game that gives you actual choice, and not only its illusion, and places these choices into a setting that’s unique and bizarre. How you play is entirely up to you, and while morality is quite different in a world where assassins and thieves have legal guilds, at no point did I feel shoehorned into being nice or acting in a certain way, treason and backstabbing being as readily available as being honest and subservient. In Age of Decadence, the only common denominator to each playthrough is death.