Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 25, 2012
Strangely enough, the fantasy series I really got into as a kid was not Lord of the Rings, or the Shannara series – the latter being fairly recent and popular, in an era where “fantasy” wasn’t quite a genre of its own and tended to get lumped into the “Science Fiction” section of the bookstore. No, it was Conan, in all his pulp-fiction-y glory, that I dove into. Not just the Robert E. Howard stuff, but the later authors – including L. Sprague de Camp and the not-yet-famous Robert Jordan.
I have spent a little bit of time with the demo for Age of Decadence this last week, an indie RPG which has been in development for… well, quite a while. My thought is that this game was probably more inspired by Conan than Lord of the Rings, itself. In a bit of a departure from standard fantasy fare, Age of Decadence takes place in a dark, gritty, fictional world. It is based loosely on Europe during the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire… so a little prior to the dark ages and medieval era you usually find in fantasy RPGs.
I should note here that this was the R2 Beta of the demo, and the full game is likely still a ways out. As far as I can tell, the Iron Tower crew is doing something similar to what I did with Frayed Knights – creating a “test” version to solicit feedback so they can improve the full version before it is released.
Age of Decadence is “low fantasy,” with magic and supernatural (so far) appearing as more of an exception than the rule. This has never been a common approach with CRPGs – I think Darklands was the most notable example. There are plenty of stories of magic and demons and sorcerers, but the only magic appearing in the game thus far has been a couple of old artifacts which have no discernible in-game powers. One of said artifacts is named, “The Eye of Thor-Agoth,” which is close enough to “Thoth-Amon,” the name of Conan’s nemesis, to make me view the game through the lens of Robert E. Howard rather than … I dunno, J. K. Rowling?
The classes – well, backgrounds - available at start-up also exemplify this gritty approach. Classes are much more mundane professions – including quite a few seedy ones: Thief (not rogue, thief), assassin, grifter, drifter, mercenary… And from the looks of it, being a nobleman or noblewoman doesn’t make you a paragon of virtue, either. Playing a merchant in one run… you know, an honest, hard-working salt-of-the-earth small businesswoman… my opening mission had me paying off the assassin’s guild to murder a competitor who dared to show his face again in town after being run off years earlier. Supposedly with one last warning. When I questioned the guildmaster about the legality of the act, his response was basically along the lines of, “What? It’s not like we’re stealing from anybody.”
This ain’t a pretty, happy, fairies-and-unicorns world under siege by a nebulous Ancient Evil. It’s a crappy world of hard survival in the carcass of a once-flourishing civilization.
The character generation sequence is good old-fashioned stats-based point assignments. Your core stats (Strength, Dexterity, etc.) seem to be dictated by your character class (profession), although there is a box for “stat points” which you can perhaps increase later in the game. Mostly, you’ve got skills – also determined by your background – can be adjusted individually by spending skill points. Skill points are awarded for completion of quests or accomplishing specific tasks – not by kills. This is a good thing, considering the nature of combat in this game. More on that later.
The quests themselves – at least so far – are something of a mixed bag. Each starting background comes with an early quest or two that will get you on the path for an overall storyline. Quests and events play out a little bit like an old “Choose Your Own Adventure” book (for those who remember them). You’ll stumble into several of them, and the game politely teleports you to the important spots on your quest for at least the earlier ones. Many of the choices depend upon skill checks to succeed, and are politely prefaced with exactly what skills will be checked. I was pleased to see in one dialog that failure was not a complete disaster – it simply dictated whether a situation was an insta-win, or it put me into combat with a wounded opponent.
The branching nature of these quests and events is definitely interesting, leading to some cool replayable options. But there are always limitations. One downside of the branching dialog is that the game sometimes assumes a behavior on the part of your character that doesn’t match your intention. Some of this could be prevented by giving your character more limited dialog – not putting words in his or her mouth – but that makes for less compelling dialog. The branching events also mean that as a player, I tend to consume quests pretty quickly. With a couple of failures and some dumb purchase decisions, I soon found myself kind of stymied in one play-through, where the only remaining quests on my list either demanded money I didn’t have, or seemed to not yet be implemented. It’s tough to tell, as the game gives you few hints on some of the later quests as to where to go.
While I don’t mind a game not leading you by the nose on some missions, there are some modern niceties that would be appreciated. To find an interactive object or person, you have to move your mouse cursor over them, which will glow. But there is no name or identification of the object to go by. The only way to know if find your guild-master is to talk to people in the guild hall until you stumble across him. The interactive elements of the starting city are pretty sparse, so I spent a lot of my time wandering around moving my mouse cursor over everything, hunt-the-pixel style, trying to find something that would trigger a new event or resolve a current one.
Sometimes events seem to find you instead. For a short time, the world seemed pretty rich in events going on. I’d walk around the city and stumble into things that would trigger. This was pretty exciting. Then I seemed to exhaust the events, and the game revealed perhaps its biggest weakness – there’s no regular “loop” of activity in the game to engage in. In this way, it resembles an adventure game with RPG-style task resolutions. But if you get blocked for any reason, there’s not much to do but wander around already-explored territory poking around to find anything else you may have missed the previous dozen times you passed the spot. Occasionally it works, and it’s awesome when it happens. But when you spend fifteen minutes moving from place to place and clicking on the same people who have nothing more to say, it gets pretty old pretty fast.
Hopefully this is something that will be addressed in the full release. But whereas most RPGs have the explore-fight-loot loop to fall back on (and fall back on it they do far too often, IMO), the Iron Tower developers seem to have actively avoided this approach. I applaud them for the effort – I’m really excited to play through an entire game as a merchant and as a thief and see how those play out – but it’s going to require them to pull something out of their sleeves to make it really work.
I guess this is as good a place as any to mention combat. Apparently, a lot of players have been complaining about the difficulty of the combat in the Age of Decadence demos. Having played only three combats (that’s right – a grand total of three in as many playthroughs), I can’t fully respond. I was playing primarily non-combat oriented characters, and knowing the combat was supposed to be gritty and brutal, I took the assumption that I was unlikely to survive less-than-even fight. So far that assumption has proved true. Most of the time, you seem to at least be given the option of escaping the fight. I’ve jumped out windows and made a run for it a couple of times to preserve my character’s head. Why should a thief expect to be able to take on a couple of armed and armored guards?
A bigger problem – and it may have been my lack of understanding – but it feels like there aren’t that many options once combat is joined. If later in the game, you get to control more people than your own character, then I can see the tactical turn-based combat being much more interesting. But lacking any sort of magical spoilers like healing spells or potions, or any special magic-like feats or special moves that demand fluid and dynamic responses, combat seems pretty limited to taking turns beating on one another until you or your opponent(s) goes down. Since you can get multiple actions – movement and attacks – in during your turn, I suspect there are some tricks I could use to try and force my opponent’s expenditure of action points to my advantage, but that’s pretty subtle stuff. The relative scarcity of combat in this game (again, that’s not a bad thing, just a different thing) suggests I may not have many opportunities to master the art.
I’m actually okay with this, in theory. If combat is downplayed for non-combat oriented characters, booyah! But something else has to take its place. I’m just not sure what else is in place in the “skeleton” of the game to give structure to the meat. But as I said before – I’m thrilled that Iron Tower is trying. There are several points in the demo where dialogs or descriptions make fun of standard fantasy RPG tropes, reminding the player that this is not conventional RPG fare. I’m on board with that. I think the game has some pretty exciting potential in its concept, setting, and approach. It’s pushing some boundaries that are long overdue for pushing. If Iron Tower can really focus on the core, without losing sight of the delightful “exception-based” events that make the game stand out, they could have a winner on their hands upon release.
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