Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is one of the most famous history books ever written. Like all things, the great tome is now archaic, but the subjects on which it focussed are still of great interest and relevance. How do wealthy and powerful civilizations come to fall? What forms of society take its place? Iron Tower Studio’s upcoming RPG The Age of Decadence, influenced by these questions, sets up a world in post-apocalyptic decline. The ancients are long gone and the gods have abandoned the earth, leaving survivors to eke out an existence amongst crumbling ruins, famine and pestilence.
The Age of Decadence’s imaginative world sparks a great deal of questions and is full of mystery, conspiracy and intrigue. It also carries that feeling of historical weight. The low-fantasy setting has a lot in common with Robert E. Howard’s fictional Hyborian Age, although the stories Decadence wants to tell are generally more intelligent than the pulp adventures of Conan the Barbarian. In this brutal, fatalistic world, Conan would have slipped, fell, and cracked his head on a rock before the first chapter had come to a close.
You begin the game by creating a character. Rather than conventional classes, you choose a background, which will alter how you begin the game and may come to colour some of the choices you make during your adventure. On top of the usual combat skills and attributes, you have a number of civil skills. The Age of Decadence is as much about these social and communicative skills as it is about fighting. The ‘Streetwise’ and ‘Impersonate’ abilities are a natural fit for a ‘Grifter’, who begins the game by ripping off a merchant for his ancient scroll. Alternatively, a highly perceptive, trade-smart ‘Loremaster’ will approach the same quest from her own unique angle, bargaining a fair price for the mysterious object. Alternatively, you could be a ‘Thief’ and just steal it.
These kinds of interactions aren’t one-off. The difficulty of the tactical, turn-based combat makes blundering your way through quests by fighting everyone and everything, near-impossible. Even if you decide to play a strong and agile ‘Mercenary’ or ‘Assassin’, you’ll be forced to choose your battles wisely, or else have your journey cut short. Every quest in the game can be tackled multiple ways. With the right skills and connections you can talk, bargain, negotiate and even BS your way out of trouble. A vial of poison may also resolve an issue quickly, whilst some explosive black powder in your inventory will allow for a quick escape.
Even if you are up for a fight, there are always different degrees of slaughter and death involved. The scrappy combat in The Age of Decadence feels brutal and visceral. Every kill comes with a corpse and a tonne of consequences. “You offer yet another sacrifice to Death, who smiles upon you and rewards your dedication by whispering insights in your ear.” Every time this brief in-game description appears, there’s a twang of guilt. Could I have solved things differently? It’s not just the critical hits and dodges of the traditional number-based combat engine that’s based on odds. Every dead body you leave behind increases the chance of your own demise—ill-will, bloody revenge, and betrayal are recurring themes in the game.
The Age of Decadence is a peculiar game. There aren’t many RPGs brave enough to raise skills based upon intelligence and charisma on par with the ability to hit someone over the head with a greataxe. This approach opens the game up for more than one playthrough, as with so many different factions and feuding families, it’s easy to get on the wrong side of certain individuals and be locked out of interacting and working with them.
Something which is quite apparent is how visually antiquated the game looks. To compensate, it makes good use of dialogue, text descriptions and choose-your-own adventure style panels in order to paint a vivid picture of the harsh world and its barbaric people. Famously, The Age of Decadence has been in development for over a decade. It’s a double edged sword—the development time shows, initially in the visuals from another age, but later in the thought and care gone into each quest and all of the minute and detailed interactions. For every ugly technical idiosyncrasy, there seems to be something curious, interesting, or even special. A decade seems like a long time, but as the saying goes: Rome wasn’t built in a day.