Age of Decadence is a Steam darling modeled after the old school, bad ass, doesn’t-fuck-around, clunky-as-hell RPGs of the 90s that came and went way before my time. I was playing Crash Bandicoot, Spyro, and Jet Moto when games like Fallout 1 and 2, Baldur’s Gate, and Planescape: Torment were inspiring a legion of gamers to reject modern RPGs as pathetic examples of condescending hand-holding trends brought to their logical conclusion. My admiration of the modern Fallout’s lore had always tempted me to dive back into the original games, but quick glances at their Steam pages always scared me away, even after accounting for their low price tags. They seemed too severe, too rough around the edges, too unforgiving of a player’s lack of clairvoyance to determine which skills will end up more effective than others in the late game. I figured these things were an artifact of another time, and while I understood their appeal, I also thought they would make as much sense to a modern gamer like myself as a Commodore 64 would to a modern computer-owner.
Yet Age of Decadence somehow managed to reel me in. I think it was the description of the game’s Steam page, which is just as well written as the story’s endless sub-plots and intrigues, which finally did it for me. AoD may look uncannily like Runescape, but it’s actually an absurdly deep RPG with more narrative control in the player’s hands than perhaps any game I’ve ever played outside of Crusader Kings. And it takes place in a pretty damn cool “low magic, post-apocalyptic fantasy world” where a stand-in for the Roman Empire has collapsed after a world war with another major power in which both sides summoned physically real deities and ended up in a state of mutually-assured destruction, thus leaving the land in a state of chronic fractured power struggle between three small kingdoms and a host of eclectic minor factions. Gameplay consists of multi-tiered dialogue trees with stat checks, and turn-based grid combat. Basically, if your favorite part of Bioware games is the personal negotiations between interesting power players, and you always felt like the sword/magic/gun/biotic fighting was just filler, AoD is the game for you.
Before I began playing, a Steam reviewer informed me that AoD has unusually “broad” classes which allow for interesting alterations to traditional play styles. For instance, “you can build a mercenary who is actually a lover not a fighter, an [sic] merchant who responds to denial with an axe to the face and many other combinations.” Well, I already knew this game was about accumulating power to take over a treacherous political wasteland by any means necessary, so I naturally thought that for my first playthrough, I would take on the role of the legendary Big Boss.
Thus I was delighted to find “mercenary” among the starting classes. I figured I would start as a lowly merc and then use my unstoppable fighting skills and colossal charisma to start my own private military company which would slowly gain power as it swayed the political dealings of the established elites until the day it eclipsed the fighting strength of even the greatest king and swept aside the useless politicians to usher in a glorious age under the benevolently guided personage of myself. I would create a true Outer Heaven…
My plans hit a snag at literally the first fight in the game when I was killed by a lone assassin with a crossbow and shitty leather armor.
You see, while AoD may very well allow unorthodox class strategies, it doesn’t permit creative players to entirely circumvent the standard limitations of RPG trade-offs. This meant that I could make my mercenary a legendary warrior by maxing out his strength and dexterity skills, but then I would have to deduct points from his intelligence and charisma skills, thereby leaving him an idiot and a boor respectively. Or I could go the other way and turn my mercenary into the type of epically persuasive commander who could convince solders to switch sides while literally in the heat of battle, but only at the expense of leaving my poor merc with the fighting skills of an anemic toddler.
Given that I’ve slaughtered scores of people in a thousand games but so very rarely get to persuade people, I opted for a character design closer to the latter category. The opening missions in AoD vary by class type, and the mercenary’s mission consist of automatically failing to guard a wealthy client from an assassin, and then getting the chance to avenge the contract, or opting to not fight like a massive coward.
Even with rampant save scumming I couldn’t defeat the assassin after at least six attempts. I even dumped all of my combat points into a specific weapon type, bought the best available weapon of that type from the local merchant, and still proceeded to get annihilated by the agile bastard.
It seemed the game’s warnings about the combat were true. AoD’s Steam page states: “Combat difficulty is integrated into the setting. You can’t say that the world is harsh and unforgiving and then let the player kill everyone who looks at him or her funny. The game has to be hard, dying should be easy, and you should have reasons to pick your fights.” What this translates to in practice is hit percentages which hover around 50%, even for a good combat build, and long, sluggish battles of attrition and luck. There are a billion different primary weapons, armor types, sub weapons (my merc kept throwing nets at the assassin like a fisherman), shields, status effects, and buffing items which all feed into an XCOMish combat system which never ever makes you feel like a bad ass hero, and more often than not, makes you feel like a fortunate survivor even if you do manage to win.
But I was certainly not winning with my pathetically weak and scrawny Big Boss-imitator. I figured it wasn’t worth roleplaying as an incompetent mercenary who had to try to talk himself out of every fight for the whole story (actually, that does sound pretty cool now, maybe I’ll try it for a future playthrough), so I restarted my game.
My second grand vision was to try to play as some sort of libertarian mastermind. After all, AoD’s world is just like Game of Thrones: just about everyone is a narrowly self-interested, amoral asshole who is willing to do just about anything to gain more power, and will likely betray any ostensible allies in the long run anyway. I didn’t want to succumb to this typecasting, but I also didn’t want to go the Ned Stark route of being an honest, noble, soon-to-be-dead guy.
Fortunately, I noticed that one of the starting classes was “Merchant.” What better way to rebuild society than through good old fashioned commerce? Maybe I could side-step all of the war, assassination, and intrigue by just being an honest merchant who accumulates power through profitable business ventures. Sure, I’d be willing to hire muscle if necessary, but only for the moral purpose of defending my life and property. If such defenses put me on the path to prolonged armed conflict, then so be it! The rise of capitalism and prosperity would not be hindered by a bunch of mouth breathing thugs and their primitive weapons. I would foster a vast commercial empire, raise cunning mercenaries in its defense, and bring order and civility to the hellish wastes of a once great land.
My plan hit a snag at the very first conversation.
You see, the starting merchant class character is part of a faction called the Commercium, an organized merchant guild. Being a proponent of free trade, I hoped I could ignore this nonsense and go about my own business without having to unjustly restrict the noble movement of capital by coercive means, as is typical of guild (or union) activity. I thought that maybe I’d even have the opportunity to challenge the Commercium directly, and dismantle its mercantilist influence over the world.
Unfortunately, the merchant’s first quest quickly revealed that the developers of AoD lacked my positive view of voluntary trade, so of course the Commercium consists of a bunch of narrowly self-interested, amoral assholes who are willing to do just about anything to gain more power, and will likely betray any ostensible allies in the long run anyway. Or more accurately, the Commercium is basically the mafia.
So instead of heroically financing businesses to produce goods and services to revitalize the world economy to bring back the collapsed empire from ravenous squalor, the first quest had me hiring an assassin to kill a fellow merchant on orders from my Commercium boss. The soon-dead merchant’s heinous crime had been to open up a stall in the city for a second time without succumbing to the Commercium’s extortion getting the Commercium’s lawfully sanctioned permission. Ughhh.
I thought about restarting again but whatever part of my brain had encouraged me to break the mold and live out my furthest flung fantasies in a video game world had imploded after two disappointing starts. So I decided to just accept my fate and play AoD exactly as the developers had intended me to. This meant being a massive asshole all the time, using trickery first, violence second, and only some other method besides those two if I was in a dream sequence. It meant reducing any complex emotions I had to the pettiest lust for power and wealth imaginable. It meant being constantly on the lookout for an opportunity to betray everyone around me, especially if they had any sort of emotional significance to me.
Thus Age of Decadence became my Petyr Baelish simulator.
To be continued….