The Age of Decadence is both an interesting game and story. As the ongoing labor of love by Iron Tower Studio, the long-in-development CRPG has been called vaporware more than once, and even became something of a Duke Nukem Forever in the indie RPG community. Nevertheless, over the last six-odd months, there's been a growing buzz around the game once more as more and more information has come out regarding the game's closed beta testing.
Now, that beta (actually a newer build than the one previewed by some sites a couple months back) has been released to the public. Hyped up as a game that truly incorporates choice and consequence in a meaningful way, as well as perhaps the long-lost spiritual cousin to Fallout 2 and Arcanum, it's safe to say that it'd be almost impossible for Age of Decadence to live up to every expectation. As someone who's been anticipating the game for years and has been starved for a good CRPG in the vein of my favorites, Age of Decadence may not be perfect, but based on the preview build, is shaping up to provide CRPG fans almost everything they've been waiting for.
The Age of Decadence's larger story isn't especially clear at this point, but it takes place in a post-apocalyptic Roman-inspired setting, "after the fall" as it were - independent nobles vying for power, a vast desert wasteland stretching between cities, and the poor and downtrodden left to survive by the skin of their teeth. The introduction of the game centers around a rich trader who trots into the city of Teron, with an initially-worthless-looking map in his possession. This trader is the center of attention on one night: the Forty Thieves guild, the merchants' Commercium, Boatmen of Styx assassin's guild, and even more individuals are all involved in his affairs one way or another. Suffice to say, the merchant ends up dead, his map ends up in the hands of the player, and everyone in Teron feels the fallout of the event and the subsequent power struggles.
If there is one thing that is both Age of Decadence's biggest strength and its biggest selling point, it's replayability. Taking on one of eight backgrounds (Assassin, Drifter, Grifter, Thief, Merchant, Mercenary, Loremaster, or Praetor), your involvement in the game's opening events can change dramatically based on this choice. Perhaps you're the assassin contracted to kill the merchant, or the bodyguard assigned to protect him, or a thief just trying to make an "honest" wage, or a noble servant of House Daratan dealing with the aftershock... either way, your perspective on the matter influences not only what details of the story you see (making repeat plays necessary to get a full understanding of what's going on), but what gameplay opportunities you have available.
Of course, those background choices don't limit what you're capable of. As background is independent of character attributes and skills (though the presets encourage you to stick to certain roles), and many more events can occur as a result of your successes or failures, you're not actually locked into anything beyond the opening sequence. Starting out as a Commercium merchant doesn't mean you have to finish the game that way - screw up and you'll find yourself out on the street, ready to join a new faction. There is huge potential for creative problem-solving, backstabbing, and using prior knowledge and events to your advantage, and frankly, it may well be the most intricate faction system and plotline of just about any game ever made.
If there's one complaint to be made about all of this complexity, though, it's that it can often come at a price. Many situations are heavily determined by your allegiances, prior actions, or character build, and this means that sometimes you won't have access to alternatives, and even certain story threads can be cut off from you depending on how the cards lie. This is realistic and refreshing to see, but it also means that sometimes you'll feel like you don't have as much choice as you really do. This can encourage hoarding of skill points right up until the last minute you need them, rather than the more "build character now, deal with situation later" approach that the majority of other RPGs hinge on. In other words, save often.
Be All You Can Be
If there's one thing I love about CRPGs, it's their character systems. As I tend to lean towards the "roll-player" end of the spectrum, I really appreciate RPGs that allow me to customize my character in ways that are both creative and reflected in the game mechanics and world. Very few RPGs, unfortunately, do such a thing in this day and age. Arcanum may well be my favorite RPG of all time for this reason, imbalance and all, and it's a little sad I have to praise games like Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning simply for having non-combat skills at all.
The Age of Decadence, however, doesn't just have a good character system, it has one of the best I've seen in a decade. Borrowing heavily from Fallout, its six attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Perception, Intelligence, and Charisma) and 23 skills (12 non-combat, 11 combat) are additionally bolstered by close to a dozen reputation stats and the aforementioned backgrounds. There isn't just a choice between "punchy guy" or "talky girl", there's the opportunity to do just about whatever you want and see the game world respond accordingly. Focusing on combat, for instance, doesn't mean you'll never have a chance to use your head or social graces, and meanwhile smooth-talkers can also get ahead with a knife as much with words - Age of Decadence ensures just about every scenario can play out in multiple ways no matter how you spec your character.