Part 1: That's a lot of numbersPart I: That's a lot of numbers
The game begins with a quote from a dark fantasy novel, so you know what we're in for.
Soundtrack: In A Dead World
The main menu has this ominous tune, setting the tone for the rest of the game.
And here's the opening message we get when we click on "New Game." None of it is an exaggeration -- it's very easy to die, and combat is the worst way to progress. Even if you avoid combat entirely, failed skill checks can mean an instant game over. We're advised to start with training to learn the combat system, but I'll explain it later.
The character creation screen has a much less foreboding track. The music is arguably one of the best parts of The Age of Decadence, which is good because the graphics and customization options can be described as "bare-bones." We can choose our skin color (out of three), our face (out of six, which, except for tattoos, are muddy and mostly similar), our hair (out of eight for men and five for women), hair color (out of six), beard (out of seven) or circlet (out of three). All of this customizing is moot because we don't have a portrait.
What's more interesting is the "Background" section. Note that this doesn't mean "class" -- it determines what opening vignette we'll play, what guild we'll work for (if any), and our reputation with the seven factions vying for power. The factions are:
House Aurelian survived the Great War mostly intact due to keeping its forces in the outlying colonies. Led by General (now Lord) Gaelius, House Aurelian controls Maadoran, the largest city in what remains of the world. Naturally, the other Houses want Gaelius dead.
House Crassus dedicated its resources to sciences and arcane research. According to legend, it was instrumental in conducting the Great Ritual that summoned the High Lords to defeat the Qantari. After the death of the Magi, House Crassus fell back on religion, calling for the worship and restoration of the gods as the rulers of men.
House Daratan was once the most powerful Noble House, but was all but destroyed during the War. Now, what remains controls the small town of Teron, a backwater with little to recommend it. Despite this, Lord Antidas is committed to restoring House Daratan, no matter the cost.
The Boatmen of Styx were the Emperor's guard in the old days, specializing in infiltration and assassination. After the collapse, they reformed into an assassin's guild, taking the name of their old regiment. You'd think having a band of killers operating openly would lead to outrage, but scruples have fallen by the wayside.
The Commercium sprang up after the apocalypse when the heads of the merchant guilds centralized into a single organization that monopolizes all trade. As you'd expect, it's full of greedy assholes willing to do anything to line their pockets with gold, but it's also the easiest faction to work for, so it evens out.
Formed from the remnants of the Imperial Army, the Imperial Guards act as peacekeepers, keeping the Noble Houses in check. Powerful and influential, their ultimate goal is the restoration of the Empire, as unlikely as that seems right now.
The Forty Thieves are a large and tenacious guild made up of smugglers, thieves, and other ne'er-do-wells, tracing its origins back to the early days of the Empire. The name is said to come from the forty kingpins of the forty largest towns coming together to coordinate their criminal network.
Some of the backgrounds have low reputation with the factions, meaning you can't join them. For example, everyone hates thieves (except the Boatmen and the Thieves, natch), while the assassin background has low rep with the Imperial Guards (because they see you as a disruptive coward who wouldn't win a real fight). Most backgrounds have positive or neutral rep, so it's not a big concern.
As for the backgrounds, some are self-explanatory while others are more murky. Praetor is essentially a knight-diplomat working for House Daratan, which is interesting because most of the backgrounds are low-class. Grifter is sort of like a Thief but guildless and more dialog-orientated, while Drifter is a blank slate and for players who want complete freedom when making a character. Mercenary is the combat-oriented background and should only be chosen by players who want a death wish. Of them all, Merchant is probably the best for beginners because you can get through the game without fighting once.
However, for the main playthrough I'll be choosing Loremaster. It's an easy start, I can join any faction I want, and my skills let me understand pre-war technology and see content I'd miss otherwise. But what are skills, you ask?
These. These are skills.
Before your eyes roll off the page, I'll explain. The numbers at the top are Stats you see in every RPG and serve basically the same function with a few additions:
Strength determines maximum carry weight, starting combat skill points (CoP), and damage modifiers.
Dexterity influences Attack and Defense values, CoP, action points (AP), and sequence in combat.
Constitution determines Hit Points, Defense value, and resistance to poison and other environmental hazards. Note that HP remains static throughout the game.
Perception influences Attack value, starting skill values for ranged weapons, the pool for civil skill points (CiP), accuracy modifiers for all weapons, and helps you spot hidden things in the environment.
Intelligence determines the CiP pool and the number of bonus skill points you receive for completing quests.
Charisma influences the CiP pool and modifies your reputation.
All of these stats can be checked in dialogue or other interactions. Now, onto skills. To keep it brief (too late), you have eight weapon skills and two defense skills. Concentrate on beefing up ONE weapon skill, maybe two in the late game. Block and Dodge don't overlap, so choose whichever is higher and forget the other one. Critical Strike is interesting because it determines the chance of causing bleeding on a critical hit (which can be a powerful status effect), but it's also used in dialogue to get an instant kill. You'll understand later.
Civil skills are the most important set and where we'll be dumping the majority of our points. Keep in mind the game rewards specialization -- having a bunch of 2s and 3s will get us nowhere. Notice some of the skills are highlighted, which is the game's way of saying "Hey, you might wanna go with these." Lockpick and Traps, for instance, are useful for us because we'll be exploring ruins where those things would be common. Sneak and Steal? Not so much (although some points in Sneak lets us get loot we wouldn't find normally).
Impersonate is used a handful of times and is therefore garbage.
We have three dialogue skills: Etiquette, Persuade, and Streetwise. Of the three, Streetwise is most useful, with Persuade a close second. Etiquette is pointless and only comes up when talking to nobles.
Alchemy lets us make poisons, bombs, potions and other stuff that's handy in combat and a few other situations. Crafting allows the forging of better weapons and armor, plus it's often used in conjunction with Lore when examining ancient artifacts and machinery.
Speaking of Lore, it's possibly the most worthwhile skill of all. Without it, the greater backstory is lost and the obscure knowledge we discover is more or less nonsense.
Trading is good in some dialogue checks and getting better prices, but otherwise you can leave it.
Here's the character I'll be using with adjusted stats and skills. I'm keeping five CiP in the pool to use later. With all of that out of the way, let's finally play this damn game!
So, we live in Teron, a dying town in the middle of nowhere, and we're apprenticed to somebody named Feng. Think of it as humble beginnings.
Here we are! Instructions for controls are in the upper left, although they don't tell you everything.
For example, hitting Tab marks any interactable objects in the player's immediate vicinity. An eye means it can be examined, while a hand means it can be picked up or used.
Like so! Only there's nothing useful here.
In fact, the place is filled with worthless crap. Feng is something of a fraud -- most of the "artifacts" he sells are secretly junk.
There are some hidden gems, though. Examining these documents gives us +1 to Lore and Lockpick, respectively.
Other than that, it's a whole lotta nothing. Anyway, let's go talk to Feng.
: What if it actually is a valuable artifact?
: Artifacts? I've been stuck in this shithole you call a town for the last twenty years. Year after year, farmers and diggers bring me everything they find, hoping for a lucky break. They bring me bracelets, cheap pottery, rusty old locks, pipes, chamber pots, even deformed skulls. The sad truth is that this town doesn't have anything of value, which is probably the only reason why Antidas is still in charge.
Wow, way to shit on our town, Feng.
: Why did you stay then?
: Weren't you listening? Every year peasants bring me junk to appraise. Good business.
: You said he had a trinket?
: I think the word "map" was mentioned. Go and take a look. If it's something good, bring it to me.
: I will go there right away, Master.
We're instantly whisked away to the inn.
: Please forgive this uneducated trader, mistress Octavia, but who are the High Lords? I will be presenting this map to Lord Antidas tomorrow, and I'd like to impress His Lordship with some bits of knowledge.
: According to the legends, the High Lords were our allies in the war between our glorious Empire and the ruthless Qantari. While their nature is debatable, most loremasters agree that it was definitely supernatural. This map bears the seal of Thor-Agoth or Toragoth, as he was also known.
Our first skill check! Sometimes the game checks two skills, like here. If the skill is green with "success" after it, it means a guaranteed pass. Otherwise, cross your fingers and hope like crazy.
: Of course not, mistress. Please, take the map and study it properly.
: And the money? I'm sure you know what the standard research fee is.
We pass, and now we'll get some coin out of it.
Success also means getting a funky-looking metal sphere.
Ugh. Might as well see what this prospector has.
An easy lore check lets us know his "artifacts" are junk.
He does have a genuine glowing skull, which turns out to be extremely dangerous.
: The old magic is like fire. Fire can keep you warm, cook your food, and help you forge weapons and tools, but it can also burn down your house or a forest, the moment you lose control, which we don't have to begin with. Not anymore.
He also has this... thing. Whatever it is, it's unusual. Let's try to bluff him.
: [streetwise] Junk. Worthless junk.
: [failure] Junk? The very fact that I'm standing here before you should attest to the quality of this charm.
Dammit. I didn't put any points into Streetwise, so the check fails.
: How much do you want for it?
Well, maybe we can haggle for a better price.
: [failure] The jewels alone are worth at least three hundred. There is no way I'm letting it go for less than five hundred.
Fuck this, I'm leaving.
: I'll think about it.
Hey, I didn't promise shit. I'm starting to come around to Feng's point of view.
At least we got some coin and skill points out of this.
Next time: We murder a random guy in cold blood to "secure our future."