Instead of simply just firing up this beta and letting my impressions draw themselves, I first did some reading. A few media blurbs on the developer's front-page and some positive forum postings later, I was positively glowing with excitement for the Age of Decadence beta client to finish downloading. In my mind the tales of difficult combat systems, free-form game progression, and branched endings harkened back to the 'golden days' of gaming in my youth. This game would be challenging, I would make of it what I wanted and I would finally escape from the tired and worn tropes used by every cut-rate game writer out there. Like any good game geek, I was blinded by the promises of the feature list.
When the download did finish, and it took a long time as the developer does not have dedicated hosting for it, the flush of anticipation had waned. Was I really the hardcore audience this game was aimed at? Still intrigued, I launched the client and took my first stab at the game. Immediately thrown into a foreign interface, I clicked on the first thing that highlighted under my mouse cursor - a kind man in the marketplace that offered to sell me weapons. The only catch was that the deal had to be done in the back room of a strange house. Confident I could ward off any ambush, I followed along. Six or seven clicks later I was dead and the game had returned me to the opening screen. OK. I obviously needed to read the help file and find out about the keybindings and what the combat calculations were because free-form learning was not going well.
I loaded a new game and hit the 'guided' character creation button. My confidence was bruised and I wanted to be sure that I got off to a better start this time. Once loaded I immediately searched for the key bindings as I had not yet been able to move my camera perspective. No luck there, I hit the large help button in the bottom right and started to read. I needed something to give me an edge as the last fight had been quite emasculating. Even with the drive to prove myself victorious fresh in my mind I found myself unwilling to continue reading the help page. I needed a simplified place to start, and I didn't want to synthesize a ten page discourse to get it. I decided gaining control over my camera was a battle I could win and I resorted to randomly hitting buttons on the keyboard. Eventually, I gained partial control over my view.
That accomplished I tried to determine what I was actually supposed to be doing. A small piece of text in the world log, that I had missed the first time I started the game, lead me to my first objective. And from here I actually started to get a feel for the game. In the end I spent another hour with the game working through several of the initial quests and walking around the town exploring. I never did have that 'A-hah!' moment where some aspect of the game strikes out at you and you suddenly understand where the reward for your time is. Instead I spent my time fighting hostile game design elements ranging from long winded dialogs presented as one giant block of text to counterintuitive controls and interfaces that generally refused to cooperate.
So, was I really just not the target audience for Age of Decadence? Had I grown dependent on the cookie-cutter gameplay and predictable storylines that AAA titles have turned to? Probably, to some extent, this was a piece of the problem. However, I think there were greater elements at play than just this. Iron Tower Studio has gone out of their way to emphasize a challenging and detailed combat system. This, and a massive amount of dialog, is the crux of their sales pitch and, presumably, also the focus of their development. This combat system is, as a stand alone system, something that is both challenging and rewarding. However, my experience with every other part of the game was enough that I didn't care whether I won or lost; The vehicle delivering me to combat was disheartening enough that I really didn't care to make the journey.