The Conan franchise is sadly ignored in the video game world. That’s not to say there haven’t been several releases since 1984’s “Conan: Hall of Volta”, but never has a game truly dealt with the harsh reality of what it would be like to truly experience the world of Conan, until now, kind of.
Conan Exiles is an open world survival game from Norwegian developer Funcom, also responsible for the Age of Conan MMORPG, and is available on PC, PS4 and XBOX One. With an original release date set for 2017, the game eventually saw wide release in 2018 and arguably could have used a bit more development time. That being said there is still plenty to enjoy in this sprawling game world.
The game begins with a cinematic of fantasy’s favorite barbarian rescuing you after you’ve been crucified in the desert. A welcomed nod to the 1974 Conan story “Tree of Death”, which immediately engrosses any fan into the game. From there you begin the broad task of creating your character. There are many races in Conan’s world, all with their own interesting origins and here there are 14 to choose from.
The next option is religion and here there are 6 alternatives, each with their benefits. Don’t waste too much time on this decision though. It can be a difficult selection but there are opportunities throughout the game to learn new religions and change your allegiance accordingly. Finally there are detailed options for physical attributes, yet sadly limited voice options.
Conan Exiles lets the player know from the very beginning that life in the barbarian’s world will be arduous and frustrating. The game does not hold the player’s hand by telling them the means needed to accomplish tasks, it simply tells you they need to be achieved. Constantly searching for food and water can initially seem annoying but this is a survival game after all. Expect to just run around pressing the “interact” button on your controller hoping to find small insects or grubs until you’re able to harvest meat from larger animals later on.
Building shelters is one of the most enjoyable elements of the game. It is also one of the most time consuming. From the beginning there are few options as to what type of shelter can be built. You will most likely end up with a sandstone hut, but as you progress through your story other building materials become available. Prepare to spend hours customizing your hard stone and steel reinforced castle and eventually defend it.
Once having created your character, found food and built shelter it’s time to explore your savage surroundings. Harsh deserts, dangerous jungles, ancient ruins, caves, and dungeons should be fun to explore and make the player truly feel like they’re living in Conan’s world. Instead, a lack of textures to these environments mixed with basic animations make the game look more cartoonish than gritty. Harvesting materials to build your shelters sadly looks more akin to Minecraft rather than an intense game of survival, but that may just be personal preference.
Problems with character animations also become noticeable the more you play. Constant issues with your character clipping through rock walls as you’re climbing and very dated hair animations add to frustrations. The excitement that should come with fighting other players or mythical creatures is marred by cardboard combat and poor hit detection, somewhat making it feel more like button mashing than tactical striking, but this only applies to melee combat. Once you’ve progressed to being able to craft decent weapons, the concern of bad battles fades away.
Weapons and items are selected using a radial wheel that makes equipping items very simple. Selecting what you place in the slots of the wheel will take some thought though, as you don’t want to be caught in battle with a wheel full of building supplies. Even having proper items selected, expect to die. A lot. Once dead you can select where you spawn as long as you have built a bed or have left a bedroll in that desired area. The most frustrating part of dying is that you will lose your inventory. Scavenging is essential in this game and losing everything can be crippling. Luckily you can store items in lockboxes you build around the map, so carrying all of your best items is risky if you find yourself in a fight.
Aside from inventory management, the game also has a “Feats” menu that allows you to unlock the ability to craft better items. By completing minor tasks the player earns points that can be used to learn these skills. Points can also be spent on character attributes that are split into 7 categories and range from strength, agility, vitality and so on. Definitely spend points on encumbrance if you are a hoarder and remember about those lockboxes.
Conan Exiles is a brutal, yet enjoyable experience. Players can lose themselves for hours through the customization of characters and structures alone. It does a decent job at immersing the player in the savage lands of the Hyborean Age, though to fully enjoy it the player has to commit to sometimes overbearingly long periods of grinding. Graphically there are some issues, but these are only noteworthy when remembering the world that was trying to be built. Exiles is a fun game, but I believe it would find greater success if it lost the Conan moniker.