Conan the Barbarian is one of those characters that is so ubiquitous that he has become a trope in and of itself. From his origins in the pulp magazines by author Robert E. Howard, he’s been given life in movies, best-selling comic books, and occasionally video games. Yet to be completely honest, none have been able to really portray him the way Howard portrayed him in prose.
So when Funcom began using the Conan license back in 2008 with their MMORPG series Age of Conan, they decided that Conan himself would only be an ancillary part of the experience. Instead, it would be all about the player. That trend continues in this newest Conan title, Conan Exiles. The Hyborian Age is yours to conquer, with all of the violence, occultic magicks, and… all ‘assets’ you could possibly want. (More on that last bit later.)
What Is It?
Conan Exiles is a survival RPG and the latest Conan title by Norwegian studio Funcom. The game takes place in the far desolate ends of the Hyborian Age, the fictitious point in history created by Conan’s creation, author Robert E. Howard. It is a time after the fall of Atlantis but before the rise of early empires like Persia or Egypt. It was an era that tied together many of Howard’s stories outside of Conan, and engulfed other characters of his such as the exile of Atlantis, Kull the Conquer, and the last great king of the Picts, Bran Mak Morn.
You, the player, are an exile who has been crucified in the middle of the desert for crimes ranging from sedition to black magic (it’s randomized depending on your character creation). Stripped of any defense (quite literally) and left for dead, you are by chance rescued by none other than Conan the Cimmerian himself. Rather out of pity or simple boredom, he cuts you loose from your bonds (including rather painfully pulling the nails out of your hands). He then disappears back into the desert winds, just the way he appeared.
And that’s where your story begins, alone in the middle of nowhere and left to fend for yourself.
Why Should I Care?
Before I go any further, I need to address what is probably the single most discussed feature of this game: the nudity. It is indeed true that you can adjust the size of your ‘assets:’ your breast size if you play a female, or your penis size if you play a male. It is, however, an extremely minor feature in the grand scheme of things. You won’t be nude for long in this game, especially if you want to survive. You will quickly need to cover up to avoid both the elements and injury from hostile wildlife and other exiles. Furthermore, depending on what region you are playing in, the nudity may not extend beyond nude breasts (this is especially true for those in ESRB territory). It also is only one of several customizeable features of your character, which includes everything from race, to back story, to even what God you wish to worship and pay homage to (yes, Crom is one of them).
So, got all that? Okay, now for the REAL meat to this game…
If you have played a survival game before (like DayZ, for example), then you will essentially know how this goes. But for those who do not: A survival game essentially drops you in the middle of harsh, unforgiving terrain with nothing but the clothes on your back (and in this case, that isn’t much). It is then up to you to scavenge the surrounding area for resources in order to clothe yourself, seek or construct shelter, find and cook food, and to arm yourself against any potential hostile actors you may encounter. This begins with the basics, such as gathering materials in order to construct some crude but effective clothing for yourself, and then progresses to constructing weapons and housing for yourself. Later, you can construct spaces to help you further craft more complex objects (a forge for making bricks, an armory for making armor, etc.). You can also begin planting crops if you wish, or continue hunting for your meals.
But you must also be on your guard, as you will always be at risk of being attacked by hostile wildlife such as wolves or crocodiles, as well as the occasional leftovers from the prehistoric era. You’re also always at risk of being ambushed by NPCs or fellow players who want nothing more than to rob you of everything from your possessions to your life (and your skin. Cannibalism is totally a feature here). You may need to construct fences and traps in order to protect your place of dwelling (and whatever treasures you may wish to store within). But this also has a plus-side: Some of these creatures and NPCs can be captured and, depending on what you choose, can either be enslaved via the Thrall system (torture instruments such as the Wheel of Pain are required for this), or in some cases you can even use them as sacrifices to your deity of choice. The former saves you from some tedious tasks (since your have a slave to do it for you), while the later can net you numerous perks, physical and otherwise.
Of course, there IS a story here behind all of this desolate madness. Constant exploration will reward you with pieces of narrative that suggest some ancient evils are stalking you. There is some dark magic afoot, and it may be linked to the occasional ghostly visions you encounter in certain areas… visions that suggest the decline and fall of some ancient civilization that once ruled this desolate waste….
What Makes It Worth My Time and Money?
I’m going to be completely frank here: This game is janky as all hell. It looks quite good, and there’s plenty to explore if you’re willing to search for it, but there is quite a bit of jank to deal with here.
Let’s start with the combat. It’s your standard hack n’ slash affair, which is fine. But the hit detection can be unpredictable depending on a number of factors from the inaccuracy of your weapon to the game just deciding it doesn’t want your hit to connect. The latter is admittedly rare, but it can be a serious problem if you’re in a particularly difficult fight and every slash counts. This issue can also effect your dodging and blocking capabilities, though not as often.
In fact, one of the biggest issues of this game is simply that some of its mechanics are not communicated very well. In the beginning the mechanics are fairly easy to comprehend, but once more complicated mechanics such as building shelter come into play, it can become a case of trial and error. This guesswork can be rather frustrating to the player, and even result in wasted resources. Fortunately, you’re surrounded by plentiful regenerating materials, so at least in this case, the game is somewhat forgiving.
All of that being said, however… there is no denying the engaging nature of Conan Exiles. There is so much to search for, so much to see and do. The combat, while flawed, is visceral and satisfying. The exploration is rewarding, with new secrets and treasures always around the corner. But all of this will depend on your tolerance for some unpolished edges. In that way, it is a bit of a niche title. But a niche title worth trying at least once.