Games Review: Conan Exiles (PS4, 2018): A flawed yet engaging survival experience

Let me tell you a story of a man destined for greatness. A barbarian, brutally carving his way through a desolate and dangerous land, where only the strongest will survive. These were the days of high adventure! However, I’m not sure where Conan Exiles fits into this mould. Bringing many elements to the table, it’s clear from the get-go that Conan Exiles is a survival based experience inspired by the likes of Ark: Survival Evolved and Rust. Developer Funcom manages to implement some of its mechanics in interesting and engaging ways, as Conan Exiles aims to capitalise on an ever evolving genre, that acts as both its salvation and its demise.

Conan Exiles puts you in the shoes (or upon starting, bare feet) of an unnamed criminal, whom you can customise to your liking; complete with an endowment adjustment meter for that authentic Conan experience. Your character begins their journey nailed to a cross, with crucifixion the ultimate punishment for your sins. The titular Conan then frees you from your doom, as you are left to wonder the wild lands with minimal direction or context. While this is an issue, I found that the Zelda: Breath of the Wild approach to free-form storytelling is a nice direction, considering surviving the world itself seems to make for the meatiest part of the experience. Conan himself serves as a guide, or cameo at best, which is a little disappointing, considering the game is named after him.

The story is admittedly bland, with chapters taking the form of specific events and tasks, which you can complete at any time and in any order throughout your journey. A huge positive I took away from my experience with Conan Exiles was the freedom of choice, and the natural progression which led me to trying new things, crafting and testing new items to help me on my journey, all while progressing further and further within the world itself. From crafting your first weapon, all the way to building your first structure, the games gives objectives based around simplistic actions, while progressing to harder feats, as you find your way around.

Conan Exiles offers up a few ways to play; Single player, co-op, PvE and PvP servers. Single player is admittedly the most boring of the bunch, as interaction becomes one of the saving graces of the experience. Co-op is just that, and while it doesn’t break any new ground, learning  with friends is a great way to lessen the harsh blows of the steep learning curves the crafting systems can present to the player. PvP environments worked well enough, but I felt as if players were engaged in some sort of death match, as I rarely came across players willing to help. It’s simply kill or be killed, which is ironically suitable for a game based around a barbarian.

Gathering, crafting and building functions well enough, however there’s no denying that the steep learning curve drastically heightens the difficulty of the experience the first few hours in. gathering and crafting isn’t difficult mechanically speaking, but when your’e dying over and over because you can’t muster the resources needed over and over again to create the desired item, you’ll find yourself spamming the ‘interact’ button over and over again to compensate for the fact that you won’t have to do it later. Gathering just feels like a choir, boiling down to a single button press.

Crafting is a little more engaging, requiring you to spend knowledge points gathered by completing objectives and wandering through the wild lands. These allow you to gradually unlock items to craft, which felt natural as these were given to you gradually, also making you feel like they had to be earned, all while allowing you to learn how to craft before having to craft everything at once. From stone axes to silver swords and sandstone walls to timber houses, the variety here is impressive. The world balances the need to craft quite well, forcing you to adapt to extreme weather conditions like rain and sandstorms, all while crafting weapons to match those of your opponents.

The world itself is also an vastly open and diverse collection of environments, from the central desert location, to snow covered mountains and lush, green forests. Hell, you can even climb a volcano. The genre admittedly lends itself to these varied environments, but is a welcome addition nonetheless, and one worth mentioning,

Being a Conan game, one would think combat would be an integral part in making you feel like a true barbarian. Unfortunately, you would be wrong. Combat in Conan Exiles is easily the most underdeveloped part of the experience, and quite simply feels unfinished. Jumping on board with the latest trend of shoulder button controls, combat offers light, heavy and offhand attacks. However, the hit detection is horrible, with some attacks dealing damage all while looking like you’ve completely missed the mark. Dodging to evade blows is a nice thought, but if you aren’t locked on to your enemy, prepare for that camera to throw you off so hard you’ll forget what game you’re playing. The crafting of various weapons from swords to axes to spears would lead you to think combat would deepen, but given they all control the same , combat ends up feeling like an overly difficult choir long before your time is up.

Sounds adds a nice touch to the overall experience, with a soundtrack reminiscent of the 1982 film, which I personally love. The music doesn’t add much in the way of gameplay, as it seems to appear at random, my I would be lying if I said my ears weren’t enjoying the ride. The voice acting, of what little there actually is average at best, but it’s the sound within the gameplay itself that is truly horrific. As I mentioned the horrible hit detection of the combat, the sound does the experience no favours as I could swear to Crom that some hits don’t even make a sound. Nothing. Zilch. Silence. It threw me off every time, and to be honest, it never seems to fix itself.

Overall, Conan Exiles is an adequate survival experience backed up by an engaging and intuitive crafting system, a colourful and varied open worlds with tons to explore, and a neat soundtrack to boot. However, the experience is constantly weighed down by bland combat and horrible sound design that pull you out of the experience time and time again. Conan Exiles respects its source material, but doesn’t work well enough as a game for those flaws to be glanced over.

Score: 6.0 out of 10
Highlights: Visually dense and colourful open world, varied yet simplistic crafting mechanics, authentic soundtrack.
Lowlights: Sub-par combat mechanics, light story, horrible and inconsistent sound design.
Developer: Funcom
Publisher: Funcom
Available: Now
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC

Review conducted on PlayStation 4 with retail code provided by the publisher.