With its rugged environments, epic adventures, voluptuous women, and larger-than-life heroes, Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age is the archetypal predecessor of many video games, from Golden Axe to God of War. However, the mythic, pseudo-historical world and its prevailing protagonist, Conan the Cimmerian, have been underserved by the interactive realm. The legendary barbarian has starred in a handful of middling titles across the years, but the latest custodian of the property, Funcom, has taken a different approach. Beginning with 2008’s Age of Conan, the developer has endeavoured to let players populate the world of Hyboria, and its latest project, Conan Exiles, continues that trend. As such, deviations from the expectations of the IP are understandable, but the weaknesses of exploration and combat in this survival adventure, nonetheless, feel incongruous.
Players enter the world of Hyboria as naked, unarmed revenants saved from crucifixion by Conan. This serendipitous beginning offers scope for a vast tale of revenge or homecoming, but the premise is squandered as the story is anaemic to the point of non-existence. Barred from their homelands by a cursed bracelet, the character is cast into the wilds of Hyboria with minimal guidance or explanation of their quest. In the co-op and multiplayer settings that the title is so clearly designed for, this structure is sensible, but the drip-feed of narrative means that solo players must be pulled forward by the drive to explore, build, and survive.
To that end, Conan Exiles is made up of phases with each gameplay epoch characterised, to a greater or lesser degree, by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Freshly freed from the corpse tree, the player’s immediate concerns are those of the body: food, water, and clothing. The opening hour is therefore a mad scramble against both the elements and the low-level enemies that populate the desert and oases surrounding the beginning locale. Once these fundamental needs are sated, the game shifts, demanding players build shelter, seek purpose through religion, and find companionship (in the form of thralls), each of which requires resources harvested from the environment. This slow build and the unfolding of new goals and mechanics are well-balanced, and the processes involved therein are among the most engaging gameplay structures that Conan Exiles contains. However, amassing the sometimes eye-watering amounts of wood and stone required for buildings and other key items can send players far from their home base, putting the disappointments of exploration and battle on clear display.
Howard’s original stories are characterised by a propensity to send their eponymous barbarian to majestic, far-flung locales where he engages in brutal combat against all sorts of men and beasts, but Conan Exiles fails to capture the same spirit. To be sure, the biomes of desert, swamp, tundra, and volcano can be breathtaking under the right circumstances. However, Funcom’s Hyboria is a chore to wander. The issues lie not in the visual make-up of the land, but in its fundamental design. A core problem is that, once the player has travelled for a handful of hours, any sense of surprise dwindles as the world proves to be almost universally populated with animals and barbarian encampments that attack on sight. Rather than taking cues from the likes of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and making the world an attraction through environmental storytelling or diversified structures, Conan Exiles offers only a vast, deadly sandbox. By allowing players to work together or against each other, multiplayer enlivens the experience, though solo users are offered no reprieve from or reward for the seemingly endless march of death. With no one to talk to or trade with and nothing else to break up the cycles of slaughter and rebirth, the game struggles to maintain the player’s attention.
This feeling of drudgery is enhanced by the uninspiring combat systems. Taking cues from Dark Souls’s ilk, each weapon archetype has a distinct weight and heft, demanding that players experiment to find an arsenal that suits them. Power is typically balanced well against speed and accessibility, while the controls are usually responsive enough to ensure that deaths result from a lack of skill rather than luck. While the core components of battle are thus finely tuned, a sense of ennui emerges from the absence of progression. Sharper and hardier weapons can make the player more dangerous as time wears on, but new abilities and attacks are not forthcoming, meaning the first hour of combat fundamentally mirrors the fortieth. The lack of care in this area feels like a glaring oversight, particularly given Conan’s reputation as a fearsome warrior before all else and the attention paid to new skills in the crafting and RPG mechanics built into the game.
As with most open-world projects, Conan Exiles includes a leveling system, which is one of the areas lending a sense of longevity to the title. Almost every action taken contributes experience points to the tally, ensuring constant improvement, and each new level gives players access to new skills. Called Feats, most of these unlockables grant the ability to create an ever-expanding selection of weapons, structures, armour, and other miscellaneous goods. Nevertheless, the sheer volume of these options, and the way that many open up no more than a handful of new items, leaves the process with a sense tantamount to busywork. Reams of skills are gated by the leveling system, creating a vast amount of content that would take a solo players dozens—if not hundreds—of hours to gain access to.
This trait makes Conan Exiles the kind of release that the biggest publishers dream of, providing a platform that, in theory, can last the solo player years. The title is plump with content, combining a sprawling continent with enough progression mechanics to provide endless engagement. However, the game does not feel deserving of its namesake. Between bland combat and an uninspired world, Funcom’s Hyboria bears little resemblance to Robert E. Howard’s glorious battles and fantastic locales, even failing to live up to its digital forebears. That crafting and community building saves the title from the bin of also-rans similarly seems like a betrayal of the tenets of those time-worn tales. Pedantic literary enthusiasts aside, players will find much to keep them engaged in Conan Exiles, particularly as the developers continue to work on the title in the coming months, ironing out the shortcomings evident in this initial release.