To Tame a Land
There is something pleasingly amoral about Conan Exiles. Feeling hungry? Well, you could always pick some berries, maybe try a nice juicy grub or two, or you could murder the locals, hack up their bodies and cook up some fresh homo sapien whilst wearing nothing but your birthday suit. Of course you don’t have to be as overtly malevolent and cannibalistic but I certainly do appreciate the choice and the generally laid back approach to both Eros and Thanatos.
I must admit to having zero knowledge of the world of Conan. Beyond fragments of the films drifting about in the outskirts of my memory it is something I’ve had no connection with up till now. However, if the world of Exiles bares any resemblance to the established mythos then perhaps I’ve been missing out. The mixture of savage brutality and dark mysticism is a nice change of pace from the traditional fantasy aesthetics and has a faintly post apocalyptic air, only this time tragedy struck long before civilisation was able to reach some sort of modernity.
As if to leave you in no doubt about its tone the game opens with your character enjoying a spot of crucifixion, left to slowly die for alleged crimes and banished to a corner of the world from which you cannot leave, lest you expire most violently. Fortunately for you off-brand Conan shows up to set you free and thusly are you let loose to explore, survive and ultimately escape the wilderness before you.
Anyone who hasn’t been in a coma for the last few years will be familiar with the general setup here; in order to survive you must gather materials, find food, water, craft a shelter, weapons etc. However the twist here is the smattering of RPG elements wherein you can develop your character’s innate abilities. Defeating enemies, crafting items and completing the game’s own set of guided tasks grant experience and each level affords you points to improve your melee damage, stamina, health etc. as well as unlock new crafting skills.
In the world of crafting and survival games Conan Exiles sits at the top end visually, affording its creations a greater visual fidelity at the price of a more limited store of potential items. You likewise cannot terraform the land and are restricted to placing objects within a fixed environment. If you are looking for a Conan themed Minecraft or Terraria then this isn’t it, but for someone put off by the block building aesthetics of those games this can work in its favour. Objects have an appealing level of detail and feel unique to the setting where it could otherwise be just another generic design.
Likewise the benefits to this handcrafted environment is that it has a sense of history and feels more like an actual place rather than the result of an algorithm. The map teases many unique areas and landmarks which entice you to explore and discover more about the world, not to mention find new materials and useful items. Conan Exiles has an end, and whilst it doesn’t quite have something you could call a story, it nevertheless has a robust lore surrounding the various landmarks you encounter.
One way perhaps to look at Conan Exiles is to view it as Skyrim or a Fallout 4 in reverse; where instead of introducing crafting and base building into their RPG they have taken the route of putting an RPG into their crafting/survival game. What Conan manages to accomplish however, is to marry its mechanics together to make them both rewarding and vital to progress. Its crafting is robust and aesthetically pleasing, its world mysterious and varied.
Combat however isn’t as well implemented; it has all the components to make a fun and tense system with its stamina bar, blocking, dodging and varied weapon attacks but the reality turns into a mad flailing session where whoever has the higher numbers behind them is almost certain to come out on top. There’s a definite attempt to ape the core of Dark Souls style combat but it just doesn’t feel anywhere close to that level, albeit it does capture the wonky collision detection and oft silly animations. One thing it does do well however is in making bodily dismemberment at once grossly psychotic yet hilarious with its free standing lower torsos and over the top death gargles.
In keeping with the amoral tone, Exiles also allows you to ‘persuade’ NPCs to work for you through the liberal application of blunt force trauma. Having knocked out your prospective ‘employee’ you can drag them to your
wheel of pain ‘service induction training’ and thereby convince them to join your ever growing slave personnel portfolio. Whilst it is not essential to do this to complete the game there are a great many advantages to be had with special recipes, reduced material costs and having a convenient meat shield should combat go upwards in mammary terms. It’s a unique system and despite its moral implications is quite inventive in giving another incentive to explore and utilise the world’s population to boost your own progress. Nothing says power quite like your own personal army.
And that’s what the game is all about in the end, power. Power in all its brutal and savage forms; physical force, psychological coercion, manipulation, the land and its people are there to be bent to your will. Whereas many other survival and crafting games are based around providing a landscape for your creativity, Conan Exiles treats this more as an incidental aspect and places a greater emphasis on the accumulation of might.
Likewise, survival isn’t much of a challenge in of itself; food and water are quite easy to come by, what matters more is exploring the land and overcoming the creatures and people that dwell there. Crucially, Conan Exiles makes this consistently rewarding through having its world juiced to the gills with mysteries and unique places to discover and explore. The lack of procedural generation is ultimately a boon and succeeds in immersing you in the Conan mythos whilst retaining a fair number of ways to express yourself.
As with many titles at the moment there are certainly going to be updates and changes to the current version but as it stands Conan Exiles marries many of gaming’s current fads into an agreeably deviant polyamorous relationship. Such displays will undoubtedly prove distasteful to many, especially if you look at some of the mods being made, but if you’re into it then much pleasure awaits (guilt optional).