They say that you never have a second chance to make a great first impression. When it comes to Conan Exiles, not only does that saying ring true, but it also gives those who don’t make a good one, a ray of hope. Even though Funcom’s open-world RPG made a terrible first impression on me, over time its annoyances somehow gave way to a surprising amount of fun, freedom and depth. Hidden beneath its jagged surface lies a serviceable survival-RPG hybrid set in the world of Conan The Barbarian. However, you’ll have to put up with a multitude of bugs, framerate stutters, audio dropouts and bafflingly awful menu systems to get to the good stuff.
You begin your adventure in Conan Exiles as a lowly exile incarcerated in the forsaken, sun-bleached wastelands of the southern desert. Reminiscent of a certain bible story, you are tied to a cross awaiting your forlorn demise as ravenous vultures close in around you. Thankfully, a mysterious stranger emerges from the sandstorm and gifts you your freedom. From there, it’s your job to head out into the wilderness and try your best to survive, craft and dominate.
One of the coolest concepts that sits at the heart of Conan Exiles, is its “rags to riches” approach. You really do come from nothing, with the simple overarching objective to survive, make progress, level up and ultimately build your own miniature empire, replete with your own personal army made up of thralls (more on these shortly).
After creating your own character, your initial survival relies heavily upon finding water to quench your thirst, food to fill your stomach and some appropriate shelter to rest your weary head. Crafting weapons and some lightweight armour helps to protect you from the world’s strange, murderous bestiary, though it’s also important as it helps you to fend off the climate’s blazing heat and frosty cold. Tools, like picks and axes, assist you in mining resources from the desolate wastelands that you’ll soon be calling home. Living off the fat of the land is definitely where Conan Exiles shines brightest. It won’t be long before you’re gleefully eating handfuls of tasty insects and sipping mouthfuls of stagnant pond water from the nearest watering hole. Mmm, just like mamma used to make!
Unsurprisingly, crafting plays a critical role in your journey. From the smaller moment-to-moment things, like cooking the meat of your foes, to the more grandiose overarching tasks, like constructing citadel-esque structures from scratch and setting up your own devastating defences, Conan Exiles is built around freedom of choice and it’s this central concept that is delivered deftly. Despite a lack of meaningful story — which is something that I was initially very put off by — it soon becomes clear, that you’re the one in charge of crafting your own distinct, albeit tacit narrative. Though there is a lack of purposeful dialogue, the game’s central freedom-over-overt-narrative is well executed for a few reasons.
First of all, exploration in Conan Exiles is surprisingly satisfying and rewarding. The map is jaw-droppingly huge, but it’s also thoughtfully designed and filled to the brim with cool monsters to slay, interesting caves to spelunk, hostile camps to invade, diverse biomes to discover and a ton of different materials to mine and craft with. It doesn’t stop there, though.
Another interesting and slightly controversial mechanic that the game implements is its aforementioned Thrall system. This gives players the opportunity to capture NPCs, torture them and convert them to your cause. You’ll need to concuss the enemies you wish to enslave, rather than outright kill them, and this can be achieved by using a truncheon to KO rival clan-members.
Once you’ve knocked out the adversary you intend to capture, you’ll need to tie them up with rope and haul them back to your base to begin their thralldom. After a wee bit of good old fashioned torture (yep, I felt a little bad, too) in the affectionately named Wheel Of Pain, the pesky foes become faithful servants that can be deployed around your base as protectors. Further still, thralls can even be placed on crafting stations to reduce the cost of materials. It’s a unique system, and one that helps differentiate Conan Exiles from the multitude of other survival games on the market like 7 Days To Die, Rust and Ark: Survival Evolved.
Conan Exiles’ combat is serviceable, but let down by a general lack of polish. Animations, hit detection and enemy AI is pretty janky – and that’s probably putting it mildly. That being said, once you get to grips with managing your stamina meter, learning when to dodge, and when you finally discover a weapon that fits your play-style, battles do start to feel like a pretty fun time. Some big bosses are peppered around the world’s map and are also undoubtedly a highlight. A huge arachnid hiding in the bowels of a spider-infested cave was equal amounts creepy and memorable, but in a really good way.
These huge bosses have ridiculously large health pools and emphasize how important it is to travel with a few friends in tow. The game supports up to 40 players on an individual multiplayer server and it’s easy to set up some co-op action if you’ve got some friends to adventure with. That being said, there is a single-player mode for those – like me – who don’t have that many friends to play with (I know, world’s smallest violin playing right now). Though this may not be the ideal way to play Conan Exiles, it’s a totally viable option that almost accentuates the lonely wilderness feel of the overall experience.
Now, onto the game’s problems, and sadly this list is quite extensive. Like I mentioned earlier, Conan Exiles is a pretty buggy game. There was a time when I clipped into the ground and fell through the world; an occasion when I died and couldn’t recover my belongings because my body had fused into a mountain; objects would randomly float stationary in the air; animals would casually appear out of thin air, and I could honestly just keep going, but I think you get the picture.
There are also technical problems with the title, like consistent framerate chugs at seemingly random moments. Furthermore, textures and lighting can, at times, look flat and dull. Audio would also occasionally come through a little delayed or sometimes drop out entirely. Not only that, the menus are also confusingly designed and take a lot of getting used to. Unfortunately, there is very little in-game help for explaining how the menu systems work, so you’re pretty much left to use trial and error to figure things out. Essentially, you’re thrown in at the deep end and expected to survive – which sort of echoes the overarching theme of the game. Sink or swim, it’s undoubtedly a rough experience and if you’re used to premium levels of polish in your games, you’ll probably be left disappointed with Conan Exiles.
All that being said, however, Conan Exiles is an authentically entertaining title when you begin to learn the game’s intricate menu systems and get used to the painfully rough technical aspects that beleaguer the overall survival experience. At the end of the day, it all depends on how much you can stomach the laundry list of problems that plague your time with the game.
When things click, Conan Exiles is a unique and moreish survival-RPG that does scratch a primal itch. Unfortunately, it’s also sadly mired by a multitude of bugs, framerate stutters, audio dropouts and some head-scratchingly confusing menu systems. Ultimately, your mileage may indeed vary, but what’s here is thankfully a serviceable survival experience that only gets better, the more time you put into it. Though Conan Exiles may make a terrible first impression, it’s still kind of a keeper. Kind of.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A review copy was provided to us by Funcom.