CONAN EXILES is a janky, awkward, mess of a game with core mechanical issues, propped up by its atmosphere, a great IP, and a surprisingly strong modding scene.

Developer: Funcom

Publisher: Funcom

Format: Playstation 4, Xbox One, PC (reviewed) 

Released: 1/30/17

MSRP: $29.99 USD

Copy: Purchased by Comicsverse

Early access survival games are everywhere, aren’t they? They’ve flooded the market on steam, they rarely move to a full release, and they all seem to blur together. In 2017, it’s safe to say that gamers are becoming exhausted with these titles, and many of us are looking for one to break the mold. I’ve never been a particular fan of survival games. Survival mechanics are a brilliant way to add motivations for the player to explore, adventure, and engage with the world, but there needs to be a fleshed out game at the center of it. Enter CONAN EXILES, a title advertised as a survival RPG, with a strong IP and a full-sized company backing it. This could be the game we’ve been waiting for. So is it?

[CONAN EXILES] If nothing else, it looks cool.

To say EXILES is a diamond in the rough would be an understatement. Instead, I want you to imagine a diamond caked in manure, questionable fluids, and flecked with radioactive isotopes. Something great may eventually come of all this, but you have to wonder if it’s worth digging through the muck. As an early access game, you may be wondering why we’re criticizing it at all, but the fact remains that if a product is worth your money, then it’s worth being criticized. Above all, it should still be fun.

So let’s get down to brass tacks: is CONAN EXILES worth your money?

The Same Old Gameplay, With The Same Old Problems

In many ways, EXILES bears the hallmarks of every modern survival game: you’re dropped into a desolate world, you gather resources, and you create increasingly elaborate shelters, all while your quickly depleting hunger meter threatens to give you an anxiety attack. Indeed, barring a few exceptions, nothing is particularly surprising or remarkable about the gameplay.

It also has the same problems as previous survival games: resource gathering is a boring grind that adds nothing but frustration to the experience. As is the norm in survival games, you’ll spend the first 30 minutes spamming the “X” button as you gather every pebble and plant in sight. I don’t feel like a grizzled survivalist, I feel like a kleptomaniac. Why do I need five branches to create a single torch? The number of resources necessary to create basic items reaches the point of absurdity.

To really hammer in this point, I want to tell you a story about my epic quest to create a blacksmithing bench.

A blacksmithing bench requires 50 bricks (made with 100 stone) and 100 iron bars (made with 200 ironstone). Ironstone has a chance of dropping whenever you gather regular stone and has a greater chance of dropping if you find rocks with a dark coloration. After traveling the land for the specific type of rock, I managed to gather five ironstones for every 1,000 stones I gathered over the course of 45 minutes.*

This is not fun

You could argue that high-level equipment should be unattainable for newer characters, that you should work up to it by building up your infrastructure and finding tools that let you gather resources more effectively. The problem is that you need a blacksmithing bench to create any tool that doesn’t break within 8 minutes. If the game doesn’t expect me to create a blacksmithing bench until the late game, then it should make the lower level items more powerful, or create some mid level items for me to try in the meantime.

Granted, all of this can be made easier with the use of thralls: enemies that you literally knock out, drag to your base, and brainwash into your servants. They can take your resources and build things while you’re out gathering more, drastically reducing the time and effort required to create new equipment. To craft the tool necessary to create thralls…you need 800 ironstone.

[CONAN EXILES] This is the part where I start throwing things.
Enough grinding

Resource gathering needs a major overhaul. Basic tools should be much simpler to make, with a steady difficulty curve as they increase in quality. I should never need five branches to create a single weapon. Instead, I should need a better quality tool to gather a better quality branch. This way you always have a goal in mind, something to work up toward without the need for mindless grinding. The rate of degradation should be tweaked as well. While higher level gear is suitably durable, my wooden shield really shouldn’t need repairing after every battle.

It may seem like I’m focusing too much on the resource gathering when there’s much more to do in the game (exploration, dungeons, building, siege-combat, etc.) but this is how you spend the vast majority of your time, suffering through a poorly-balanced resource system that completely consumes your attention.

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If you manage to survive that initial torment, you’ll find the fruits of your labor are rewarding. It’s not nearly worth the headache of the first few hours, but there’s a genuine sense of satisfaction as you build up your base and as you set your goals higher and higher. It’s that feeling of slowly taming the world, of going from prey to predator, of becoming a success from the sweat of your own brow that makes survival games enjoyable.

Building a settlement is surprisingly fun

Once you get a feel for the game, you’ll want to build a bigger base for yourself. Resource issues aside, I found EXILES’ building mechanics to be simple, fun, and relatively deep. I built a ziggurat rising out of the lake, with multiple floors, ornate candles, a rustic bar, and a master bedroom overlooking the lake. I was able to raise the flag of my people on the shore outside my home, letting everyone know who was welcome and who wasn’t. All survival games let you build elaborate structures but rarely do I feel any connection to them. Being able to build something that felt connected to a rich, established world was probably my favorite part of EXILES.

Indeed, what distinguishes this game from others isn’t its bog-standard and heavily flawed mechanics. It’s the world itself.

A Strong IP With An Authentic Atmosphere

No universe fits the survival genre better than CONAN THE BARBARIAN, and Funcom nails the tone and style of the world. The game begins with your character hanging on a cross in the desert, exiled for a randomly-generated crime you may or may not have committed. This is where you customize your character. You can pick from a variety of purely cosmetic choices, from your sex to your facial features. You can choose from a wide selection of lore-based races to further immerse you in the world.

You’ve probably heard of the rather detailed and physics-based genitalia in the game, and I’m happy to say that even this is customizable (just check the “endowment” slider). The CONAN universe has always been comically sexualized, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the franchise.

[CONAN THE BARBARIAN]: They’ve always been pretty much naked.

You’d think that with such groundbreaking phallus technology they’d make the customization, on the whole, a bit deeper. As of now, there is no way to change your character’s body type or muscle mass. These are scheduled for future updates, however.

The religion system is a perfect example of how the CONAN universe enhances the game. You can pick a god to worship at character creation and can build shrines which will allow you to create special potions, weapons, and armor. The more you use the shrine, the more favor you get with your chosen god, allowing you to upgrade your shrine and eventually control a giant avatar to protect your base or destroy your enemies.

[CONAN EXILES]: It’s pretty satisfying to use.
 The world itself is where EXILES shines

The game takes place in the Exiled Lands on the outskirts of Stygia (think Egypt). It’s a craggy desert wasteland punctuated by lush oases, ancient ruins, and bizarre reptilian statues. It’s difficult to create a desert environment without it becoming a bore to look at, but EXILES has created a colorful world filled with beautiful landmarks and interesting creatures. It may be a bit “prettier” than what I was expecting, but everything about the art-style, from the landscape, to the gear, to the monsters, are decidedly CONAN.

The world feels moderately sized, but this could be due to how slow the player moves. Compared to most survival games, the world is surprisingly detailed. In every direction, you can find shrines to enemy gods, cannibal tribes, caves filled with glowing gems, and story-bits scattered across the landscape. None of these side-stories are brilliant, but they provide context for the world and help establish a consistent tone.

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You’re free to explore the various dungeons that dot the landscape, presented as ancient ruins from a lost empire. The idea is nice, but the dungeons I explored felt a bit sloppy and lackluster so far. Not only that but just walking into one of the dungeons gave me a permanent “corruption” debuff that can’t be removed unless you have a thrall. I suppose now’s a good time to mention that EXILES doesn’t have a tutorial of any form.

All in all, I enjoyed exploring the world, and I hope they continue to populate it with dungeons, landmarks, and details.

The Combat Is Abysmal

The CONAN universe is a pulpy, gritty, pre-historic fantasy world set after the fall of Atlantis. It’s characterized by Lovecraftian monsters, evil sorcerers, and above all: violence. As such, an action game set in the CONAN universe lives and dies on its combat. So how does it hold up?

It doesn’t.

Every criticism I’ve had with the game so far can conceivably be fixed before the full release, except for the combat. Imagine Skyrim’s middling combat system, now pretend you can’t block without a shield. Now imagine you can dodge but it’s entirely unresponsive and completely useless. Imagine there’s no feedback or satisfaction to your strikes. Imagine there’s just enough delay between your strikes that dual wielding is less efficient than simply spamming whichever weapon is stronger.

Imagine there are arbitrary rules regarding which weapon you can wield in which hand. Imagine your low-level items needs to be repaired after every other battle, and that you need 50 stones to make ten arrows. Now imagine the AI is completely brain-dead, sliding across the ground (sans animation) toward the player and maybe sometimes using their weapons against you.

Welcome to CONAN EXILES.

[CONAN EXILES]: It looks far less impressive in motion.

This would be bad enough in a regular survival game, but it’s completely unacceptable in a game that focuses so heavily on combat. Even if you’re playing against other players instead of the AI, the combat is completely broken at its core. It’s not just poorly balanced and poorly implemented. Even if they improved the current system in every possible way, the combat would still be vapid and boring.

I honestly don’t know how they can fix this without completely rebuilding the way combat works from the ground-up. A CONAN game should make me feel like a bloodthirsty warlord, a tactical mastermind whose skill and equipment outmatches his meager opponents. Instead, I try to avoid combat whenever I can.

The Multiplayer Is Exactly What You’d Expect

You may be wondering why I’ve barely touched the multiplayer aspects of this game. It’s because there isn’t much to say. As you’d expect from a survival game with open PvP, it’s anarchy. Unless you make a private server with your friends, or quickly shack up with more experienced players, you’re going to get killed almost immediately, your meager base destroyed and looted for all it’s worth.

Multiplayer is also where the balancing issues really come to the fore. Those badass avatars are incredible to use, but it’s less fun to watch them demolish your city in a manner of seconds. You can stop your enemy from summoning an avatar, but this basically turns the entire game into an arms race to see who can create the giant kaiju first.

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None of this concerns me too much, however, as balancing is what early access is for. Still, we’re expected to pay almost $30 for this game. You have to consider if it’s worth the price of admission.

Playing with friends vastly speeds up the rate at which you acquire resources, alleviating one of my major headaches with the game. This doesn’t remove the problem entirely, as it still takes far too long to gather 200 ironstone. I’m sorry, but I can’t let that one go. With all this in mind, the main reason I shied away from open multiplayer is that it hamstrung the game’s primary draws: modding and server customization.

Deep Customization And A Strong Modding Scene

With all these problems, you may be wondering why I bothered continuing with this game. The answer is simple:

Customization.

As long as you’re hosting your own server, you have complete control over almost every aspect of the world, including the core mechanics. Imagine a much more powerful version of the console commands in an ELDER SCROLLS game. When I say almost every problem I have can be solved with the server settings, I’m not kidding. Once I drastically changed the crafting cost for items, I finally started having fun.

And anything the console can’t fix, mods can. EXILES is extremely moddable, and I was stunned to see the strength and versatility of this burgeoning modding community. Aside from the obvious porn mods, there’s already new weapons, armor, full dungeons, and even major overhauls. Just imagine if this game had a modding community the size of SKYRIM’s. The possibilities are quite literally endless.

I can’t completely trash this game when it is so easy to fix its problems. At the same time, players shouldn’t have to rely on 3rd parties to improve their experience. It’s also worth noting that none of these options are available to you unless you’re playing by yourself or on a server you control.

As far as I’m concerned, every sandbox game should have this level of personalization. I should be able to easily craft my own scenarios and stories within the world. If that means altering the difficulty, freely building things in the world, or just flying through the desert like a superhero, then so be it. To be fair, even the modders haven’t fixed the terrible combat, but the customization alone improves the experience.

CONAN EXILES: The Verdict

Even as an early access game, CONAN EXILES is a hard sell at 29.99. If you’re a hardcore fan of the IP and simply want to exist within the world of Hyboria, this may have something to offer you. If you plan on setting up your own server with your own friends, then you’re more likely to get some mileage out of this.

If you’re a modder who plans on improving the game yourself, then you’ll definitely have some fun toys to play around with. Otherwise, you may want to wait until the full release. I’m hopeful that EXILES will eventually become a solid title, but hope alone can’t make a good game.

*Update: It’s come to our attention that ironstone should be dropping regularly from gray rocks. This would indicate that the singleplayer server I played on was bugged, which is an entirely new issue. Or, this could be another problem involving the lack of tutorial within the game. Either way, with or without ironstone the resources necessary to craft items needs a significant revamp.

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