Based upon the Conan the Barbarian series, Funcom's Conan Exiles is a third-person action game with a focus on surviving the rough wilderness. After being exiled from civilization, players must fend for themselves as hunger and thirst meters rapidly drain. Starting off with nothing, it's up to the player to gather supplies to craft items, and eventually gear up to be able to take on the dangerous enemies that roam the land.
The gameplay of Conan Exiles is a series of highs and lows. The combat often feels sloppy, but putting together a nice combination of attacks can feel fun in the moment. However, no matter how satisfying a few battles can be, all of that goodwill is easily lost once the game's technical issues begin to surface. It's not uncommon to get stuck to the world's geometry while fighting, and this leads to the player getting pummelled by a foe while the camera freaks out. The lock-on targeting mechanic is also a mess as it often doesn't work as intended, even when enemies are visible in plain sight, and it's possible to miss wide open attacks for no real reason other than the collision detection being poor.
Considering Conan Exiles is based around the idea of survival, death is a big deal. Everything in the player's inventory, including the hundreds of stones and logs the player stores in their pockets, all vanish upon dying. There's some progression in the game that lasts, mainly the player's stats and any items stored instead of carried on the character, but the cost of dying is still quite high. That level of difficulty is okay to have when deaths feel earned by player mistakes, but not so much when it's caused by glitches and technical issues.
Everything in the game is learned the hard way as there's little in terms of proper onboarding or tutorials in Conan Exiles. Upon creating an exiled character, and promptly being freed from the cross they've been hung up to die upon, the player is simply free to wander the wasteland without any direction. For a more forgiving game that wouldn't be an issue, but here it creates a rough learning period since it's paired with the player not having a clear understanding of the crafting system, combat, or what exactly they're supposed to do. Nothing here is explained, and it's on the player to learn the systems via trial-and-error while their water and food meters drain.
After an hour or two of experimentation, things start to become clearer. Players learn that they need to repeatedly press the command to pickup loot as they walk by items (including everything from tree branches and rocks to consumable bugs can be added to your inventory). This all feeds into the core crafting loop, as the allure of new equipment and weapons is the reason why the player runs around the largely barren wasteland. Conan Exiles doesn't reinvent the survival genre, but it's a satisfying enough "collectathon" that it will make the player temporarily forget that they're probably going to get a repetitive motion injury from having to press the interact button repeatedly.
In theory, this core gameplay loop should lead to the player having to build up their inventory by storing items and then having to gamble on what equipment they'll take with them. The inventory user interface in Conan Exiles is a mess to use though, making crafting and storing items a chore, and every hour or two is typically met with a disappointing end for the player character that isn't due to the player messing up but rather technical issues coming to light.
Survival games require death to feel fair in order to get their hooks in the player, and that's where Conan Exiles really struggles. One might feel compelled to go back into the world and get revenge if they lose in a fair fight. That isn't the case when it comes after losing an hour of progress due to a broken climbing system suddenly not recognizing their positioning and dropping the character from 40 feet in the air.
Beyond a shocking lack of polish within its combat and climbing, Conan Exiles has one of the worst frame rates we've seen on consoles. Despite playing on a PlayStation 4 Pro, the game regularly experienced significant slowdowns even during regular exploration. These instances can get so bad that the game starts to freeze up for a few seconds before it would update the player's positioning. This can turn a five second run through an area into an agonizing crawl that takes minutes to get through.
Making matters worse, Conan Exiles is not a visually impressive title in the slightest. It's one thing to have some slowdown in a game that is taxing the hardware it's running on, but some of the animation and textures would look right in place with early Xbox 360 titles. These issues come from poor optimization.
Most of the world design in Conan Exiles is boring, but occasionally there are cool areas to find. For every 20 acres of generic desert and mountain to roam through, there's occasionally a cave filled with unique set-pieces such as an underwater passage that leads to a shrine surrounded by ghosts. These are small peaks into the greater world of Conan, and it's a shame that they're seen so rarely. Despite having the player pick between many races and religions present within the Conan lore, the game does little with it.
Anyone expecting to learn more about the world of Conan the Barbarian will be disappointed by Conan Exiles. There are stone tablets that the player can interact with to hear some brief voiceover dialogue about the world, and occasionally they'll stumble upon a non-playable character that is willing to talk rather than fight, but there's rarely anything worthwhile to come from these exchanges. None of the lore is particularly interesting, and it doesn't resurface within the game in any interesting ways. A more structured experience would have gone a long way in making the world feel less empty and devoid of any soul.
Conan Exiles can also be played online, and there are two different variants: one where players can attack each other and one where they can only work together. It's essentially the same game as the offline version, but it has the bonus of getting to explore an existing server and seeing the buildings that dedicated players have been able to craft. Some players are so well off in the wastelands that they've managed to build their own mansion-like structures, and while the creations never truly wow like they can in a game like Minecraft, it does make one wonder why they spent so much time playing a game this mediocre.
Despite all of its many flaws Conan Exiles does get something right. Even though there are much better survival games on the market like The Long Dark and Metal Gear Survive, the core gameplay loop is compelling enough to feed into one's desires to simply collect items and make some small progress. There's always something to do, a new item to craft, or an enemy to fight. Due to this busyness, players can almost forget about the jarring lack of polish for a moment or at least until it costs them another life.
This glimmer of potential is what makes the end result of Conan Exiles all the more infuriating. There's a real potential for a satisfying survival game to be built upon the foundations shown here, but it clearly needed more time to be fleshed out and polished upon. Instead, developer Funcom has released the game in an embarrassing state on consoles, and while it might turn into something good nine months from now, it certainly isn't right now.
Conan Exiles is available now on PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC. Review code was provided by publisher.