Conan The Conqueror – Barbarian, Baker, and Candlestick Maker
Expecting a Frank Frazetta original out of Petroglyph Games’ latest was always asking a little much, wasn’t it? It’s fine. Be honest. At this late stage? In this economy? Yeah, it was always asking too much. Haven’t you heard? “Art doesn’t pay these days, kids!”. But even then, Conan Unconquered, like its titular star, just feels…tired.
To be fair, don’t we all?
The once renowned star of stage, silver screen and comic book writer’s script has fallen on hard times, recently. Or, to put it more accurately, fallen into these recent hard times. His sword’s a plastic plaything. His shield, a movie prop. And Conan himself? A hero out of time, looking to tackle a modern challenge that sounds hauntingly familiar: find stable work, overcome an identity crisis, and wade through all the horrors of late-stage capitalism. Oh, what a joy…
In an alternate timeline, they’d be the trappings of a hypothetical, bargain bin Arnold Schwarzenegger time travel comedy from the mid-’90s. But today? In 2019? It all rings a little too true. A touch too close to home. Conan’s been busy. Very busy. Again though, haven’t we all?
Just this past month Conan took to the world stage at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles to lift the lid on his latest project – an April Fool’s Day joke of a game turned hack n slash looter. Conan Chop Shop follows on from his foray into the survival genre, scratching a living off rocks in the hopes of striking gold as he chased trends and a potential redemption arc via live streaming platform Twitch. At any other point in the star’s 87-year history, he may have been a touch more discerning. But pride, like art, doesn’t pay the bills these days. To be fair not much does. Unless it’s in exposure, of course. But then, Conan knows all about that – his MMO went free-to-play back in 2011. Even fictional characters, it seems, aren’t immune to the realities of the gig economy if they want to survive in this day and age.
Welcome to 2019, Conan.
Welcome to hell…
Conan’s latest gig once again sees him scratching a living off of the land, this time watched from a bird (of prey’s) eye view, high up in the sky. It’s here that you manage him, his threadbare force, and his base, building, growing, and expanding as you prepare to survive the oncoming hordes that crash against you like waves on rocks.
If it all sounds a little familiar, that’s…likely because it is. Where Conan Exiles chased the crafting and tree-punching of the survival genre to the bitter end, Conan Unconquered follows in the meandering, shifting, groaning footsteps of 2017’s zombie break-out (or should that be outbreak?) hit, They Are Billions. Rather than scratch a living off rocks, They Are Billions’ hybrid blend of RTS and Tower Defense scratched the itch of all those mid-90’s kids’ favourite RTS strategy pastime: turtling. The strategy would see players hunkering down in vast bases of their own design, amassing grand armies for hours before finally opening the floodgates and stomping the land – and their enemies – to dust and sand beneath their feet.
Only it’s here, in this desert, that the question of Conan’s place in all of this rears its head once again. The thematic reasoning behind They Are Billions’ base-building obsession made a touch more sense in the face of a world overrun by the zombie hordes. But here? In this desert? It’s all a slow, steady affair, never much breaking a sweat despite the raging heat. Conan’s reputation precedes him, then, with the muscular star left to waste away behind the walls of a keep he never really asked for – walls being one of the early go-to strategies for keeping the waves of spearmen, riders, and many a varied demon at bay – all while the hours, quite literally, tick by.
Conan seems bored. As if this is all just another 9 – 5. Or…5 – 9. Or midnight ‘til dawn? He’s juggling so many jobs at this point, it’s hard to keep track. What’s clear is that it feels like he’s running down the clock, and you can’t blame him. His game’s threadbare campaign is a loosely strung together thing, all fraying threads and unkempt ends that, when pulled, unravel unspectacularly. Imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery, but here, in this desert, in this day and age, Conan’s empty bag of ideas feels, at worst, like a reskin featuring all the trappings of a mid-2000’s copycat mobile game.
Conan’s modern-day woes remain unconquered, then. And as for Conan Unconquered? It’s passable. A pastiche. A painting of a game that lacks all the vim and vigour in the brushstrokes that may have offered some semblance of excitement or, heaven forbid, enough enthusiasm to bring Conan himself back to life. So it’s no Frank Frazetta, but then…that was always asking a bit much, wasn’t it?
Jamie’s love of the Souls series is only bettered by his ability to refer to himself in the third person. When not found wasting away the hours on Twitter, you’ll find him vanquishing beasts in Lordran or watching a sunrise on the shores of Chernarus. The Dread Pirate Roberts of videogame journalists.