Oct 23, 2007
Ah, the age of Conan. A time when men were men, women were all gagging for it and evil sorcerers were busy ruining everyone’s fun with their nefarious machinations. Welcome to Hyboria; better have an oiled blade and a bumper box of elastoplasts at the ready... because you’re sure as hell gonna need them.
For starters, we’ll come out like the Conasexuals we are and declare our undying love for all things Cimmerian. This king of the barbarians is one mighty piece of property. He’s a no-holds-barred war and sex machine who’ll slaughter legions of evil-doers before sating himself on a bevy of lusty wenches. He’s the only man we know who can get away with wearing a furry thong and still look dead hard. In short, he’s our hero.
Still, during the seven or so hours it’ll take you to steamroll through the game (a pretty respectable length for a button-masher, all told) and recapture each part of Conan’s stolen armour you’ll have journeyed halfway across Hyboria - battled pirates, demons, monster apes, stone demons, rescued virtuous maidens and foiled the machinations of an evil sorcerer who’s sporting a “Johnny Depp meets The Darkness” look. In short, despite the near nonsensical and disjointed narrative it’s a royal hoot and a return to those halcyon days when hack-’n’-slashers - above all others - absolutely ruled the gaming roost.
Vitally, the combat is excellent. Random button-mashing is out; even on Easy mode you will take a beating if you don’t block conservatively and learn to use Conan’s evasive roll. Make no mistake though; it’ll be a miracle if you don’t emerge from a session of Conan blistered of digit, calloused of thumb and addled of brain. Even though the combo system favours tactical acumen, you’ll also need to do your fair share of spasmodic button-mashing to win through, pulling off memorably-titled moves like “Monkey Slams,” “Black River Rage” and “Demon’s Descent” with aplomb.
Helping to keep things interesting is the excellent weapons system. Conan can always fall back on his trusted one-handed blade, but you’re encouraged to experiment by picking up the tools of fallen foes. One-handed short swords, two-handed pikes, dual-wielded sabres, shields - each overtly affects Conan’s style, so it’s vital to pick the best.
As reward for your Herculean labours, Conan hits the payback button big time; treating you lucky lot to perhaps the goriest game since Soldier of Fortune. It’s hard to explain in mere words how visceral Conan is; but you’ll derive extreme satisfaction as you hack into your human foes, even if the game’s final mission - which pits our Cimmerian against a variety of vaporous spirits and living statues, misses the splattered point somewhat.
The more imaginatively you massacre your foes, the more red orbs you’ll accumulate with which to purchase even more charnel-licious moves. Build up your little yellow bar to the max and your swords will sing the Song of Death, glowing red and whistling through the air as you slice and dice with abandon. Best of all, though, are the execution moves - initiated by pressing LT to block just at the point of impact. Then if you’re quick enough to hit one of the face buttons Conan’ll get busy ripping out entrails, cleaving foes in twain and popping their skulls like ripe melons.
Kudos also to Nihilistic for keeping in spirit with the Hyborian legacy. This isn’t Schwarzenegger’s buffoon of a Conan; this is the bestial Cimmerian of Robert E Howard’s original pulp fiction with a smattering of Marvel comics. The one discrepancy was that THQ’s Conan dabbles in magic - a range of spells like turning enemies to stone, sucking them into vortexes or bombarding them with flocks of demon ravens - when Howard’s barbarian regarded the only good sorcerer as a dead one.
Another boon for Conan is its glorious celebration of boss scraps - they’re multilayered epics that’ll frustrate and electrify you in equal measure. Whether it’s leaping from collapsing wooden scaffolding while being assailed by a sand lizard, severing the tusks of an undead elephant god, making calamari out of a giant squid or ramming a giant pike down the throat of the Medusa-like Sorceress Queen, they’re a tour de force of stellar visuals that’ll pop your eyes out their sockets.
Here’s the major downer though; whereas God of War’s near-perfect pacing interspersed its terrific scrapping with brain-bending puzzling and some genuine Prince of Persia-topping platforming, Conan sticks almost exclusively to the fighting. Okay, so there’s the odd concession but it’s mostly a case of simplistic lever-pulling or the odd jumpy-jumpy section (which, thanks to some iffy collision detection, frequently sent us into rage mode).
To truly hit the heights, Nihilistic needed to push the envelope here, but it’s way too underplayed and unsatisfying. Bashing buttons to watch Conan scamper up a rockface like a backward gibbon does not a good platformer make. Even the odd bit of variation - such as having to direct a ballista, crank the bolt and sink an enemy fleet - comes across as tacked-on.
A further gripe is the needless repetition. We thoroughly enjoyed ransacking a war galleon before setting it aflame and watching it sink to the bottom of the gurgling depths, but having to go around a corner and literally have to do it all again when the devs couldn’t even be bothered to change any details just smacked of lazy design.
Crucially, failing to innovate a la God of War, our mighty hero is held fast by the inherent limitations of his genre. Put simply, no matter how advanced the combo system, that constant button-pounding action begins to grate, especially since there’s no co-op mode (which would have rocked). But it’s testament to Conan’s spark that the sheer fun of the execution moves and combos will pull you through the bad times. For that, brave Cimmerian, Crom salutes you.