Conan Exiles Review – Barbaric Design (PS4)
Early access PC games getting a console port can be a rough process. Most of these title have been developed with the PC in mind for a year or more before the thought even crosses their mind to port the game over. They’ve grown a community, amassed feedback based on the PC version of the game, and suddenly a simultaneous release on all platforms occurs. For PC players, this is a moment of joy and a culmination of years of build up. For console players, this is their first steps into a brave new world that has already existed elsewhere for years. Conan Exiles‘ port to the PS4 suffers from the problems of bringing a PC game to a controller, even if there’s a fun survival game shining through underneath all that wasteland dust.
Conan Exiles should probably feature Conan’s name in a far smaller font than it does. Bearing the name of the hulking barbarian is only to set the game within his world. He appears briefly at the beginning of the game to cut your naked body from a cross in the desert where you have been left to die, and then disappears into the dust on the horizon, never to be seen again. Here’s the obligatory mention that the character creator allows you to adjust the size of your genitals (for a male) and chest (for a female), which is totally nonessential once you find materials to actually make clothes. The only size that matters out here is that of your sword.
The nudity does serve the purpose of feeling completely helpless at the outset. Coming from having literally nothing in the middle of the scorching desert, the smallest victories can feel like big wins. In fact, I feel like just figuring out what buttons did what on the controller was a big victory. There’s nothing in the way of a tutorial or guide to begin the adventure, so even figuring out how to gather rocks and leaves was an accomplishment.
Wait, now I have to turn these rocks and leaves into clothes somehow? It’s like the Dark Souls of dressing your character.
A game should hook me in the early moments. It should make me curious to explore more and pull me into the full experience. Instead I was left frustrated as I scoured the tiny menu icons attempting to make a shirt out of underbrush. A relic of the PC build, the menus aren’t friendly to controllers or to anybody sitting more than two feet from their screens. Little ambiguous pictures denote items that can be crafted out of other small ambiguous images, and as you increase your library of craftable items, it becomes a chore to sort through them all to find what you need. It’s a menu that makes sense for mouse and keyboard, but wasn’t optimized for console players at all.
Survival games should be hard, but making it hard for the player to even figure out how to navigate the menus and systems present is a meta-game that really soured my early hours with Conan Exiles and made it hard to carry on. The prospect of being a barbarian warrior ruler and building my own kingdom is a great goal to aspire to, but when the game makes it difficult and cumbersome to even craft clothes, equip weapons, it’s impossible to think of those more lofty aspirations.
No Longer Early Access?
I always cringe a bit when I hear an early access PC game is getting a console port. Not only is it replete with problems I’ve already mentioned (lack of optimization for controllers, poor on-boarding for new players), it’s also filled with bugs, graphical hiccups, and other problems that make me wonder who determined this was ready for full retail release. Conan Exiles feels like we simply got the early access game ported to PS4, not like a complete experience that has benefited from more than a year of public playtesting. There’s a lack of polish, and I would describe the game as janky at its best moments.
Coming off of early access has the benefit of making this game feel extremely full and enormous. Multiple updates and additions added throughout that early run are available out of the box for the PS4 release, including a massive map that covers multiple different biomes. There’s a ton to explore, dungeons full of unclaimed treasures, horrifying beasts to fight, and more. It’s this side of Conan Exiles that I wanted to live in more often, but again, these are far-off goals that come after taxing hours of gathering, crafting, and suffering through the worst of the game’s bugs.
One such bug that I encountered early on (and still haunts players now) is the vanishing body bug. Like other games about souls that are dark, if you die, you lose everything. Returning to your body will allow you to gather up what you left behind. Except sometimes the game simply decides not to spawn your body in. You may fight through a grueling gauntlet and survive just to get back to your body and find that it isn’t actually there, meaning your stuff is lost forever. You can store things in your house, so it’s not necessarily a complete reset, but it’s a frustrating enough experience that breaks the game and kills any motivation for further exploration.
It’s better to suffer with friends though, so hopping into a multiplayer server can really improve the experience. There are various settings on the servers that can adjust a large number of things, including limiting the nudity, making resources more plentiful, and changing the death mechanics. You can also opt for a PvP server, which allows other exiles to attack you and steal your stuff. As if we didn’t already have trouble getting dressed, now we’ve got human players killing us just to take our shirt too. It’s unfortunate that it takes easier server settings to see the side of the game where the real fun lies, but the difficulty curve at the outset should allow players to ease into the experience more, grabbing their interest to make them want to get to that difficult endgame content.
With Conan Exiles, you’re either in or you’re out. There’s a hardcore fanbase out there that loves this game, but there’s an exceptionally high learning and enjoyment curve that will keep more casual players from getting invested enough to explore its deepest content or even wade around much in the shallow end. On a quality level, the game simply doesn’t feel like it made it out of early access even though this is the full release. Add that the game is hardly optimized for controller and living room TV play, and this is a title that is hard to recommend outright. That said, for fans of survival games, there’s a very intriguing game layered underneath walls, road bumps, and cliffs that need to be scaled to get there. And it’s easy to lose hours of time simply figuring out how to build a house, or, you know, put on pants, but a lot of that can be chalked up to poor and barbaric design.
Conan Exiles review code provided by publisher. Version 1.10 reviewed on Standard PS4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy.