For a game that’s based on the world of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian, Conan Exiles has remarkably little to do with any part of that universe. It’s a big, open-world survival sim that sticks true to its initial hardcore vision to a fault. When you combine the steep learning curve of a deep but confusing crafting system with largely monotonous gameplay and a spectacularly awful UI, Conan Exiles feels like it does everything it can to push back on those curious enough to step into its admittedly intriguing but highly flawed world.
The game opens as you regain consciousness in the scorching desert, completely naked and vulnerable. As an exile, you are trapped in a doomed and cursed land with nothing but the faint memory of being cut down from your crucifix by Conan, the giant hunk of man-meat himself. From there, you’re free to wander off into the wild yonder. The exiled lands are massive, made up of different environmental biomes that can be explored freely from the outset. Spectacular-looking sandstorms can roll in out of nowhere, forcing you to seek shelter lest they consume you. You can climb anything from mountains and trees to walls and buildings, provided you have the stamina. This adds an extra dimension to exploration, with the added payoff of some lovely views of Conan's varied world.
You start out small, picking up rocks and sticks and crafting simple tools. Almost everything you find can be broken down one way or another, and while it's neat to watch rocks chip apart and trees topple over as you hack into them, the humdrum motion of harvesting never feels rewarding. Eventually you’ll need to build shelter and a bed, which becomes your new spawn point. Given the game’s brutal loss of items and resources after death, doing this sooner rather than later can save you some real heartache.
Shelter can mean anything from a small stone shack all the way to a giant castle, complete with reinforced walls, towers, and even a trebuchet. Building is block-based and relatively free form, allowing for hugely elaborate base designs that can be some fun to build, provided you take the time to gather the raw materials to build everything you need. That's all well and good, except for the part where you aren’t shown how to do any of it. It’s all up to you to simply figure out or dive head first into a wiki to have anything explained in detail.
If you aren’t motivated by curiosity, Conan Exiles' single-player mode will feel empty and largely aimless. It's more like a practice mode, with only a handful of NPC outposts and structures to find. When you do, most of them are hostile, and the few that aren’t only offer minimal interaction. Multiplayer changes this up for the better in a few ways, mainly through the addition of other human players.
More importantly, though, multiplayer gives you more purpose and clearer goals to achieve. This includes defending your base from other players as well as The Purge, an army of NPCs that might attack and destroy your base as you gain XP--there's also an option to activate The Purge within the single-player mode. You can also join Clans, which will allow you to build collectively, either on or near clanmates' already-laid foundations. For times when you do have to leave home behind, you can create Thralls--human NPCs with specialised abilities you can knockout, bind, and drag back to base to enslave--to help protect it, and they do a decent enough job.
Character progression in both single and multiplayer takes place in the Journey, a series of tasks grouped into chapters that, when completed, grant you attribute points to spend on any one of seven main ability slots. You also gain knowledge points to unlock new crafting recipes, of which there are a lot. The number of things you can craft is staggering; weapons, armor, survival items, and even religious altars to help to deify the gods of the world and earn their favour.
Once you start crafting more complex items, you get better acquainted with one of the game's worst aspects: its UI. There’s nothing intuitive about it, and like the rest of the game, there’s very little explanation given as to how it works. On top of that, it's overly complicated, requiring you to place the resources along with any fuel required into the crafting bench first, select what you want to build from the menu, and then hit the play button to actually craft it. There’s also almost no difference between the console and PC UI, so it's an absolute nightmare to do any kind of inventory management with a controller. And like in most survival sims, it’s what you inevitably spend a significant amount time doing, making it a constant source of frustration.
When you get tired of chipping away at trees and rocks, which you will, you can chip away at creatures or other humans instead. There are all manner of things in the exiled lands for you to kill or be killed by, from animals and beasts to monstrous boss creatures like a giant black spider and a huge, spiked Dragon. But despite the sizeable enemy variety and the large array of weapons you can smith--from daggers to axes and giant mallets--combat is just plain bad. Both light and heavy attacks feel unwieldy thanks to sluggish animations, and weapon strikes lack any impact, resulting in dull and monotonous fights.
Conan Exiles is one of the most unsatisfying games I’ve ever played.
To top it off, Conan Exiles just feels really unpolished. The bodies of harvested enemies simply disappear into thin air, and large areas of the world can pop in and out of view at any time, clipping your character through the ground then respawning you somewhere else on the map. When the night starts to come, the moon’s light casts upwards from the ground, creating an bottomlit effect that looks atrocious. It’s also not in the most stable condition, with a number of crashes affecting gameplay randomly on both PC and Xbox.
Ultimately, Conan Exiles is one of the most unsatisfying games I’ve ever played. Its crafting and resource systems may be dense enough that the ultra-patient could find something to enjoy here, but anyone else would likely walk away with their hands thrown up in defeat. The mind-numbing tedium of harvesting resources, woefully boring combat, and a slew of bugs left me feeling completely underwhelmed and unimpressed when it was all said and done.