Conan [Playstation 2]

Note: This review is part of a series I am going to call “Resurrected Reviews”, essentially stuff that I wrote for previous (now deceased) blogs and review topics on various gaming forums over the years. I have dragged them kicking-and-a-screaming into the harsh light of the present day and revamped them where necessary. Some may say “Rehash” but I say “Recycling”.

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Release: 2004 | Developer: Cauldron | Publisher: TDK Mediactive | Also On: PC, Xbox, Gamecube

“What does not destroy me, makes me stronger”

When talking about the videogame adventures of Robert E Howard’s legendary barbarian warrior, most will be more familiar with the PS3 game by THQ, a very average 3D adventure game that I personally found to be akin to a poor man’s God of War. The game that I will be talking about now (also titled simply ‘Conan’) came before on the PS2 and Gamecube and was published by TDK, developed by Cauldron. It’s completely unrelated to the THQ game but would it be better for it? Well…

Picture this: after a mere ten minutes of gameplay, I was staring dully at the TV screen with mental despair taking hold. I was thinking, why oh why are there no good Conan games? The PS3 game was an un-enjoyable slog to the finish after just a few hours of playtime and there are no others that I know of aside from the PC Age of Conan MMO which I can’t be arsed with as I simply don’t ‘do’ PC games. The only other Conan game I have glimpsed came in the form of a few screenshots for an unreleased Atari Jaguar side-scrolling beat ‘em up (the very definition of obscure!) so I was desperate for this PS2 effort to satisfy the Conan fan in me. But no, it just had to be another bitter pill of disappointment.

Why are there no decent Conan games? Why? The films were great (well, the first one was. Conan the Destroyer isn’t quite the same and the remake is just pointless) but the books were even better. I’ve read every one of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories and they were brilliant. Between these and the movie adaptations, there is a world of resource and inspiration for some good Conan games so why…are…there…no…good…Conan…games? WHY? WHY? WHERE ARE THE GOOD CONAN GAMES?!?

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Whew. That’s better. Talk about your pent up frustration. In the spirit of Conan himself, I persevered and so with pad in hand I asked Crom for the strength to beat this game and if he wouldn’t listen? To hell with him.

To give Conan some credit, the game is at least faithful to the source material when it comes to locations, weapons and even the characterisation of Conan himself. This isn’t Conan as played by Arnie but the real Conan from E. Howard’s books and – as a fan of those tomes – I really appreciated what Cauldron did to keep things legit and authentically presented. The ‘epic’ music is generic but a good fit for the game (nothing else to say about it to be frank).

Gameplay revolves dispatching enemies with various button combinations. You have light attacks, heavy attacks, grabs and a block button. These are utilised to pull off preset combos and by killing enemies the player earns points to spend on unlocking new, flashier moves – standard stuff. Movement however is really clunky and despite using a few different pads, Conan sometimes simply refused to move in the desired direction when changing course. It didn’t cause too many unnecessary deaths during my play-through but it’s pretty piss-poor when a game makes you question the condition of your controllers, especially when it turns out that they are all working correctly.

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This screen is actually from the Xbox version but I’m not sure I care enough.

If you do run out of health though then Conan is transported to the realm of Crom where you must defeat enemies in an enclosed arena in order to be fully restored to the spot where Conan snuffed it. Sounds pretty sweet right? Especially when you consider that the feature has unlimited uses. It’s actually the opposite though because these arena battles are much easier than battles in the mortal realm making Conan’s resurrections assured and the threat of enemies neutered. If you can’t ever technically be killed then where is the challenge? Conan’s apparent immortality also makes a mockery of boss battles because you can be infinitely restored to the spot with the enemy’s life bar still depleted.

The only way that you don’t get a chance to fight for Conan’s restoration is by falling foul of environmental hazards such as holes or traps (apparently Conan hasn’t died as a warrior thus denying him the right to be resurrected) but this still doesn’t excuse the ability to ignore strategy completely and abuse this mechanic. Ultimately, I wondered if there was any point at all in trying to utilise the game’s full range of moves because you may as well repeat the same handful of basic sword combos while spamming this revival ability. It’s certainly possible to beat the game this way with little trouble.

You can switch between swords, axes and maces throughout the game but again, unless you need the mace for beating down armoured foes more effectively, there’s no incentive to bother. There’s also a running side quest to locate and assemble all four pieces of the Atlantean Sword but any exploration is voided by the fact that a) environments are incredibly linear and bland and b) only one of the pieces is easy to miss with the others all in plain sight or after beating a boss. The Atlantean Sword deals with enemies in one hit and shamefully, I even killed the final boss with one wild swipe! Who tested this shit?

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Braving the harsh elements and wild animals. At least the feel of the character and setting(s) is there.

The main problem with this game is the clunkiness and just general, basic dullness of everything. It really is an exercise in getting from A to B by killing everything in between, pulling a few levers and avoiding pitfalls. Lots of games have adopted this approach in the past and have turned out really well but Conan is just so uninteresting to sit through with repetitive scraps that don’t ever offer something new or stylish to at least paper over the shortcomings. It does say something that my highlight of the game was the quick cinematic of Conan punching a camel in a marketplace, a reference to a humorous scene in the original Arnie film. It made me smile at least when nothing else did.

The sole reason I persevered to the end was because the authenticity to the original books was spot on and I still wanted to see what happened in the end. I can imagine a non-Conan fan playing this game and binning it after a few levels because as much as I appreciated the videogame renditions of stuff from the books, it was always a case of sitting down and saying “right, got to get this bloody Conan game finished so I can play something else” rather than enjoying the game. I’m bored just writing about it.

Now that I’m nearing the conclusion of this review, I’m looking back over my words and thinking that I haven’t really gone into much detail but the truth is, I just don’t have anything else to say. So…is this an angry rant ending on a mellow note? Not until I’ve gone over the game’s miserable save system! I knew there was something else I hated about Conan – must have blocked it out of my mind for a moment there. Well, there’s no use in burying my head in the sand so I’ll talk about it.

Conan needs to possess a crystal to save the game. You can save anywhere (good) BUT you can only carry four of the damn things at any one time (bad) and let me tell you: there’s nothing worse than trying to make your last crystal go as far as possible only to fall down a hidden pit or be killed by a barely-visible trap because it means slogging back through the whole unsaved section all over again, slaying the same boring enemies and looking at the same uninspiring scenery (extremely, diarrhoea-grade bad). Who thinks that weird save systems like this are a good idea? Fuck these people. A game this underwhelming didn’t need to be any worse but congratulations developers, you managed it.

Overall Thoughts

It’s a shame that the gameplay is so uninspiring and bland because the source material was treated really well with this one. Conan is at least authentic in spirit but that means little when you barely want to play the actual game. Another missed oppurtunity.

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