The games industry is well known for being a sort of “follow the leader” situation; if someone does something new or well, then others are bound to try and make their own take on it to get a piece of the freshly-baked pie. Case in point: survival games. Minecraft led the way, ARK: Survival Evolved followed up and now we’ve got games like Conan Exiles trying to nab some snacks before the picnic wraps up.
To make an impact in a new “genre” like this, you need to try and innovate a bit, and while Exiles doesn’t feel like a whole new experience it does manage to stand out from the crowd by offering a real sense of adventure.
Your character’s life is over – well, their life as they knew it, anyway, since they’ve been sentenced to exile for any number of crimes that they may or may not have committed. When a (very familiar) good Samaritan releases your character from crucifixion, you might think the worst is over…but really it’s just beginning, since the Exiled Lands are even harsher than the rest of Conan’s setting. Finding fresh water and something to eat are immediate concerns, but even once you’ve taken care of those, there’s still plenty of danger lurking behind every corner in the form of wild animals, ferocious monsters and even deranged Exiles out to loot or eat you. Once you’ve addressed sustenance, shelter and self-defense, it’s time to explore the Exiled Lands and see what mysteries you can uncover.
You’ve played games like this before – survival games with “nag meters” representing food and water, I mean. As usual, outside of learning the ropes during your first couple of hours you’re unlikely to ever run out of snacks, so food and water degradation is rapidly demoted to an annoyance that dings you for being forgetful rather than an actual threat. Exiles introduces temperature as a survival factor as well, so you’ll need to find shelter from the sun during the day and warmth at night to stay at your best, but again these aren’t significant problems once you’ve gotten the basics of the game down.
Likewise, you can build structures ranging from tiny mud huts to big ol’ castles which are also likely to be made largely of mud. Construction in Exiles is simple enough, though if you’re used to the more directly building in games like Minecraft you might be dismayed to find that many more resources are involved in building here. That’s important, since Exiles feels best as a PvP game, and an essential aspect of life on a PvP server is properly protecting your home and loot from potential invaders; it might be harder to build things, but whatever you build feels more valuable and serves a very real purpose in defending your life and treasure. Players who’ve tried ARK: Survival Evolved are likely familiar with how this works.
There are some points where Exiles diverges from the pack, though. For instance, combat is a slightly more fulfilling experience than in most survival games, by which I mean it’s a step above Minecraft’s click-until-it’s-dead battles. You’re still mostly clicking until it’s dead, but combat in Exiles tends to be more lethal so you’ll need to use superior numbers and perhaps even a bit of strategy to prevail. For another, your character has the option of being part of a religion, allowing them access to unique buildings and gear along with (much, much later) offering the power to summon the avatar of their god for a mighty directed strike that can punch through enemy structures.
Given that one religion allows you to be a cannibal, you can guess which one I picked nearly every time I played. You can also take NPC Exiles captive and have them serve you as Thralls, slaves that offer various services and bonuses based on their class in exchange for…well, gruel and their continued existence.
Finally, the world itself is an interesting place worth exploring, which can’t be said for every entry in this overcrowded genre. Exiles really nails the harsh environment that defines the Conan series; this is doubly true with the recent Frozen North update that incorporates a new, frosty section of the map with new dangers to deal with. The general difficulty of keeping your character geared and prepared to face whatever you find when exploring means that expeditions into the unknown really feel like expeditions, which is a great touch. When you stumble across a giant boss monster and get squished, well, that just adds to the mystique and gives you a goal to work toward.
Conan Exiles is an Early Access game, of course, and as always it’s more than a bit buggy so I can’t offer an entirely unconditional recommendation for a game that’s not finished. Still, I had a good time exploring the Exiled Lands, and I think anyone who can look past the bog-standard nag-meter-focused opening moments will find themselves enjoying it. One big tip: definitely grab some friends if you’re going to give this one a shot. Solo play is slow and painful, but once you get two or three people together the game becomes a lot more friendly.