Conan the Barbarian Review
Conan the Barbarian has become a folkloric hero of legend known throughout the world, so it stands to reason we should have a next-generation game based on the burly pillar of testosterone. Obviously, Conan includes much of what you might expect from the premise and concept: lots of blood, lots of sexual innuendo and even content, and an archaic and brutal environment. It may seem exceedingly bizarre that the main protagonist can use powerful magic - the man can barely speak; how the heck did he become a sorcerer? - but that's okay. For the most part, you're looking at a straight-up visceral adventure, loaded with a huge amount of action and almost comical over-the-top gore. You'll be hewing off limbs left and right and when you're done, the ground will be soaked in blood and littered with body parts. You'll also save mostly naked women, progress through a variety of outdoor and indoor levels, and participate in a few other tasks. But can Nihilistic deliver the entertaining vice-ridden romp we've been hoping for?
Well, first off, the graphics simply aren't up to par with other high-profile titles of this generation. Some of the visuals are pretty and nicely detailed, but the cut-scenes are mediocre at best and there isn't a lot of polish in some of the backdrops. It's a consistent graphical presentation, though, and the developers certainly pay close attention to the combat, which stands out due to...um...flying extremities. Nihilistic makes good use of color and there's a decent amount of diversity - despite the relative brevity of your quest - throughout the levels, so that's all good news. There just isn't anything all that visually impressive about Conan. Oddly enough, things seem to get better with time, as the later areas we explored appeared more technically proficient than some of the earlier levels. Enemy and character detail is solid, and you won't necessarily be complaining a lot. After all, the focus of the game centers squarely on the gameplay, which means you won't be wandering around gazing in awe at the background; you'll be seeking your next target. In the end, the graphics of this game are good, but that's about all we can say.
The sound, however, is not very good. At first, we enjoyed the implementation of those sickening "thwacks" when steel met flesh, but that grew a little tiresome after a while, and the rest of the effects are nothing more than generic. The voice acting is a little better, but while we figured Ron Pearlman would be the perfect choice for Conan, it doesn't sound as if he wanted to embrace this role. Too much of his performance sounds strained or forced, as if he's reading the lines for the very first time and hasn't had time to process the situation. The soundtrack is the best part of this category, but even that doesn't resound with the kind of epic, driving music we would've expected. All in all, Conan suffers more from bland sound than it does from anything else; it's easily the low point of the entire production. The sayings during combat are both lame and repetitive, the voiceovers aren't bad but the cast doesn't live up to their talents, and the music is marginally effective. Considering we've had some unbelievable sound in recent titles - Heavenly Sword, for example - it's all the more obvious the sound here is lacking.
In this day and age, all developers tend to borrow successful concepts from other developers. Now, while we wouldn't say Nihilistic ripped off attributes from other action games like God of War, we will say the included features are awfully similar. First off, we've got a small semblance of the real-time button presses (they were called Context Sensitive Attacks) from GoW; when you block at just the right time, Conan can counter with a massive deathblow if you hit the prompted face button. Also, when opening doors or clearing paths, you will be given a simple set of button maneuvers, like continually pressing the Circle button and then pressing the analog stick up. You will also notice that gathering differently colored orbs - the red grants you experience, the green gives you health, etc. - is yet another feature you've certainly seen before, and even manning the giant crossbows in the game feels very déjà vu-ish. For the most part, there isn't anything in Conan you haven't seen before, and unfortunately, you've seen it done better.
However, that being said, while the polish and refinement really isn't there, the fun factor rarely falls below acceptable levels. The game moves along at a good pace and never forgets what it's supposed to be: a balls-to-the-wall (that's a nod to old-school metal band, Accept) action extravaganza that will make you grimace with joy. The basic controls are simple and straightforward, as the Square button is a fast yet light attack, the Triangle button is a slow yet powerful attack, the Circle button grabs an enemy, and the X button jumps. The R1 button is for actionable moves, like opening doors and picking up objects, the L1 button is used to parry, and the R2 and L2 buttons are used to throw whichever weapon you may have equipped at the time. The learning curve is barely 15 minutes long, but this combat system exhibits some nice variety and depth. It's hardly what you're going to find in the likes of Devil May Cry 4 or Ninja Gaiden 2, but it's similar to something like God of War 2. But make no mistake; the latter title, despite being on a last-gen console was far superior to Conan. SCEA did just about everything right, while Nihilistic did everything...well, kinda right.
The more experience you get, the more combos you will unlock, and there are plenty of those. Furthermore, the more flashy and powerful those combos are, the more pain you will inflict. It won't be very long before you've purchased dozens of effective combo attacks, and while some are definitely more useful than others, the overall balance remains good. But there's more good news. Not only do you have to unlock a variety of new attacks, you will have to use them in order to Master them. Once mastered, the combo is faster and more powerful, which means there's always plenty of incentive to experiment with freshly discovered combos. Better still, there are different combos for each of the three different fighting styles; single-wield with shield, dual-wield, and two-handed weapon (no shield). Unfortunately, the balance here isn't quite as good, as you can spend the majority of your time dual-wielding without running into any significant problems. Still, it's generally the most fun to dual-wield, anyway, so that's not exactly a big drawback. Besides, because you need to utilize different combo attacks to gain experience for them, the astute gamer will be switching off throughout. Last but not least, when you perform admirably, your blades will "sing the Song of Death," glow red, and rip even more mercilessly into the attacking hordes!
The game offers any player a decent challenge on Medium difficulty, but you won't be dying that often. While you will get hit quite a lot, there's always plenty of health around and the save points are well-positioned in every level. The final boss battle shouldn't even be mentioned (it's just a ridiculously frustrating disaster, plain and simple), but up until that point, you will face some relatively stiff challenges. At no point will you repeatedly die due to difficulty spikes, and while hardcore action fans will find Conan to be a walk in the park, most players will appreciate the game's accessibility. There's plenty to learn and always plenty of baddies to fight, so if you can overlook a few of the shortcomings, you're going to have plenty of fun. Those shortcomings do exist, though, and while we're still on a limb-hacking high, we have to be all professional and mention them. Yeah, it's a downer, I know, but don't you want the truth? Just remember- none of the following cripples the gameplay, which means most all these complaints, while somewhat numerous, are minor.
We'll run ‘em down for you- the controls are solid, although we got a little annoyed when trying to remove arrows from Conan's body. You press the R2 button to do this, but for some reason, you have to press pretty hard, and you can't be interrupted during the "withdrawal process." The camera is fixed, and while it works most of the time, it'll sometimes lose you in the intensity and speed of the action on screen. It was also somewhat difficult to understand a few of the button presses required for grappling maneuvers (so...we press both Parry and the Triangle button...but when, exactly?). Lastly, we experienced a strange problem when trying to jump over a simple ledge. If you run towards it and jump, you're fine. But if you're standing right at the ledge and try to jump over it, you'll only leap straight up. This may sound like nitpicking, but hey, we're being thorough, here. In the end, though, you'll be hacking and slashing with the best of them right from the start, and the only average sound, underwhelming visuals, and a few control idiosyncrasies can't ruin your experience. They didn't ruin ours.
Much of our play time was spent grinning in devilish glee at the absurd action that liberally splashed the screen with severe amounts of gore. Given this, we'd love to recommend the game, but the entire adventure will only last about 5-7 hours (depending on whether or not you smash the controller in a frightening outpouring of anger caused by the last boss). On top of this, there really isn't much of a reason to replay the game, which means spending $60 on a new copy isn't advisable. The camera works well (but it's not great), the sound effects are definitely lacking, the graphics are good but won't "wow" anyone, and the control isn't without its small issues. Hence, it simply doesn't have the next-gen polish we were looking for. On the other hand, there's a gigantic amount of blood, topless babes, one of popular culture's most awe-inspiring characters, and a downright silly amount of fighting throughout every minute of your quest. Conan is worth playing, but it's not worth the price of admission. Unless, of course, you want to rent it, which is exactly what we'd recommend for most people. But on the other hand, if you're a big fan of simple, bloody action games and would relish a second - or third - play-through, than Nihilistic has a gem for you.
For the rest of us, it's fun - really, it's a guilty pleasure worth experiencing - but not amazing.
11/12/2007 Ben Dutka