Conan (PlayStation 3) review
"You'll realize that early on, as you're ascending a crumbling tower in your quest to destroy a rampaging dragon. Along the way, you'll face his fire-breathing muzzle at several turns. Each time, the strategy is the same: dodge his attacks, then retaliate with some sword strokes. After several such instances, the developers threw in a little variety, and in the end it's not your sword that spells the dragon's doom but rather the available architecture. It's one of the game's highlights (along with a similar battle with a mammoth and later one with a giant squid), but somehow it doesn't feel like quite enough."
As Conan opens, the eponymous hero is brutally slashing his way through an eerie temple populated by spirits and animated statues. With blade-scarred marble walkways behind him, the barbaric anti-hero crushes all in his path with powerful swipes of his jagged sword. At last he stands in front of a warped carving. Its gruesome visage towers above him. The warrior pauses only a second before dismantling it with a fierce blow. As stone crumbles and a gaping hole materializes beneath the statue's base, it becomes clear that something has gone awry. In seconds, Conan is tossed backwards and into the rising water now flooding the chamber. The jewel he hoped to find turned out to be something else entirely.
You'll witness the surprise as an active participant. Conan eases players into the swing of things quite nicely, with a hallway full of specters that fall easily to your sword, even as you learn the basics of combat. By the time you reach the end of the area, you should be quite comfortable with the moves at your immediate disposal. Mostly they amount to simple strokes of the sword--fast, slower and slowest--that can be chained together to form special moves once you've unlocked them. You're also capable of blocking and then striking back with a timed and bloody assault of your own. That's about it, so it doesn't take long to master everything... and to tire of it.
At its heart, Conan is much like any other recent action title. It clearly owes much to God of War. That much is perhaps to be expected. Conan is the perfect avatar for a carnage-filled romp through a fantasy world. Why slash weakly when you can skewer your opponent against the face of a stone cliff? Why lop off a head when you can jump into the air, then swing your sword mallet-like as you cleanly slice your foe in half on your descent? That design philosophy fuels the entire game. The problem is that Conan doesn't do much to take it further. As you play through the adventure, you'll find for the most part that it follows conventions and is content to stop there. Thus, it lacks the emotional impact of another God of War imitator, Ninja Theory's Heavenly Sword.
Consider an early boss encounter. Conan enters an arena as leering warriors gather on a cliff above him. A bald, beastly fellow in spiked armor shouts at his men to descend upon the barbarian, and so they do. Then you cleave them nicely, mostly relying on the same few moves (or perhaps just one move, if you're not feeling particularly industrious). Bodies form morbid piles and finally the last rival remaining is the largest. He jumps down to your level, where you proceed to take him apart in much the same way you did his hapless crew.
That perhaps doesn't sound so bad, except it's only been a few months since we did the same thing in Heavenly Sword. The battles might as well be identical, except that Nariko's adventure in that other game was more memorable thanks to the blubbering of her opponent as she hacked at his armor, followed by a series of body blows that shook the whole arena while rubble poured down around them. That sort of stuff (complete with timed button presses during the cinematic bits) happens occasionally in Conan, but the developers seem stingier about it. They clearly want to provide the sense that the stakes are increasing with each new stage, to ratchet up the difficulty and grandeur the deeper you progress in your quest. They accomplish all of that, but the first few areas suffer because of it.
Despite the occasional misfire like the encounter referenced above, the best bits of the game are easily the boss battles. They're the one thing that might inspire you to play through the game multiple times. You'll realize that early on, as you're ascending a crumbling tower in your quest to destroy a rampaging dragon. Along the way, you'll face his fire-breathing muzzle at several turns. Each time, the strategy is the same: dodge his attacks, then retaliate with some sword strokes. After several such instances, the developers threw in a little variety, and in the end it's not your sword that spells the dragon's doom but rather the available architecture. It's one of the game's highlights (along with a similar battle with a mammoth and later one with a giant squid), but somehow it doesn't feel like quite enough. Each time the developers conceive a really good idea, they repeat it so many times that it loses its charm before they're ready to let you continue on to the next surprise. The levels are particularly guilty of wearing out their welcome, since you'll fight so many waves of soldiers and solve the same puzzles several times.
Perhaps to counter the redundancy, the developers also added women to the mix. Conan's main companion throughout much of the quest is a saucy archer lady who sports the definition of an hourglass figure and isn't afraid to slink around her ship to demonstrate. That's not the end of it, though. As Conan wanders the stages, he'll find branches in the path that lead to a few extra enemy encounters and sometimes a near-naked woman shackled to a tree or other bit of the landscape. He can then defeat her guardians and cleave the nasty chains that keep her captive. She'll rise to her feet, stick her rump in the air, then stand to her full height and sway back and forth as her naked breasts soak up the sunlight.
Nipples don't quite save the game from tedium, though, and neither do the various puzzles you'll encounter. Littered throughout each stage are glistening circles that will prompt you to press a button. Once you do, you'll need to enter other commands. For example, you might need to roll a massive boulder down the hill so that it can demolish scaffolding where an archer awaits. This could entail any combination of analog stick movements and rapid button mashes. If you don't do everything in time, you get to try again without penalty. If you succeed, it's on to the next such diversion later in the stage. As such, the 'puzzles' simply involve moving from one button-fest to the next. It starts to wear thin, especially since you trigger such routines whenever you want to pass through one of the many heavy doors that block access to new portions of Conan's world. Did the developers really think that would be fun?
Conan isn't particularly long, so it can't afford to devote so much time to the mundane and the repetitive. You'll likely cruise through it in around six hours. By the time you reach the closing credits, all of the unlockable artwork is yours, and probably most of the special moves you can earn. There's little reason to keep playing except to relive the spectacular boss battles on a higher difficulty level, except that means suffering through waves of dull soldiers again (a prospect many players are likely to find daunting).
There are many words one might use to describe Conan the Barbarian: swarthy, brutal, aggressive, greedy... The one word you wouldn't likely use is 'dull.' It's a shame, then, that the very term you wouldn't apply to the timeless anti-hero is so apt a description for much of his game. Despite the lack of originality in its design, Conan had the potential to be a new console classic. Sometimes the amazing boss battles come along and it almost feels like it is. There are too many stumbles along the way, though, and it's clear that what we ultimately got is a proficient but generic action title that was already outclassed by its peers before it even arrived in stores. The jewel we hoped we'd found isn't here after all.
Staff review by Jason Venter (November 07, 2007)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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