Conan The Barbarian, much like most franchises that have at one some point or another based their success on the boisterous muscles of Arnold Schwarzenegger, are at their best when they’re not taking themselves seriously.
Sure, one could point at the Robert E. Howard’s high fantasy Hyborian Age and proclaim the warring factions and political turmoil of a world ravaged by old gods and dark magic as a conduit for some serious storytelling, but as the years have progressed, Conan has gradually become more and more campy, doubling down on the formula that made the original stories published in Weird Tales so enthralling.
It’s knowingly silly, never asking the audience to think on things such as consequences and trauma, but rather revel in a big axe hitting a large sand worm very hard. Its shows a self-awareness within the franchise itself, giving people what they want out of Conan The Barbarian without sacrificing what unique aspects the world contains. It’s something that Conan Chop Chop keeps at the forefront of its playbook, doubling down on the silliness of the Conan franchise while also trying to deliver an engaging experience for those of us who weren’t enamoured with the punishing strategy of Conan Unconquered or the bountiful genitals of Conan Exiles.
In striving to deliver a game that bears the ferocity of the Conan brand whilst also serving as a more accessible take on years and years established (and often complicated lore), Conan Chop Chop ditches the sand-blasted corpses and scantily-clad women for an aesthetic that’s more in line with Cyanide and Happiness, the hyper-successful webcomic. While it can be easy to point at Chop Chop’s art style and proclaim it as “childish”, I think that would be a disservice to the game. It’s doing double duty in the art department as it attempts to replicate the style of dungeon crawling roguelikes like The Binding of Isaac while translating the grim fantasy of Hyboria. It’s charming and easy on the eyes in a genre that can be notoriously convoluted to look at, especially when the actions start escalating.
As much as I love The Binding of Isaac I could easily abandon the muddied, dark tones of that game for the clear, distinct visual appearance of Chop Chop. While more serious Conan fans will no doubt begrudge the lack of “grit” within the game, I never had a problem with it’s aesthetic. It’s the natural progression of Conan’s campiness: Self-satire.
Playing through the game’s demo, which allowed progress up to and through the first two dungeons, I was surprised at how difficult it was. By appearances alone I expected Chop Chop to be “baby’s first roguelike”, something which I was punished for very quickly. Enemies attack quickly and in droves, with the hits draining your life faster than I would have imagined. That being said, those deaths were largely due to my underestimations rather than any severe difficulty. Sure, the game is challenging but all the tools to excel at it are right there in front of you, just asking to be learnt.
Spending gold on better weapons and items, picking up heart cannisters (ALA The Legend of Zelda) to expand your health and learning the patterns of enemy behaviour is all one really needs to grasp…and then the game becomes disappointingly easy. Nearly all melee weapons attack in exactly the same way with varying degrees of damage or reach and most enemies can be dealt with by mashing the attack button and occasionally holding up a shield. You could use your bow or maybe some bombs but due to the way enemies move, it’s usually far more efficient to just whack them with the long end of a staff.
What makes the combat even less engaging is the ability to heal up whenever you want with little repercussion. Okay, perhaps that’s a hyperbole, but one thing that makes for a great roguelike game is the stakes being high from the start and only escalating the longer you survive. While exploring the overworld, players can retreat to the main starting town and refill their health at a sacred fountain whenever their health drops dangerously low.
Chop Chop’s gameplay excels whenever dungeons come into the fray, restricting your ability to exit once you stumble cautiously through. All of these dungeons have a procedurally generated layout with a consistent final boss at the end. Unable to retreat at will means you must prepare because those bosses pack a huge punch, meaning you’ll need to decide whether you really need that upgraded shield or if it would be better to purchase healing items instead.
It’s when Chop Chop doubles down on the roguelike elements that the game feels much more rewarding, it’s just annoying that those dungeons are split up through an overworld that eventually becomes trivial to traverse, despite the variations in layout and necessity to gain certain items that make exploring more dangerous areas possible.
So maybe that’s why I felt slightly…indifferent after completing Conan Chop Chop’s demo, something which I can reflect on now as being unfair towards the game. I play a lot of roguelike games and I expect at least a little complexity in how they play. Dense combat systems, run-altering items, enemies that act as a decent challenge to a player growing in skill and power and yet Chop Chop felt oddly devoid of these things.
Nearly all enemies can be defeated with the same strategy, weapons all feel the same and items never really felt like a meaningful investment or discovery. At one point, I was ready to write this game off as simplistic…but that would be wrong. Conan Chop Chop isn’t simplistic…it’s simple. We’ve barely kicked this year off and we’re into the semantic differentiations. I’ll give myself a pat on the back for consistency.
Chop Chop is simple because it wants to be just that: A roguelike that’s fun and accessible for players who might not have a great deal of experience with the genre. It’s a matter of priorities, and I believe that Chop Chop places more emphasis on the fun of co-op play than the roguelike experience. Which is totally fine and even welcome!
Ever tried playing Gungeon with someone unfamiliar with roguelikes? It sucks! It’s really unenjoyable as you have to focus on playing and teach at the same time. Conan Chop Chop doesn’t have that problem, offering a game that’s easy to understand and play without knowledge of the genre. Those roguelike elements are present, but never convoluted to such an extent that they feel like a pain. Not simplistic to the point of redundancy, but simple to the point of accessibility.
It’s through that frame I mind that I came to enjoy Conan Chop Chop. This isn’t a game for those players that want a tough-as-nails roguelike hack-and-slash; that was never the point of it. Chop Chop was always about providing players with an experience that’s low stakes but also challenging in its own right, bundled in a lovely, if somewhat thin, Conan The Barbarian blanket and in that regard it succeeds with its war banner flying proudly.
Last Updated: January 23, 2020