An age of steel, blood and fire. A land of adventure, where danger lurks behind every corner and untold riches are guarded by monsters of a world drenched in magic. Any way you slice, Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian is one of the finest properties to explore in video games. Here is a character and a world, begging to be given another chance to swing his sword and lop the head off of another beast in some dank cave for another action game experience.
And we’ve seen that! Over the years, Conan has ventured out to new platforms, publishers and development teams, building a legend along the way and cementing his legacy as one of the greatest exports that the fantasy genre has to offer action games. But could you ever imagine Conan taking the spotlight…in a strategy game?
It’s not too far fetched an idea. The very concept of having the iconic barbarian commanding an army and building an empire amidst the wastelands of the Hyborean Age is an intriguing idea, one that developer Petroglyph Games has taken and spun into Conan Unconquered. It’s the blade of Conan and countless warriors, combined with your tactical mind to create a game that isn’t so much about taking territory, but more about spilling blood on the sand and fighting to stay free.
Yes, Conan Unconquered has unashamedly pinched several ideas from last year’s zombie apocalypse strategy darling They Are Billions, but at the same time, Petroglyph has managed to take that overt inspiration and spin it into an experience which has its very own flavour and style. Gone are the zombies creeping around the map, replaced instead by dens of bandits and caves filled with scorpions who’ll laugh off your mightiest attack as your blade bounces off of their chitin armour.
There’s no denying the influence of They Are Billions on Conan Unconquered, but where Numantian Games set a bar with their new take on real-time strategy, Petroglyph Games have managed to forge their own path in the infant survival-strategy genre. Much like its primary source of influence, Conan Unconquered tasks you with building a defence against the ever-escalating hordes of bandits and gods who’ll come knocking on the door of your fortress as time wears on.
What begins with a mob of unruly spear-chuckers quickly evolves into all-out war as entire cavalry regiments, gigantic swarms of spiders and ancient demons descend on your base, all with an appetite for destruction. The trick here is to find a specific groove of resource gathering and base construction. There are dozens and dozens of backs that need to be scratched, each new building requiring you to micro-manage an economy of various resources as you grow your defences and shore up for the incoming wave of destruction.
Hovels generate gold with which you can hire troops, hunter shacks provide food for your new citizens and newly recruited soldiers have a salary to see to with every tick of the clock. It’s a simple idea on the surface, but one that gets more complex and requires deft mental gymnastics to keep track of the more you build and manage while a horde of barbarians attempt to introduce your face to the business end of a mace.
In many ways, Conan Unconquered is the bloodiest lesson in accounting you could ever hope for. Where Petroglyph raises the bar on their game, is by throwing extra hurdles at players that feel perfectly suited to the world of Conan Unconquered. You always know when a horde is about to descend on you thanks to a creeping timeline of doom that forces existential dread on you as you realise that you may not be equipped to survive the inevitable, and even the sturdiest walls may not be enough to keep enemies out of your base.
Its decisions like that which make for a far more reactive game overall. Little attacks, like a bandit setting your walls on fire or your troops being poisoned while they battle a dread necromancer who hurls arcane spells at them, makes for a more exciting game between the moments when you pause and take stock of what needs to be done.
Even better, Conan Unconquered throws in its own campaign mode, although this trek through the Black Colossus inspired saga works more as a puzzle box of preparation that primes you for the meat and potatoes survival mode, than a dedicated slice of narrative. It’s still good stuff though, reinforced by moments of betrayal and key figures in the lore who serve as mid and final bosses during some of the ultimate attack waves.
Conan himself is a playable character, a hero who can grow in power and unleash devastating whirlwinds of steel, cutting down early mobs with ease. Like any other hero, he works best when he has an expendable army of sell-swords flanking him and providing protection against ancient titans who’ll take offence to your worship of more perfectly Crom-ulent gods.
If there’s another area of design that Conan Unconquered excels at, it’s a user interface that makes for a more fluid and organic tactical experience as you easily shuffle between battle, base management and repairs during the thick of battle. It’s a subtle but massively important addition to the game, providing you with the right amount of information on your base, units and enemies at any given time.
Throw all of that in a blender, and you’ve got a pretty appealing single-player game, right? Right! Only Conan Unconquered takes the idea a step further but also giving players an optional co-op mode. It makes for gripping gameplay, as you double down on the addictive turtling and assign your roles. Whereas one player can focus on fending off armies of Thugra Khotan whereas your partner prioritises base building and resource management for your growing war machine. Well, at least long enough until some Titan clobbers your entire colony for a six.
All this, in a game that has just reached Early Access. There may be some budgetary concerns and I’d like for a more varied selection of lines for my heroes to spout instead of listening to Conan tell soldiers to taste steel for the 663rd time, but there’s a whole lot of strategy, violence and depth to enjoy in Conan Unconquered as it consumes all of your free time.
A scrappy and bloody brilliant strategy game that builds further upon the idea of survival strategy, Conan Unconquered doesn’t stray too far from its primary influence but it does offer plenty of unique substance that gives it its very own flavour. Now that, is what is best in life.
Last Updated: May 29, 2019