Conan Unconquered opens with a cinematic where the title character laments over how weak civilization has made me, and that it’ll take unflinching soldiers to take on the horde of enemies piling up at the walls. Within 10 minutes of playing the first campaign mission, I was inclined to agree with this assessment. This game throws players right into the deep end of the pool and expects them to learn to swim or repeatedly die trying.
Real-time survival training
The game is, technically, a real-time strategy (RTS) game developed by Petroglyph Games, a studio comprised of many original Command & Conquer veterans who helped pioneer the genre in the 90s. In reality, it’s a mix of the MOBA and tower defense sub-genres. You can sum this up with the term “real-time survival.”
The gameplay is deceptively simple. You must level up your hero, gather resources, raise an army, and establish defenses. You’ll use this preparation to fend off waves of enemies who come with the single-minded goal of destroying your Keep. All technologies are available to you from the start, and all you have to do is build the right structures, figure out what everything does, and balance a resource economy to survive to the end. In the meantime, the hordes quickly ramp up in difficulty and arrive at your walls sooner.
My base was wiped out within a couple of waves of the first campaign level, and that was supposed to be an easy one. Things got better once I grew accustomed to the economic system and understood what some of the different technologies did. Nonetheless, it still remained incredibly challenging. It can be so difficult that I would describe it as being the Dark Souls of real-time strategy.
Unlike many other RTS titles that only require a one-time purchase of structures and units, almost everything in Conan Unconquered puts a continual drain on your economy. Your mercenary army needs to be paid, so you need to generate gold. Certain wall defenses need a steady supply of wood, so you need logging camps built near trees. Everyone needs to eat, so you need food. All the while, you must expand the borders of your base to acquire these resources, thereby making it more difficult to defend. Falling short on a critical resource could potentially stall out your game.
Eventually, all your hard work may lead to one inevitable outcome. Several high-powered armies will attack your walls from all directions at once until one manages to breach your defenses and try to lay waste to your base. Sometimes that means incredible losses from which there is no recovery, at which point you’ll probably get to watch the rest of the base get wiped out by a cloud of enemies so dense that you can’t even see the ground beneath them. Then it’ll be time to try again with a different tactic.
Expect to be defeated repeatedly until you can figure out the right build strategy to face-off against these ever-growing challenges.
Horde on fire
Conan Unconquered is less about building up a massive army and more about raising a handful of units to high veterancy so that they can take on massive armies. As such, there’s a ton of micro-managing involved, which is why the pause button and co-op mode are almost essential to enjoying it. A certain degree of masochism and determination also helps.
Once you get the hang of the economy, there are still plenty of factors that drastically reduce your chances of survival. Chief among these is fire.
As the loading screens explain, fire doesn’t care what it burns. In the world of Conan Unconquered, practically everything is flammable. That includes your wooden walls, your puny structures, and your soldiers. Upgrading to stone structures helps, but they too may catch fire at some point. By itself, fire isn’t a bad gameplay mechanic, but the problem is your units are simply awful at extinguishing them. There’s no obvious way to instruct your units to put out a fire across an entire wall or row of buildings, meaning that you must select and target each section individually. Upgrading walls is also done one section at a time, and you may find it hard to tell which parts need it. When all is said and done, you’ll be lucky to have everything fixed up before the next wave arrives.
The pathfinding AI may also take a nosedive as more units and objects crowd the screen. On several occasions, I tried to send units to reinforce an area, but they were confused by narrow passages. They didn’t know to walk through the small hole left in the broken wall, forcing me to waste time managing their every step.
Cooperative multiplayer is where the game truly shines because responsibilities can spread out across two people. One player can research one branch of technology while tending to one side of the base while the other player takes care of the other. Then they can reinforce each other when things get hairy. Playing cooperatively tends to be a little loose, since the players only share four resources. Each player must get the rest for themselves. But having two heroes available certainly makes a huge difference when fighting hordes of enemies.
Unfortunately, there’s no cooperative campaign, and randomly generated co-op maps can’t be saved for replay right now. You can only save single-player maps as challenges to share with others. That drags things down a bit, because I feel that it could have done much more with cooperative gameplay.
All risk, low reward
The solo campaign is currently comprised of five missions along with a random map generator mode. Each of these can feel like a Sisyphean ladder where you get pushed back to the bottom once you near the top. Even so, the missions don’t really build to much of a narrative apart from the short text descriptions for each level. Instead, they exist to help players grow accustomed to different aspects such as fire or dealing with diseases spread by corpses.
Discovering new ways to overcome overwhelming odds often is fun, especially if you can get giant god statues involved. The problem is that there’s no clear reason for enduring all this pain. Aside from some achievements and perhaps earning a spot on the leaderboards, there don’t appear to be any rewards for surviving through the punishing levels. Working toward practically anything would have been worthwhile. Additional heroes, temporary buffs, disposable items… anything. Hell, I would have even settled for some extra outfits, new environments, or quips for your heroes, since they’re limited to two or three lines each.
Conan Unconquered includes two characters, and two more come with the deluxe edition (we only cover the standard edition). One of the deluxe characters is a variation on Conan, so it’s unclear how differently he will play from the one that already exists. And even with the deluxe edition, the hero roster remains pretty low.
Crush your enemies, hear their laments
Even if you don’t usually play survival-type games, it’s easy to get hooked on the challenge this real-time survival game offers. Although it’s always fun to hunt down monsters and overcome overwhelming odds, there’s also a certain amount of joy in watching the horde come plowing through, destroying everything in their path. Especially when you’re playing alongside a friend.
However, without a reward system that goes far beyond self-congratulations and leaderboards, it’s hard to see Conan Unconquered‘s long-term appeal. The devs will need to update the game with additional content, or else it may quickly grow stale.
You can grab Conan Unconquered on Steam.