Release Date: May 29, 2019Platform: PCDeveloper: PetroglyphPublisher: FuncomGenre: Real-time Strategy
Petroglyph Games was founded by a group of Command and Conquer vets, who used the experience they gained making that all-time classic to craft Conan Unconquered, a survival RTS heavily inspired by one of the new standard-bearers for the genre, 2017’s They Are Billions. The game tasks players with fortifying a base at the center of a map as they grow and manage resources, explore the shrouded surroundings, and expand their forces to contend with the increasingly formidable enemy hordes descending from all angles.
Like They Are Billions, Conan employs a sink-or-swim philosophy, giving you lots of tools but little guidance, forcing you to think on your feet, get creative, and add to your strategic IQ by losing (a lot) and learning from your mistakes. The difficulty level is extraordinarily high, but so long as you embrace the idea that failure is the greatest teacher (as a pint-sized Jedi once said in a somewhat unconventional speech pattern), the game is about as addictive as can be. Losing a match after sinking hours into building a gigantic army can be a deeply deflating moment, but feeling your skills grow and learning how to play smarter and more efficiently is fulfilling and fun and makes all of the hard work worth it.
The game’s loading screen strongly suggests a three-pronged approach to gameplay: Fortify, Explore, Expand. Unsurprisingly, this general strategy is the clearest path to victory, though implementing it in practice is easier said than done. Fortifying your base by tapping the food, wood, and minerals in your surroundings and using them to build protective and supportive structures feels easy enough—until a horde of spearmen spills into the one canyon you forgot to wall off. Exploring with Conan and a few melee and ranged units yields bonus resources, gold, and special items, and gains your soldiers experience, which is all well and good until you realize you’ve lost track of time and look at your minimap in despair as you helplessly watch a swarm of red dots devouring your base. Expanding seems easy enough at first—build toward choke points, block them off, make use of the new resources at your disposal—but when you realize the growth of your economy doesn’t match the rate of your expansion, resulting in negative income, you’re as good as dead.
The odds are perpetually stacked against you, but you’ve got a powerful set of tools at your disposal, so long as you know how to properly employ them. Your biggest advantage is time—you can pause the game at any time to gather yourself, start building, managing, and planning your next move. Taking advantage of the pause button is an absolute necessity since things tend to get really hectic really fast.
There are also several unit types available to train once you research them, from swordsmen and pikemen to cavalrymen, sorcerers, and more. And if you protect them and take them on enough adventures, they’ll gain veterancy, which makes them considerably more formidable.
You can build giant arrow turrets that shoot pesky bat demons out of the sky, build a veritable moat of spike traps to make minced meat of approaching enemies, upgrade your walls with braziers (which grant all nearby ranged units fiery projectiles), summon a towering god to stomp your enemies into a bloody paste. With enough investment in research, you can construct a booby-trapped stronghold that would make Kevin McCallister blush with envy.
Just make sure your big, bad superfort doesn’t catch fire, the deadliest adversary you’ll combat in the game. Whether an enemy hurls a flaming spear at your wall, a burning boulder sets your strongest units ablaze, or a raging fire demon makes it through your gates and burns your farms to the ground, you must always make it priority number one to have your soldiers put out the flames quickly, as a spreading fire can take your whole army down in mere minutes.
I had a rough go of it during my first handful of playthroughs, struggling to survive the first of the campaign’s five missions. But I stuck with it, and after a few more hours of trial and error, I began to feel more confident and was able to progress to the next stage—which was super hard and made me feel utterly incompetent all over again. It’s a brutal cycle that won’t be for everyone, but I found myself chasing after the exhilaration of a long, hard-fought victory. It’s sort of like eating spicy food—it hurts, but it’s a good hurt, and you can’t help but dive back in for more.
Petroglyph has been very open about They Are Billions being a source of inspiration for Conan Unconquered, and it shows. The core design is essentially identical, though there are certainly some notable differences. Conan feels a bit more intimate in scale than TAB and affords you a fully-voiced hero unit (Conan, as well as two other characters). The voice acting is hilarious, with Conan sometimes letting out a supremely annoyed “What?!” when you click on him and he impatiently awaits your command.
Exploration is also more of a focus here than in TAB and has an adventurous feel that encourages you to embark not just to find treasure and resources, but because it’s a blast scouring the Hyborian landscapes. Also, if you love violence, Conan is fittingly brutal—it’s strangely satisfying to watch Conan and his comrades eviscerate their foes, spilling blood and body parts across the battlefield. Speaking of mutilation (always delightful), another novel mechanic is that, as corpses pile up, you run the risk of your units catching disease, which can be the difference between you surviving or not surviving the next wave of baddies.
If there’s one feature that sets Conan Unconquered apart from its peers, it’s its co-op multiplayer mode. You can play the game online with a friend (or stranger, of course), which can be a lot of fun. One person can focus on venturing out to hunt down gigantic monsters (in turn earning rare items that grant invaluable special abilities), while the other continues to build out the base and collect resources. Or, one player can work on research and keep an eye on the money while the other concentrates on building a finely tuned army.
It’s really exciting and a little stressful seeing how your play style meshes with someone else’s. Sometimes the collaboration works, like when you find someone you communicate with really well. But there are also occasions when you and your partner just don’t jell. The biggest drawback of multiplayer is that, since anyone can pause the game, you have to make a sort of handshake agreement that when one person pauses, the other doesn’t unpause and let everything go to hell if, say, the pauser needs to step away for a minute. It’s kind of an unavoidable issue from the developer’s standpoint, but it’s worth noting that not being able to control pausing on your own terms can sometimes be irritating.
Solo play was ultimately what I enjoyed most. In addition to the campaign, there’s a level generator whose parameters can be set to your liking. Wave number, landscape density, and enemy frequency can all be adjusted. But one issue I found in this mode is that some of the procedurally-generated environments were problematic for the onscreen characters to navigate. On one occasion, I found about a dozen enemies on horseback, all galloping in place because they couldn’t fit through a narrow gap in the environment. They refused to go around this obstacle for some reason, which was nice in that it allowed me to easily graduate one of my newest units to veterancy by picking them off from the ridge just above them, but sort of zapped the challenge from that particular enemy wave in a disappointing way.
Conan Unconquered isn’t quite as polished or immaculately designed as They Are Billions, but it’s just as addictive and has more personality and attitude. It’s one of those games that can be so engrossing that you’ll lose track of time, which for me has always been the hallmark of a good RTS.
Bernard Boo is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.