Conan the Cimmerian – PC Review

The principle behind games based on licensed characters
such as Conan is that they give players a chance to inhabit
the world and the life of those characters. So, for instance,
Batman lets players “be” Batman, with all his skills, gadgets and
enemies, just as Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis allows
players to “become” Steven Spielberg’s famous archaeologist. Interestingly enough, Conan the Cimmerian is unusual in that
Conan starts the game not as the proficient, sword-wielding barbarian
of novel, comic book and movie renown, but as a peaceful
blacksmith living in domestic tranquility with his wife. This is
not the Conan one is accustomed to seeing — and though that
Conan develops in due course, it is only with the player’s assistance
that he does so. This betrays the designers’ interest in
doing something slightly different with the material than has been
done until now.
The game tells a lengthy origin story in an animated sequence
at the start of the game. Conan and his wife are leading an innocent
existence, he at the forge, she doing something on the
ground. (It looks as though she is doing the laundry, but since
Mrs. Conan wears the skimpiest of brass g-strings and her
husband a loincloth, there would not seem to be much
laundry to do.)
Suddenly, a band of marauders descends upon the village!
One of them shoots lightning bolts at Mrs. Conan, leaving
her sprawled, dead, on the ground. Another lays Conan out
flat with a blow from his mace. When Conan recovers and
finds the town in ruins, he resolves to carry out a vendetta
against the man responsible for the destruction of all he held
dear: Thoth Amon. Ominous drum roll, please.
So, as astute readers have already surmised, one spends
the first half of the game bringing Conan up to speed. This involves
finding a mentor to hone Conan’s combat skills, tracking
down weapons and magic items suitable to his new life
as a mercenary and amassing forces to lead against the
nefarious Thoth Amon (James Earl Jones, in the movie).
The second half of the game consists of a collection of
quests on which Conan is sent from the central city of
Shadizar. Once Conan has completed these quests, he is
ready to face Thoth Amon himself in a climactic showdown.
The use of a big chunk of the game for “creating” Conan is
an interesting device. It permits a certain amount of plot and
character development in what might otherwise be a static
series of mini-adventures. Granted that much of this development
will be familiar to players from Conan’s previous incarnations;
but if it is familiar, at least it is also faithful, visually
and in spirit, to its sources.

Conan the Geographer
Conan takes place across the entire continent of Hyborea.
A world map gives an overview of the quest sites; as one progres
ses in the game, the map fills in with new locations. Thoth
Amon’s city, Tarantia, is on the map from the start, but cannot
be entered until the end of the game. This provides a nice goad
for the player and a constant reminder of the overriding mission
that ties all of Conan’s disparate agendas together.
Actual gameplay takes place both on Ultima-style street and
wilderness maps and on Karateka-style combat and interaction
screens. A very basic menu of commands is available at each of
these levels, as well as a point-and-click interface that calls up uni
que sub-menus for different types of interactions.
The choices available in any encounter are extremely limited.
The only permanent commands are Inventory, Status and the
generic “Action.” Most sub-menus have only two or three choices
(Converse/Attack/Done, Yes/No), and combat consists of the following
commands: Left, Right and Attack.
By the end, one can use a grand total of three different attacks
Swing, Thrust and Chop — but Conan starts the game only
able to Swing. (Stop smirking.)
The result is a game caught somewhere in the middle between
action and role-playing. It is perhaps the most rudimentary roleplaying
game ever made, cutting down to the bare bones the
complexities of a Might and Magic or an Ultima. (There are
magic items, but no spells; there are a variety of weapons, but
most seem to be swords.) On the other hand, Conan clearly is
not primarily an action game, for two reasons: first, because the
game has plenty of CRPG-style puzzles to solve, some of which
are quite ingenious (how to kill an undead king who cannot be
harmed by Conan’s weapons, for instance), and second, because
the action is not very good.
In fact, the game’s major drawback is not its lack of complexity
in the role-playing area — Conan is not a difficult game (it is,
simply put, “fun”), but features endless, repetitive and poorly
animated action sequences that detract from the overall entertainment
value. Unfortunately, every street and path in the game
teems with enemies who will attack Conan at the drop of a helm.
Then, each such encounter is played out as a side-view struggle,
with Conan and his foe raining blows on each other with all their
might. The characters are well-drawn, but since they are so large
(usually seen as a “plus” in the videogame world), there is little
room for maneuvering.
As combat continues, “life-meters” at the base of the screen indicate
each character’s declining stamina in conventional
arcade-game fashion. Thus, combat
tends to be a matter of finding an attack that
will penetrate a given character’s defenses
(“Thrust” seems to work well in most cases)
and letting him have it over and over again.
Worst of all, the graphics do not reflect the action
that is going on. None of the characters
react to being hit, except for collapsing when
dead, and hits are sometimes scored even
when little or no on-screen contact has been
made. So, after the first dozen battles, one gets
tired of going through the motions, even though the game does
offer a variety of enemies and, once, an interesting ally (a Norse
god).
The quests get gradually more difficult as one goes on, mainly
by taking place in larger areas populated by increasingly
dangerous foes. Whenever Conan dies, the game offers tips on
how he might have done better and resurrects him. This gives
players plenty of chances to finish the game. Needless to say,
there is also a Save Game feature so that armchair barbarians
can take a rest between bouts of hacking and slashing.
Despite this, however, many players will not be able to finish
Conan — not because of Hyborea’s evil-doers or because they
will tire of the game (it is rather addictive, actually), but because
of some serious bugs in the program. In the end, it is not the impregnability
of Tarantia but plain old programming flaws that
present Conan with his greatest challenge.
Conan the Bughunter
One does not want to make too much of these bugs since they
will presumably be fixed in future releases of the game. (Virgin
is aware of them and claims to have corrected replacement disks
available.) However, for the record, players of the original version
should be prepared for some difficulty moving Conan around.
At the start of the game, in Shadizar, the problem is limited to
Conan getting “stuck” against corners of buildings. The top-down
perspective is such that when Conan tries to walk behind or past
a building, he sometimes cannot, because the part of his body
that the building should obscure bumps up against it instead.
This leads to a lot of backtracking after getting Conan stuck in
spots which one does not expect to present any navigational
problem.
Later in the game, however, the problem gets really bad, with
Conan getting stuck on outstretched tree branches and the like.
It gets to the point where one periodically navigates Conan into
positions he simply cannot get out of, at which point there is no
choice but to re-boot. Even if one manages to avoid such unintentional
traps (a matter of luck, really), the constant backtracking
and retracing of one’s steps becomes unbearable.
These are not the only problems in the game, either. Perhaps
the most embarrassing involves the copy-protection scheme — a
set of runes printed at the top of each page of the instruction
manual — which is snafu’d by not one but two blunders. Not
only is an incorrect set of runes printed on the very first page of
the manual, but the errata sheet correcting this mistake itself contains
an error!
Obviously, more care was needed prior to this package’s
release. However, Virgin is supposed to be correcting the
problems now, so that future players will be spared the frustration
this reviewer had to deal with.
Conan the Aesthete
Unlike the player, whom the game could treat
better, the character of Conan himself is wellserved
by Conan the Cimmerian. The game’s
graphics portray him as hale, tanned and
strong-thewed, nearly living up to the magnificent
Boris Vallejo painting on the package.
Hyborea is richly detailed and well laid out, with
rooftops and underground caverns to explore in
addition to “street-level” locations. In fact, some
of the graphics are as grim and violent as anything
put into a computer game in order to
portray the dark universe of the late Robert E. Howard as authentically
as possible. For example, the opening frame includes a
severed head, so gamers should be fairly warned or tantalized, as
the case may be. Further, the music in the game, full of brooding
melodies and stirring war cries, is both satisfying and appropriate
to the dark fantasy milieu, as well.
Fans of Conan will find a great deal to like about this game. It
is clever enough to challenge the wit without being a hardcore
CRPG, and it offers all the sweat and blood a devoted Robert E.
Howard reader could ask for. Though the characters’ motivations
are never even two-dimensional — Thoth Amon kills Conan’s wife
because he is the villain and that is what villains do — this is a
weakness in the Conan canon in general, not just this game.
(Not just Conan, either. See also Tarzan, Gor, and John Jakes’
Brak the Barbarian.)
If barbarian adventuring is what one seeks, Conan the Cimmerian
provides a refreshingly uncomplicated, unrefined and
vigorous example. This is steaming, juicy violence at its most
basic, with all of that genre’s redeeming and unredeeming
qualities.
At least, unlike most games of this ilk, Virgin has taken a stab
at making Conan a creature of flesh and blood, rather than just
another bunch of testosterone-tinted pixels. By letting players participate
in the birth of their hero, an added layer of interest, if not
actual depth, takes shape. Nietzsche it ain’t, but Howard it is!

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