There’s a recurring theme running through games featuring Conan the Barbarian. Almost every one adopts the gory and gruesome style of Robert E. Howard’s original character. The sole exception being the 1984 side-scroller Conan: Hall of Volta for the Apple II, mostly because it’s difficult to create visual themes of macabre when you’re only possible colors are green and pink. Developer Funcom has been at the helm for several such games, from 2008’s Age of Conan to 2018’s Conan Exiles. In 2020, they’re taking the barbarian in a completely new direction.
Conan Chop Chop may be the most playful iteration of Conan to date and Funcom are well aware of it. The game’s announcement trailer debuted at E3 2019 with a helping of satire, including quotes like “it’s a game that almost definitely isn’t real but probably should be” (Kotaku) and “it looks kind of fun actually” (GamesRadar+). Originally slated for a late 2019 release, the game will now emerge on February 25, 2020. With just over a month to go, we got our hands on the first two chapters to see if the new Conan is better off bubbly than barbaric.
Conan Chop Chop’s chibi art style and bright colors verge on adorable, reducing brutal murder into cutesy fun. Beneath that bubbly exterior is a tough and unforgiving dungeon crawler that requires patience and a bit of luck to beat.
Chop to it
Conan Chop Chop (which I will now refer to as simply Chop Chop because it’s fun to say) opens with the evil wizard Thoth-Amon unveiling his plan to lure Conan and his friends to him. Once there, he will resurrect the ancient evil Xaltotun and have it possess them, turning his greatest foe into his ally. That’s as much backstory as we got to sample, and it's clear that Chop Chop prioritises gameplay over plot.
You’re dropped straight into the game’s town hub, where you can spend your starting coins on something small - a better weapon or shield, some useful items or stat boosts. From there, you can set off in any direction into Chop Chop’s world. Whichever way you go, the aim is simple: kill enemies, collect gold, upgrade your character, find dungeons and defeat the boss. There are four dungeons spread across Chop Chop’s four realms, each with a different environment and enemies. We only got to sample two dungeons, but I imagine beating all four will take you to Thoth-Amon for the final battle.
Chop Chop’s premise may be plain, but progression is a challenge. The game is a self-proclaimed ‘rogue-lite’ with a procedurally-generated map and permadeath. Whether you last 5 minutes on your first run figuring out how to time your attacks, blocks, and dodges, or 75 minutes fighting your way to the final boss, losing sends you back to the start. Like, all the way back. No money, no upgrades, no dungeons completed. It sounds harsh, but once you get into the groove of Chop Chop, you’ll notice things that can make your quest easier and quicker.
When you die, you get a chance to use a high-level item in your next attempt. If that happens to be a weapon, it can drastically alter how quickly you dispatch enemies. This comes down to luck, as do a lot of your upgrades. New weapons, shields, armor and items seem to be randomly generated and the only way to unlock something new is to buy something on offer. So, if your only options are three expensive swords, you’re going to be stuck with your base-level feather duster of a weapon until you get enough cash. You’ll want to save up, too, as the difference between high-level and low-level weapons is night and day.
Conan Chop Chop and friends
The biggest time-saver in Chop Chop isn’t in the game, but out in the real world. Up to three other players can join in on the action for maximum mayhem. For me, finding three friends to play with is harder than fighting Thoth-Amon with a soggy slice of bread. But four-player co-op sets the pace at which Chop Chop feels like it’s meant to be played. Ranged combat and flanking enemies start to play a factor, letting you breeze through rooms without losing a sense of challenge. Other rooms will down three of you, leaving the sole survivor to pull off last-ditch heroics to prevent everyone returning to the main menu. I didn’t attempt a dungeon boss alone but I imagine it would take high-level weapons and incredible patience to succeed without help. It seems abundantly clear that Conan Chop Chop is meant to be played with friends.
However, some of the troubles from single-player are still present (and some even worse) with additional players. The number of enemies doesn’t change whether playing solo or with friends. So the more of you there are, the thinner the money is spread, making those high-tier weapons even harder to unlock. There are possible workarounds - agreeing to let one player take all the cash or even dying to let them pickpocket your change - and there’s always the option to grind through lower-level enemies. However, these feel like choresome tasks that interrupt the otherwise fun and frantic pace that Chop Chop achieves with four players on one screen.
Ironing out the kinks
With a month to go before release, there are a couple question marks beyond design choices. Locations like dungeons, heart containers, and shops have icons that pop up on the map when you discover them (or you can buy a map to instantly reveal them, which can save you time during later runs). The Town icon doesn’t show up, however, which caused me to get lost on my early runs until I remembered that "this" particular green square is your base and not any of the other 35 green squares. Sometimes enemies manage to hit you immediately upon entering an area, leaving no time to block or dodge. At one point, this meant that we couldn’t revive a downed player caught in the inhabitable tundra environment. There was also one instance of a game-breaking bug that made our characters invisible, forcing us to restart from the beginning.
Ultimately, though, these are small problems in an early version of the game. Hopefully they’re simple fixes that can be rectified before launch, if they haven’t already.
Looks can be deceiving
When we’d gotten into a rhythm, clearing two dungeons took us a little over an hour. So, a complete runthrough is sure to get the blood flowing and tensions high. The randomness of weapons and items could be tweaked, but there is an argument to be made that chance improves replayability, creating even harder runs for experienced players. Regardless, Conan Chop Chop is Conan the Barbarian as you’ve never seen him before - replacing ferocious bloodshed with cute, lighthearted fun. Don’t let its appearance fool you, Chop Chop is a bloody tough outing.
TechRaptor played a preview build of Conan Chop Chop on PC with a copy provided by the developer. Conan Chop Chop releases February 25th on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch.