Version tested: Xbox 360
I've just untied a female slave from a tree and she doesn't have much to cover her modesty. Her alarmingly inflated breasts are bouncing excitedly in the jungle air, while all that stands between the cruel elements and her delicate minnie-moo is a slender scrap of cloth roughly the size of a child's sock.
A very small child's sock.
Despite her inappropriate attire, and the fact that she's been tied to a tree by lusty pirates and presumably manhandled something rotten, she doesn't seem too upset with her situation. In fact, she seems quite...excited. "Oooh! Where are my clothes?" she purrs, arching her back and jiggling those painstakingly rendered bosoms in my direction. Needless to say, I've only got one thing on my mind: please don't let my wife walk in right now.
They say Americans don't do irony, yet this hilariously adolescent slash-em-up has been rated M for Mature in the US. Clearly, there's precious little maturity on display here but what is on display is a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet of blood, guts, boobs, blood, guts and a bit more blood. And boobs. One of the first combos you unlock allows you to slice both an assailants arms off, leaving them writhing and spurting on the floor, and it only gets more bloodthirsty from that point on. Heads fly off, torsos are bisected, intestines are yanked out with bare hands. Following even the smallest skirmish, the ground is awash with blood and severed body parts. Mature? Heck no. Stupid fun? Oh yes.
Of course, this horny hyper-violence is all perfectly in keeping with the reactionary wish-fulfilment of Robert E. Howard's barbarian saga. The Conan of this game is a swaggering muscle on legs, a warrior, thief and adventurer who seemingly craves only sex and violence. No time for driving enemies before you or listening to "da lamentations of der vimmin" here. The plot, for what it's worth, is little more than an excuse to keep changing the scenery and enemies while introducing a range of magical attacks as our burly hero reclaims the bits of his enchanted armour from hulking end of level bosses. Although there are a couple of obvious energy-style attacks, the more outlandish armour powers - such as releasing a horde of angry ravens to tear your foes apart - are worth waiting for.
What depth the game has comes in the form of a three-tiered combat system, with hundreds of unlockable attack moves divided between three fighting methods: single weapons, dual-wielding and grappling. Successful fighting and the occasional treasure chest grant you experience points, which can be saved up or traded in for new attacks at any time. As with every other game of this type, you can concentrate on developing one style, or spread your skills evenly for maximum flexibility. The combo sequences are often the same between the two sword fighting styles, with only the resulting assault changing, so it's not the most technical brawler on the market. If you can string together five button presses you've got ample finger dexterity for Conan.
The game is generous with the experience points, generally doling out enough to purchase at least five new attacks per level to start with, so the emphasis is clearly on keeping players engaged through escalating carnage. Those weaned on Ninja Gaiden or God of War may prefer to head straight for the hardest difficulty settings, but while you can unleash combo after combo, there's no ability to chain your attacks meaning that brutal hack and slashing (in conjunction with a lot of blocking) gets the job done more often than not. Health refills are common - either from destroyed scenery, dismembered foes or glowing jars of wine that Conan gulps down heartily. However, rather than topping your health up immediately, these convenient beverages simply release floating green health icons which slowly home in your position. In the middle of a large melee, it's easy to get cut down while swigging or waiting for the swirling health top-ups to finish floating around the screen and actually, you know, heal you.
But such quirks are to be expected, as Conan is a very videogamey videogame, and few arcade action clichés go unused. Boss battles are a predictable and lengthy process of blocking repeated attack patterns and chipping away at their health. There are occasional puzzles and one-off action sequences - or at least moments where you have to stab buttons and twizzle joysticks to pull levers, operate crossbow turrets or topple pillars - but this really isn't a game where you'll spend much time wondering what you need to do next.
Graphically, the game is slick but functional. Conan himself has retained just enough Arnie to please most fans, but not so much that THQ need to worry about a visit from the Governator's lawyers. His voice comes courtesy of genre legend Ron Perlman, and his gravely tones hit just the right cheesy note to sell the florid dialogue, sort of halfway between wrestling smacktalk and the cod Shakespearean twaddle of Stan Lee's early Thor comics.
Elsewhere, sadly, the presentation can be patchy. Enemy character models are repeated to tedious effect, while the abundance of smashable crates and urns hardly suggests fresh thinking. The environments look better, with some nice lighting effects, but they're still plagued by invisible walls that keep you on a linear path as crudely as they did in 1995. When the road does diverge, you instinctively know that one path will be a dead end, laden with bonus goodies, with the other leading to the next designated brawling spot.
But just when the bitter tang of disappointment at the rote mechanics of the game start to creep in, the stylised visuals cohere into a rather enticing approximation of the famous Conan artwork by Frazetta or Vallejo. A little bit hazy, a touch crude around the edges, but definitely epic and iconic with a painterly scope. Fans of the character, and those artists, will definitely be impressed. When this happens, the deliberately over the top violence combines with generic but solidly crafted gameplay to create a shamelessly visceral experience that's simple enough to be accessible while remaining true to the pulp source material. It may not be clever, but it offers as much bloodthirsty fun as you'd expect from an 18-rated barbarian slash-em-up.
Conan doesn't set its sights high enough to set anyone's world on fire, and there's not really enough meat on the bone to recommend an immediate full price purchase, but it is a well-paced and generally satisfying hunk of tongue-in-cheek gory action. The lack of real depth to the combat engine means it'll never match up to the standard of its loftier genre peers, and the absence of any co-op or multiplayer mode in a game this demented is inexcusable, but it does make for a more shamelessly enjoyable blade-swinging romp than the similar but oh-so-dull Heavenly Sword. And it has more naked boobs. Always a plus.
7 / 10