I don't think Robert E. Howard had much of a sense of humor about his work when he created the swords and sorcery spectacle that was Conan the Barbarian 90 years ago. But let's face it: Conan is kind of silly. Go watch the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie and tell me it's not. And I think that's part of why the cartoonish co-op roguelite Conan Chop Chop works pretty well. The fast paced, decently challenging, and unpredictable gameplay certainly doesn't hurt either, though.
Normally I might be put off by the exaggerated, whimsical visual style of a game like this, which would fit right in with any number of shallow strategy games on the app store. But it's clear to me that Mighty Kingdom knows the source material and isn't just trying to use the Conan name to put out something low effort. From nods to some of the thewy hero's classic foes to a responsive and exhilarating combat system that reminded me a fair bit of Hades, it's kind of like a good power metal album. It's over-the-top, humble enough to laugh at itself, but also has the technical chops to really shred if you accuse it of only being here to mess around.
You and up to three friends can take control of four cute but deadly barbarians, of which I had the most fun with the nimble archer Belit. She's geared toward ranged damage and dodge-rolling out of danger, so I could really use the whole battlefield to my advantage in the often chaotic and genuinely punishing boss fights. Pallantides is her opposite, holding the line with a sturdy shield. Camping behind your defenses can only get you so far, though. If you time your blocks as any character, you can parry and avoid all damage while deflecting projectiles or even stunning the enemy. Mechanics like this that show off the fact Chop Chop is very easy to get into but has a pretty high skill ceiling.
Conan and Valeria are another pair of opposites. Our Boi the barbarian will always land critical hits when on low health, while the deadly skirmisher fights best when her hearts are topped up. Knowing how to use all four of them in concert is something I didn't quite get the hang of during our short demo. But especially when you factor in special ultimate abilities, like Conan's propensity to go absolutely berserk, managing your supply of bombs and arrows, and randomized gear that can modify all of these things, the combinations seem practically endless.
I was also pleasantly surprised how sharp and responsive these fights felt. One other advantage of this art style is that everything is very readable (again, much like Hades). Parrying, attacking, and dodging feel great. The hitboxes on things like boss attacks were clear enough that I never felt like I got killed when I didn't deserve it. Some of the bosses are genuinely tough – this is definitely not a pushover, despite what the art style might have led you to believe!
Long-term progression is through skill points, which can add new abilities and other upgrades to specific characters that carry over between runs, and Steelfire, which unlocks new gear. Your gear and health upgrades will be reset every time you fail a run, but unlocked weapons, armor, and charms get added to the pool of available drops. So you'll start running into higher-level items even in early areas once you've spent a bit of Steelfire. Your overall goal is to defeat the four bosses guarding the gateway to a final showdown with Thoth-Amon, but in true roguelike fashion, you'll probably taste the agony of defeat a good many times before you get there.
Going in with few expectations, I was pleasantly surprised by the depth and overall fun factor of the combat in Conan Chop Chop. It seems like the kind of game it would be great to play with a few friends over horns of mead on Discord in the evenings. And since it doesn't take itself too seriously, even dying horribly can be laughed off. We'll be able to join the fray on March 1.