Amongst the publisher’s pre-existing line-up of historically-accurate war-sims, Pagan Online stands out like a sore thumb.
However, after spending a few hours with the online action RPG (which just moved into Early Access on Steam), Pagan Online comes across as one of the more uncanny additions to the broader Wargaming portfolio. It feels like someone took the core experience and gameplay loop you’d find in something like Diablo 3, streamlined it for the mobile and tablet audience and then up-scaled it back to the full resolution demanded by PC gamers.
The final results of this process aren’t uproariously successful but neither are they are a complete disaster. At this stage, I’m not ready to call Pagan Online a great game. But I am willing to call it an intriguing one.
In line with similar ARPGs, your journey in Pagan Online starts with you picking a character class and then slaying your way through hordes of enemies. Bad news though: at the end of the game’s brief tutorial level, you’re slain in battle. The good news? You’re quickly resurrected by benevolent cosmic forces and tasked with tracking down an absentee pantheon of gods.
How do you do that? Well, you’ll have to smash, slash and blast your way through increasingly powerful hordes of enemies, collect increasingly powerful loot and watch the numbers go up. It’d be a stretch to call this MO particularly original - but that’s not to say the simplicity doesn’t have an appeal.
Falling somewhere between the stylism of Diablo 3 and the cartoony antics of something like Torchlight, Pagan Online leverages its roots in Slavic mythology to stand out. There are eight warrior-heroes to choose from, with presumably more on the way. The game asks you to think of these playable characters as of character classes and more digital action figures. In some ways, the roster here evokes Overwatch, Rainbow Six: Siege or League of Legends more than it does Diablo.
Adding to that feeling are the controls. The brawly combat in Pagan Online is still very much a clickfest but you’ll also be using the WASD keys to move around - which does give it a noticeably different feel to most other ARPGs. At times, it almost feels like an echo of arcady hack and slash games like Gauntlet.
The other thing that separates Pagan Online from a lot of other similar games is the structure. And unlike Diablo or Path of Exile, you’re delving further and further into a labyrinthine underworld, Pagan Online’s loop feels tight and episodic. It almost reminded me a bit of the loop in Destiny. You jump into an environment, you fight some enemies and then you jump back out. Most missions (or at least most of the missions I’ve played in my first four hours with the game) take between two and five minutes. This makes the game better suited for short bursts rather than longer binge-like sessions.
The character I started the game with was Istok. He’s a sort of older, grizzled take on Marvel’s Thor with a mighty crystal mallet instead of a small stone hammer. I could stomp around, smash foes with my hammer and activate a temporary force-field when needed.
Most levels just involved spamming these various skills until I had cleared enough enemies for the mission to end. It sometimes felt like you’re spending more time in the liminal spaces of the game than the meat of it - which was both a good and bad thing.
On one hand, it didn’t take long before the initial power fantasy of being a hammer wielding Nordic demigod wore off and my foes became mere damage sponges. On the other, it didn’t take long for the celestial waiting room that acts as your hub between missions to fill up with new NPCs and new possibilities either - from crafting new weapons to going on special hunt missions. Before long, you’re building momentum and devouring each snack-sized dungeon in short order.
Still, it feels like the devil is in the details here. By comparison to gold-standard games like Diablo, Pagan Online struggles when it comes to the little things. The menus are sometimes a little finicky. Your inventory fills up too fast. It takes one too many clicks to sell off unnecessary items. Your characters moves too slowly when you’re in the midst of combat.
Individually, none of these things are enough to sink Pagan Online but, taken together, they weigh heavily on the amount of fun you’ll find here. They create friction where there ought be none.
Of course, there is plenty of time for developer Mad Head Studios to amend these smaller things. Pagan Online has only just launched into Early Access, after all. It lacks polish and needs variety but there’s definitely something interesting and intriguing to what’s on offer here.
If you’re keen on an arcadey ARPG that you can jump right into and watch those numbers go up, there’s a good chance Pagan Online will fit the bill.
Pagan Online is available now on PC via Steam.