Pagan Online sounds like the title of a promising MMORPG, but in fact, it’s an action-RPG in the vein of Diablo with equal helpings of MOBAs and free-to-play mobile games. It’s also entering a market space with quite a number of engaging and revered masterpieces and compared to the best of the genre, Pagan Online does little to distinguish itself in a positive way.
Starting with a largely irrelevant fantasy-claptrap story that references a stew of mythologies, Pagan Online is built, Lego-like, out of familiar ARPG blocks: grinding for loot, a lengthy single player campaign, customizable characters, swarms of enemies and end-of-level bosses. What Pagan Online demonstrates is that while most dungeon crawlers — from Path of Exile to Torchlight — are assembled from the same kit parts, the magic comes from what you do with them, the alchemical formula of pacing, gameplay and creative manipulation of familiar ideas.
Pagan Online offers a wide selection of quirky fantasy characters, then locks them away behind a grind-wall that discourages experimentation, as you need to follow a time-consuming, mutli-stage process to access them and another to change their appearance. One of Pagan Online’s strengths is that each of its characters is viable and fun and while they generally follow standard fantasy archetypes (rangers, casters, tanks, rogues), they offer a reasonable amount of depth, quirkiness and variety of playstyles, making it all the more frustrating that mixing it up is such a chore. To add to the frustration — or incentive — there are bosses that seem keyed to the abilities of specific heroes, making them essential.
While the characters offer some variety, Pagan Online’s combat and level design feel like a relic from a mobile game concept, with a limited number of maps used and re-used and enemy placement at predictable spawn spots along the extremely linear journey. Generally speaking, Pagan Online hews to the design philosophy that difficulty or challenge come from vast numbers of low-level enemies swarming the player and while it does create a chaotic looking scene, the lack of variety in approach becomes quickly apparent. The inability to explore or avoid combat altogether locks the player into a specific path and level. Enemies attack from all sides and character facing becomes part of the challenge.
For those used to the finely-tuned mechanics of games like Diablo 3 and its kin, Pagan Online may annoy the player with several of its systems, starting with the vendor/ hub area that is not accessible during missions, the twin-stick shooter style controls in combat, and the disappointing loot system which rewards players with uninspiring goodies only when every monster in an encounter is dead. While all ARPGs occasionally drop loot that is either trash or irrelevant, Pagan Online’s most significant boss battle rewards can often be for characters the player isn’t using.
Pagan Online has a colorful, flashy art style that always looks a little muddy or slightly out of focus, as though it was ported from a lower resolution version. While the writing and voice acting are full of fantasy RPG pretension, they are well done in an over-the-top sort of way, and the music is suitably energetic and grandiose. Despite being an always online game, Pagan Online is not a title with the potential for a large group good time. It’s generally a solo experience with some occasional opportunities for two player coop.
Pagan Online’s Slavic fantasy pulls from mythologies that are slightly off the beaten path, but so much of the game feels like familiar — and what’s worse, less successful — tropes, mechanics and ideas gleaned from other ARPGs, MOBAs and mobile games. It does have the advantage of presenting relatively short and fast-paced missions to the time-pressed player, but I suspect fans of action RPGs would prefer a more creative, immersive and less repetitive experience to one that is just abbreviated.