Pagan Online is a jump-start the future ARPGs need. The game changed some of the fundamental genre mechanics and made a fantastic gameplay loop out of them, followed by a vast amount of loot that is admittedly not that that good at times.
Pagan Online is a bold move from Mad Head Games because it is both a step out of their comfort zone, which is Hidden Object Puzzle Adventure (HOPA) game development and a giant step from certain ARPG foundations. Before I get into the deep intricacies of Pagan Online, let's start with the basics, like getting yourself a character.
It's easy, there is no character creation, just like in PoE, Diablo, Sacred, Torchlight and many other ARPGs. You get a choice of characters with preset looks, biographies and classes.
Thankfully, Mad Head Games really went all out with creativity when it comes to character choice as there are 10 in total with the launch build. There is a wide variety of archetypes to pick from:
- Kingewitch is your typical bruiser,
- Istok is a tank,
- Anya is a long-range AoE mage,
- Morokh is a close-range mage,
- Lukian is a mix of both,
- Hector and Valeria are both marksmen but with wildly different mechanics,
- Elden is a crowd-controlling melee and ranged hybrid
- Dameer is a beastmaster
- Masha is a whirling bard
The best part is they are all completely free to unlock at your leisure, more or less. In order to get a new hero, one has to complete an Assassination mission for the first time. Subsequent takedowns will not award Hero Souls needed for the unlocks so each Assassination in the game will have to be completed at least once if you want all 10 of them unlocked, which may turn out to be the case due to the first of Pagan Online's unique characteristics.
Mad Head Studio
Progression metrics in Pagan Online are divided into three main groups - character level, Legacy rank and Might.
Character level is self-explanatory - your characters start at level one and get maxed out at level 30. Each level provides a single Potency Point that can be invested in a new ability, next rank of the same ability or additional traits that alter said abilities.
The system is well worked out and can provide more than one way of playing a hero. For example, Anya can pick up Swarm to cause bleed on enemies and therefore empowers her Bloodsucker ability. The same can be done with Heartbeat that gets empowered when it hits a stunned enemy so she can pick up Blood Spikes or Altar of Gore to deal double damage to some opponents.
Each hero can pick only four spells though and since I listed five, there are already many alterations players can choose with their build on this blood-hungry mage. The choice between Blood Spikes and Altar of Gore means Anya will either opt for AoE stun for the maximum area damage from Heartbeat or Altar of Gore that tends to shred beefy enemies but is less useful against a horde.
Mad Head Studio
Alternatively, there is even an option to forego the damage bonus inflicted by stunning the enemies before blowing them up with Heartbeat and pick Bloodbolt instead of the stun spells. Bloodbolt is not a great DPS spell but it excels at keeping both Anya's health and energy topped off.
I have written three paragraphs and that is only scratching the surface of creating Anya's builds since I didn't mention all the intricacies from the ability tree for the sake of brevity. You get the gist, there is a lot of stuff you can experiment on with your builds and this is just one out of 10 available heroes. It's still not as insane as creating viable builds in Path of Exile but it's deep enough to keep things fresh.
Might is essentially gear score that is seen in just about any other ARPG or MMO game. It decides how hard you hit but simply using the gear with the highest Might number will not get you far - items that increase the stats for the hero in play are more valuable. On the bright side, even the high Might items that don't fit your hero are almost certainly going to be useful due to what really makes the progression system unique - Legacy.
Mad Head Games
Legacy rank is probably the best addition to the levelling of alternate characters in gaming so far. Items in Pagan Online have only two requirements - correct hero and Legacy rank. Correct hero applies only for the weapons since each hero uses a unique one. Anya has a whip, Kingewitch has a greataxe, Valeria has crossbows etc.
Meanwhile, the other requirement carries over from the main character to all the alts on the same account. Having a high enough Legacy rank will allow you to put the most powerful items you came across on your level one alt heroes. Therefore, if an item with high Might didn't fit your Kingewitch main, it might fit your Lukian alt or any of the other eight heroes.
This system makes power levelling incredibly easy if you want to skip all the grind you went through with the main character by taking on challenges that would be impossible with regular gear. On the other hand, if you prefer to do the levelling the old fashioned way, you can just ignore the more powerful items you have access to.
It has one drawback though. Legacy rank progresses by levelling any hero but the progression of character level tends to be faster than that of Legacy ranks. This can result in your main character being unable to equip more powerful gear, forcing you to switch to a lower level hero and grind a bit even if you want to focus on one character for the time being.
Mad Head Games
Speaking of gear...
Crafting and gear grinding
Crafting in Pagan Online can help you out at times if you are focusing on levelling through the campaign and not paying much attention to keeping your gear power in check. Other than that, crafting is a fairly simple system that will almost never be used until the endgame.
At this point, you will need to grind out the legendary recipes and materials, which can be a chore. This is natural for the genre though and ARPG fans will likely not be discouraged by the need to sacrifice goats to RNG gods in order to get what they need.
On the other hand, grinding in Pagan Online didn't feel too terrible due to the amazing gameplay loop Mad Head Games came up with, which brings us to the next crucial element.
Mad Head Games
When you hear "Action RPG" you are immediately reminded of the genre's titans - Path of Exile and Diablo series. One common denominator in both games is the click to move combat system that has roots in the original Diablo and it's become so iconic that the hardcore fans are seldom willing to part with it.
Mad Head Games dared to despoil this holy grail of ARPGs which is something they will ultimately get flak for, even though the WASD movement system in Pagan Online actually works well and fills the game with additional tactical depth.
In all honesty, playing Pagan Online felt more like a better version of FORCED , since you are using your mouse to turn around and perform different attacks rather than click to move. This allows for easier kiting and more focus on actual aiming in combat when playing ranged heroes.
Mad Head Studio
Such an approach may turn off mechanically gifted hardcore ARPG fans but there are enough enemy mechanics to keep everyone on their toes. Furthermore, you can change the control layout so it conforms to the click to move standards but the game was made for WASD movement and it shows.
I personally found Normal difficulty to be somewhat boring after wrecking the enemies became a bit too easy. This happened after I started properly understanding the game mechanics but turning the difficulty up to Hard immediately satisfied my wish for a challenge. Going all the way up to Master difficulty is a joy as it transforms Pagan Online into a hybrid of ARPG and bullet hell where a single mistake can mean the end of your run.
Pagan Online has no checkpoints, adding up to the hardcore feeling so there is a possibility of dying to the last group of enemies and having to start over completely if you want that juicy chest after the final boss.
Higher difficulties award better loot and bragging rights on the leaderboards but there is nothing standing in the way of a casual experience by grinding on Normal either.
Mad Head Games
Combat encounters are also different from what you may be used to. Each mission is a series of arena fights, rather than one continuous strain of enemies where you just jump around like a squirrel on caffeine, stomping whatever comes under your heels. Maps are not linear but they do corral you into somewhat tight enclosures where you duke it out with enemies that spawn in waves.
Mad Head Games
There is a decent variety of missions to choose from. Expeditions are set on bigger maps with many encounters for maximum loot and grinding potential, Assassinations are a handful of encounters with focus on duking it out with the boss as soon as possible, defence missions have you babysitting a shrine etc.
As odd as it may sound, Pagan Online has no microtransactions. At all. When I inquired whether more cosmetics would be added in the future, Mad Head's community manager said that is something the team would definitely love to add more of but had to balance the workforce between producing more cosmetics and other content.
The strain is there because cosmetics are not sold for real-life money. Each hero currently has five skins, including the default one, and there are eight colour schemes for each skin. All of that could only be earned in-game at the date of release and publishing this review.
Pagan Online has two currencies when it comes to cosmetics. Gold is used for purchasing different colour schemes for the skins while Hero Shards are used for purchasing skins themselves.
Mad Head Games
You gain Hero Shards for completing Assassination missions and each mission yields shards for a designated hero but it doesn't matter which hero you use to complete the mission. For example, Chosen of Triglav assassination will always yield Lukian Hero Shards, regardless of what hero you complete it with.
Mad Head Games
Every skin has a bit of a background, just like the heroes themselves, which brings us to a section some may consider obsolete and some may consider crucial in an ARPG.
When you sit down to play the likes of Path of Exile, Diablo or Pagan Online, storytelling is not exactly the driving factor for grinding. Still, it obviously has its place since Blizzard proved time and again with each Diablo instalment that well-made lore helps get players invested in defeating the great evil that threatens the world.
Pagan Online doesn't fall flat when it comes to storytelling but it didn't exactly leave a lasting mark the same way Dragon Age: Origins did the first time I went through it. Then again, that is a high standard to live up to and CRPGs certainly focus more on strong storytelling and less on chasing the loot.
Mad Head Games
The story we are presented with is rooted deep into Slavic mythology and paganism. Exposition is fairly well done and it definitely kept me interested through all of the eight acts. Players who speak one or more Slavic languages will definitely understand the meaning of many names in the game which could make it extra hilarious for them. It's not every day that you meet a trio of fiery bosses named Zharko, Ognyen and Ugliesha.
Writing itself is decent but it's not on Shakespeare's level. The real hidden gem of storytelling in Pagan Online is actually the voice acting talent. I did not expect top-notch acting in a game that costs $29.99 / €24.99 / £19.99.
Each character sounds absolutely fantastic for their role and characteristics. Dabog is a wise and composed deity and his soothing voice complements those traits. The same goes for the bright and devoted but skittish priestess Voyka and my favourite blood mage Anya who is a bitter and vengeful assassin trained by a shadowy organisation. I picked only three examples but the voice acting is extremely well done for each and every character I encountered.
Mad Head Games
I had stable 60+ FPS for the most part while playing Pagan Online with the graphics settings set to Epic. Ultra is the only step above that but I didn't test it much as I felt my mid-range rig could only handle Epic with stable frames that were in a satisfactory range. For reference, the CPU is i7-3770 with RX 580 GPU and 16GB RAM.
Frame rate dipped under 60 only at a few points where obscene amounts of enemies spawned due to me playing certain missions on Master Difficulty. Thankfully, this number of enemies happened only when the cannon fodder would try to bum rush me but they die rather quickly and frame rate goes up immediately.
As for whether the looks justify the requirements, I would say yes. Pagan Online has an art style that's set between cartoonish graphics like in Fortnite and more realistic ones like in Diablo III or Path of Exile. Colours are vibrant where they need to be and gloomy in places with less light.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, however, and I uploaded a small gameplay segment so you can decide whether the game is pleasing on the eye yourself. Bear in mind that YouTube compression may negatively impact video quality.
Pagan Online is a breath of fresh air in ARPG genre where the games are simply striving to be the next Diablo or Path of Exile. Mad Head Games folks are shaking the foundations of ARPG and producing something different without sacrificing quality or depth of the gameplay loop.
Some of the new aspects do have drawbacks though and while the game is fairly polished, it cannot compare to the likes of Path of Exile or Diablo at the moment. Then again, it is not a AAA title as it is selling for less than half the regular price. Furthermore, the title has no microtransactions at the moment as all the game has to offer is open to anyone willing to play it.
So, is it worth your time? I would say definitely yes since I've already spent dozens of hours on Pagan Online and plan to keep playing it further. That is not often the case with titles I review. With all that in mind, my final rating would be 8/10. I was on the edge between 7 and 8 but the developers' willingness to dip into unknown waters and then experiment with them is what tipped the scale.
Around 60 per cent of Steam users gave Pagan Online positive reviews but keep in mind they were playing Early Access builds at the time of writing their notes. The launch patch offered many improvements and judging by the way Mad Head worked in days leading up to Gamescom, Pagan Online will keep getting better in the future.