What surprised me most about Pagan Online, a new action role-playing game that launched on Steam Early Access last week, was how meaty the moment-to-moment fighting felt. When I launched an attack and connected with a wave of enemies, it really felt like I was messing up their day.
Pagan Online is a collaboration between Mad Head Games, previously known for making short, hidden-object-based adventure games like the Nevertales series, and Wargaming, the company behind free-to-play juggernaut World of Tanks. The product of this joint venture so far bears little resemblance to either. Pagan Online is currently a paid game with no microtransactions that situates thoughtful, satisfying hack ’n slash dungeon crawling at its center.
As an isometric action RPG, Pagan Online invites comparisons to Blizzard’s Diablo, and I certainly get why in the few hours I’ve played so far. Missions consist of running through a map destroying enemies by chaining together various cooldown attacks and occasionally taking short breaks to guzzle healing potions. Movement is controlled using the WASD keys, and while I’d prefer to play with a controller, which isn’t supported at the moment, I appreciated the added level of control. When you hit something, damage numbers pop up, and when you kill it, loot occasionally drops from its body. All of this fighting takes place in a fantasy world inspired by Slavic mythology in which you’re trying to help the gods fight back the evil, seemingly undead forces invading from a dimension called the Swarm.
But where Pagan Online breaks with other Diablo-likes is character progression. Instead of allowing you to select a class and build a character by equipping new gear and progressing along a skill tree, Pagan Online offers pre-defined archetypes whose abilities don’t change much. Kingewitch, for example, is a barbarian type character who excels at dealing melee damage and beating back stronger foes. His seven attacks, which include a knockdown and a ground smash, don’t ever evolve and can’t be swapped out. In this way he’s more like a character from a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) than an RPG.
Where he does progress is in his stats, which automatically advance as you level up, and the five accessories you can equip, each of which offers buffs like increasing damage or boosting elemental defenses. This is the customization that helps you build toward a certain version of Kingewitch. Maybe you really like his blunderbus and want to emphasize his ability to keep enemies at a distance. Or maybe you want to just get right in there and smash everything up, making it prudent to equip items that offer bonuses for taking lots of damage or stringing multiple abilities together within a certain period of time. For the most part though, it’s like choosing a fighter in an arcade game rather than constructing your own.
Pagan Online leans into these strengths, both by making combat so satisfying and intricately animated and by streamlining everything else. You launch missions from a hub called the Pantheon, the dimension where the gods hail from, with only a few seconds of loading in-between (at least on my Solid State Drive). While you can walk to the various vendors in the area, you can also swap between them using menus, making it easy to craft new gear, change characters, and get into a new mission without much downtime.
Pagan Online does have one major shortcoming at the moment: it’s not actually online yet. At least not in a way that allows you to team up with other players to take on missions together and mix up strategies by combining different characters. There are leaderboards for every mission and you can see the names and stats of other people who have completed them, but there’s currently no way to actual form a party together. Wargaming has said this feature is coming soon, but until it actually arrives, Pagan Online is missing one of its core components.
I’m still enjoying the single-player campaign, whose locales and art direction are engaging enough to make me want to keep coming back. But it can get lonely out there. Non-player characters occasionally show up to help out and the world itself feels colorful and alive, but I’d still prefer to be hacking and slashing my way through enemies with someone else by my side.