I can’t help feeling excited to play Mad Head Games' Pagan Online when I see the cast of playable heroes. There is a grim reaper, a dual-wielding ice warrior, a fortune teller inspired by the Romani, and my personal favorite, a gun-toting rebel who hangs out with rats. Unfortunately, it is a complex, frustrating, and grindy experience to gain access to all of the characters.
Pagan Online combines the action RPG and the MOBA by offering up 10 different heroes that can equip four different abilities at a time. The goal is to upgrade these abilities via passives and find ways to synergize them for efficiency in combat, and further optimize with the age-old ARPG tradition of grinding for gear. I played Lukian, the traditional wizard character, for the majority of my playthrough. I focused on buffing his lightning damage and stun duration while simultaneously lowering enemy lightning resistances, which proved to be an effective strategy for the kite-and-zap tactics that saw me successfully disintegrate countless enemies.
Pagan Online also offers a unique control scheme akin to that of a twin stick shooter. You move your character with the WASD keys and your mouse determines your attack direction. Playing on a controller is also satisfying, but I spent most of my time using a keyboard. The controls do offer up an atypical style of gameplay, and I think Mad Head Games made the correct choice here. However, despite the fun control scheme, I found the actual gameplay mechanics to be troublesome.
Comparing the technical elements of the game to the MOBAs that inspire it, I can’t help but feel as if Pagan Online falls short of the mark. The abilities don’t feel as tactile or responsive as those in Dota 2 or League of Legends. There have often been times where I activated one of Lukian’s abilities, but there was no response until the game decided to finally process the ability after I had already moved out of position. MOBAs are all about positioning, and the amount of times that the unresponsive mechanics have left me out of position during a battle are enough to make note of. This is likely due to the lack of animation cancelling, a very curious choice for a hack-and-slash game. Melee characters in particular suffer the most here.
The art-style is appropriate and my favorite aspect of the game, and it is obvious that a lot of thought and creativity went into the graphics and artwork. The artwork is reminiscent of the Torchlight series, but the game’s solid voice acting and Eastern European-inspired fantasy story offer up a different tone that works well with the bramble-choked forests and forgotten catacombs. The alternate costumes for the characters are great as well; unfortunately, those are only purchasable by a rare currency (specific to each character), a mechanic similar to a free-to-play game frustratingly forced into a full priced game.
I understand the need for some grind to extend the longevity of a game by providing rewards, but the grind in Pagan Online takes it to another level. You can choose to unlock one character out of the 10 at the beginning of the game. Afterwards, the process to unlock characters is confusing and lengthy. You must first play the campaign to unlock side quests called Missions, which you then complete for a chance to find key fragments, and if you get enough key fragments you can forge a key to go on a new side quest called an Assassination and finally unlock a new character. It is as frustrating as it sounds.
What happens if, like me, you don’t end up liking your first character? Well, hope that the next character you decide to play is more fun. Otherwise you’ll just have to make do with a slightly more entertaining substitute, which is exactly what I did when I traded in Masha for Lukian. Yes, you have the option to run through a very brief mission and try out every hero’s abilities, but that doesn’t necessarily tell you everything you need to know about a character. By endgame you will have all of the characters unlocked, but the system doesn’t work for people like me who like to play a few missions with each character before making their final choice.
The game does offer up increased XP for newly unlocked characters bound to an account progress called a Legacy Level. That means that once you do unlock a new character, you can throw on some nice equipment and hop back into the campaign without starting over completely. It’s nice, but it doesn’t make up for the nonsensically locked characters.
A particular departure from the common ARPG formula that I’m not fond of is the mission-based approach to the game. There are no waypoints or specific zones similar to other ARPGs. Instead, my character teleported into what I would call an arena. It usually took anywhere from five to fifteen minutes to complete a mission, and I spent much of the time following a yellow arrow from one predictable enemy spawn point to another, which created a rather linear experience. It didn’t quite feel as if my hero was going on an adventure, something further compounded by the fact that you are teleported back to a central hub after completing each mission. There is no cohesive narrative when I am hot on the tail of an evil, shrouded horror, and right before I go into its sanctum I am forced to hop back into town to listen to more exposition. This creates a world that ultimately feels disconnected, much like the design decisions the developers made concerning the game.
Pagan Online (Reviewed on Windows)
Game is enjoyable, outweighing the issues there may be.
Pagan Online makes an attempt to dovetail two different genres—the ARPG and the MOBA—with mixed results. While the different heroes each have interesting abilities and character designs, the game is bogged down by an unfortunate series of grindy, free-to-play mechanics inexplicably built into a buy-to-play game.