Steeped in Slavic lore, Pagan Online is a game of vanishing gods, mighty heroes, and their unending battle against the ravening hordes of darkness. If you’re even vaguely familiar with the action role playing genre, it’s easy to discount Pagan Online as yet another Diablo wannabe being pumped out by some obscure European studio – a pretender looking to siphon even a tiny fraction of Blizzard’s colossal fanbase.
Developer Mad Head Games is all too aware of the similarities, not just to Diablo, but popular alternatives such as Path of Exile and the recent swell of smaller dungeon crawlers, all wanting a piece of that pie.
“With Pagan Online, there are two main differentiating factors that set it apart,” explains Creative Director, Uros Banjesevic. “One is that we’ve made the game session-based, each encounter being five to ten minutes of mayhem on screen. We have fast-paced action gameplay that can almost feel like a twin stick shooter at times which really helps stands out.”
Where most role playing games are often presented as an insurmountable banquet, Pagan Online takes more of a fast food approach. From the hub-like Pantheon, you can launch into a variety of short missions, returning upon completion, banking any experience and loot collected along the way.
“We wanted to make the genre more approachable and not just in terms of reaching out to a newer, younger generation, but also people like ourselves who are hardcore gamers yet have less time to spare. With Pagan you can jump in and even if it’s just for twenty minutes that can feel like a meaningful time investment that feeds into your progression.”
The game’s second differentiating factor is its approach to playable characters. Banjesevic describes them as a family, each with their own distinct appearance and pool of combat abilities. The three heroes available during our hands-on demo all played differently, from the slow and beefy sage, Istok, to the game’s frenzied posterboy, Kingewitch, tearing his way through enemy mobs like an axe-wielding hurricane. Even when trying out a hero for the first time you have immediate access to their combat abilities instead of gradually unlocking them as you progress, though points can be spent to strengthen them over time.
For Mad Head Games, Pagan Online is the Serbian studio’s first foray into core video game development. What was originally a group of four friends in 2011, the team now employs 250 people having found a niche for itself within the hidden object game market.
“A common misconception about hidden object games is that they’re not serious,” Lead Game Designer, Emil Esov, told us. “However, these games have development cycles – they require project management, publishing, marketing, and all that stuff. So making these has been a very good learning experience and now we’ve made more than 45 games in this genre.
“But most of us are passionate gamers at heart. We wanted to build something we can play on a daily basis – that was the main idea behind Pagan Online.”
Although easy to pick up and play, there is still plenty of challenge and tactical depth for those wanting to wring more out of Pagan Online. Bumping up the difficulty will force you to think carefully about the various enemy types as well as burning through your finite resources, all while constantly moving and evading.
It’s a very combat-focused game and what’s there feels both fun and fluid without some of that sponginess you often get from action RPGs. It’s fairly light on story, though you will be talking to various characters and watching the occasional cutscene. Those first few hours of Pagan Online will be spent hammering through a string of main missions in order to populate your Pantheon, where you’ll be exchanging goods, crafting new gear, and upgrading skills.
This progression loop quickly takes priority over any form of storytelling, which isn’t an entirely bad thing, letting you dive in without any obtrusive exposition. Grinding is an issue however, and although Mad Head assured us that our build of Pagan Online would be stingier than the full game there’s a good chance you still end up running the same missions, occasionally shaking your fist at its RNG.
Speaking of Pagan Online’s launch, the game is expected to hit PC early access very soon, both on Steam and via Wargaming’s own launcher – they’re not talking about the possibility of a console release. Although you’ll be able to get your hands on with the core game, certain features and content won’t be available until Mad Head Games gradually patches them in.
Product Director, Jacob Buecler, told us, “We’ve got goals, we’ve got plans, we’ve got ambitions, and plenty of stuff in the backlog to work through. The reason for launching in early access is for us is to be able to get out there and gather feedback and see what the most valuable thing to work on is. It’s kind of a tropey thing to say, but we really want to deliver our audience the best game possible and we’ve already got a good starting point.
“We’re building a foundation that will be extensible and we plan to keep working away at this game. Hopefully we will work on Pagan Online for a decade – that would be outstanding!”
One point the team wanted to make clear is that Pagan Online won’t launch as a free-to-play title, nor will it offer in-game micro-transactions. It’s being a billed as a “premium” title with a single buy-in price, though exactly what business model the team is pursuing after that wasn’t made clear.
It’s a peculiar choice, not only because of Wargaming’s previous free-to-play successes, but the way Pagan Online is structured. It has a certain MMO feel to it, with an online social hub and an overriding focus on grinding for currencies and crafting materials. It smacks of a game that made a sharp pivot towards its current business model without properly burying those telltale free-to-play tropes.
This slight uncertainty surrounding the game’s business model may end up hurting Pagan Online though there’s still time for Wargaming and Mad Head to re-evaluate. We hope they manage to stick the landing – from what we’ve played it’s a solid dungeon crawler and one that definitely has the potential to carve out of a piece of this genre to call its own.