Pagan: Ultima VIII

aka: Super Avatar Bros., Ultima 8
Moby ID: 723

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Critic Reviews add missing review

Average score: 81% (based on 19 ratings)

Player Reviews

Average score: 3.8 out of 5 (based on 79 ratings with 9 reviews)

Meet the action RPG colossus of its era

The Good
Pagan is the most controversial Ultima game, and is regarded by many fans as the lowest point of the series. The nickname "Super Mario Avatar" says it all. As soon as the game was released, accusations began to gush from sides: the jumping is ridiculous; my Avatar doesn't behave like an Avatar any more; this isn't real role-playing; Iolo, Shamino, and Dupre aren't there; Lord British, what hast thou done, etc.

Now, I can't deny that the change in gameplay compared to the previous entry in the series was perhaps too drastic to even justify the game's inclusion in it. That by itself, however, means only that Pagan has a strong chance of being considered a weak sequel. It doesn't speak for or against the actual game - it all depends on whether its new gameplay system is good or not. And it's very good, indeed.

The dissimilarity to earlier Ultimas and the ensuing rage of the fans prevented us from recognizing the game's undeniable significance. In retrospect, it becomes clear that Pagan was one of the founding fathers of modern action role-playing. Action RPGs had existed before - Falcom developed a whole sub-kind in Japan, and there were several examples in the West as well. But none of them came close to the rough, almost visceral treatment of Pagan. Action became an inseparable part of navigation and challenge, a key modifier that made the connection between the player and the protagonist closer than ever before - except, naturally, in the revolutionary Ultima Underworld games. In the realm of 2D games, however, that was an unsurpassed achievement: before Diablo conquered the world with its mad hack-and-slash, Pagan already delivered a serious action RPG formula that was in many ways deeper and more versatile.

I consider the addition of jumping and climbing a noteworthy enhancement of game mechanics. Most people ridiculed those new features. Maybe they could have been better executed (the Avatar is very clumsy, perhaps deliberately so), but the addition of physical interaction with the environment is a very important element. It creates a whole new dimension next to the already amazing interaction possibilities Ultima series has been offering in their later installments.

In Pagan, you can do even more things than before! It doesn't look this way because there aren't as many items and people in this game as there were in previous Ultimas, but the fact is that all the great interaction we were used to is still there - it wasn't "replaced" by jumping and climbing. You can still pick up any item you want and place it wherever you want. There are still a lot of things which are "just there", which you can examine and manipulate the way you like. And now fancy being able to climb on top of any building, or imagine how much more realistically treacherous dungeon navigation becomes when you are bound by physical laws.

The game's world is indeed smaller than in any previous Ultima and may seem monotonous, but it's still rich and detailed. There is a quite a bit of exploration to do in the game - Pagan is full of mysterious, dark locations, some of which are not necessary to visit in order to complete the game, like Pit of Death or the huge Slayer Dungeon. The flora of the game is unique (unlike the somewhat ordinary fauna - we've seen enough skeletons and trolls before), and the overall appearance is very original and stylish. This leads to another significant contribution of Pagan to the series - atmospheric immersion.

Pure, sensual atmosphere was not really important in Ultima games. Crafting detailed environments and abundance of items and creatures was more important than trying to actually express the serene beauty of hills, mountains, and rivers, or reflect the horrors of a dungeon. Not so in Pagan. The moment you start the game you realize you are in a bizarre, hostile world. The game is romantically dark and threatening, its stylish design including such strange and expressive things as deep, unnaturally dark blue water, or huge mushrooms growing everywhere. The technical quality of the graphics (which is clearly superior to than of the two previous Ultimas), is not the only reason for that. The designers tried to show maximum contrast between Britannia and Pagan, and they succeeded by creating a new original world.

The storyline of Pagan also appears to be simple and straightforward at first, but think of all the extensive background information we get in the game! In order to fully understand and enjoy this story it is necessary to listen carefully to what the characters tell you, and read books that are scattered all over the game. Thankfully, there are plenty of books in Pagan, ranging from simple magical instructions to detailed history of the world's culture.

Spellcasting in Pagan is deeper than entire gameplay systems of some other games. In order to flee from the unfriendly world you must become proficient in three kinds of magic - Necromancy, Theurgy, and Sorcery. Each one of the three types is unique, having its own spells and casting technique. Earth magic is the closest to the standard Ultima system: you mix reagents and prepare expendable spells. In order to be able to cast air spells, you must make foci out of silver ore, which then become extremely powerful magical spell-containing items of infinite charge. Fire magic system (Sorcery) is the most complex one. You put red and black candles at the corners of a pentagram, place required reagents near the candles, and then focus the spell on objects such as wand, rod, etc. Upon successful preparation of the spell, those objects become magically enchanted, allowing you to cast a limited amount of the spells they hold. Mastering fire magic is very difficult, but quite rewarding.

The Bad
So what is really wrong with Pagan? Not much if we see it as a standalone game; a lot if we recognize the legacy it claims to belong to. Almost every fan of the series will tell you the same thing: Pagan may be great in what it's trying to do, but it's not a true Ultima game.

Most of the game's flaws, therefore, become glaring only in the light of comparison. For example, an atmospheric dungeon crawler would probably work regardless of how many friendly NPCs it has and what they tell you. But when we compare Pagan to the magnificent worlds of earlier Ultimas, we begin to see the difference. The interaction with its citizens is noticeably more scarce; most people won't talk to you at all or say a few rude words. You will rarely see people on the streets, except professionals like guards and beggars in Tenebrae or various kinds of magicians in other places. There is no day and night cycle. Even a minor detail such as the absence of character portraits contributes to unpleasant coldness.

Pagan is also too small for an Ultima world. There is only one real city in the whole game, the rest of the settlements being tiny enclaves of necromancers and sorcerers. A very large portion of the game is occupied by a gigantic dungeon, the Catacombs, which is the only way to reach the key locations you'll have to access. The constant crawling through grim caves can get tiresome after a while.

The new "Super Mario Avatar" gameplay is not flawlessly executed, either. Before you bash it for being difficult and lacking grace, remember that - despite the derogatory nickname - it was never intended to mimic fast-paced platform games. That said, be sure to play the patched version of the game, because the Avatar is clumsy and hard to manipulate beyond any justification in the original release. Even in their post-patch state, controls can feel awkward and counter-intuitive. Sometimes you press down both mouse buttons four-five times in a row until our hero finally decides whether he wants to jump, climb, or just stand there, shaking his horned-helmeted head. Many times I was attacked by ghouls or skeletons from behind, but it took me several attempts to position myself properly and start teaching them lessons. If you miss the proper angle by an inch, the Avatar will begin to hit the air repeatedly, stupidly turning his back to the foe and moaning loudly whenever he gets hit.

Finally, Pagan lacks connection to the series' lore and abandons many concepts we loved and cherished in the previous installments. The word "Avatar", in particular, became nothing more but an empty formula, a kind of an abstraction that can be filled with any possible meaning. If a newcomer to the series were exposed to this iteration only, he would invariably conclude that an Avatar is a fairly brutal, rugged warrior whose main joy consists of angering powerful supernatural creatures and wreaking havoc in foreign lands.

The Bottom Line
As an Ultima game, Pagan is too atypical, delivering a "cultural shock" to the series' passionate fans. But taken separately, it is a rich and important game that did a lot of things we either take for granted now or don't even dare to demand any more. You can whine all you want about the Avatar losing his humility, but that does not change the fact that Pagan is a great action RPG ahead of its time.

DOS · by Unicorn Lynx (181769) · 2014

Welcome to the dark and dangerous world of Pagan

The Good
Ultima VIII: Pagan followed on the footsteps of one of the finest single-player RPGs ever created, Ultima VII: The Black Gate. That game was bright, cheerful, and your character could travel with as many as seven companions. Ultima VIII, in contrast, is a comparatively miserable affair where the only friend you can trust is whatever weapon you happen to be wielding.

Ultima VIII improved moderately upon the graphics of Ultima VII, but the color palette looks drab under the perpetual cloud of Pagan. Character animation is greatly enhanced, but this demands serious CPU cycles, no doubt requiring that you traverse the world of Pagan without the usual stalwarts of Iolo, Dupre, and Shamino to lower your already tenuous framerate.

The overall feel of the gameworld is rather grim. The citizens of Pagan are living under the yoke of four elemental Gods and their human representatives. Monsters range from gargantuan ogres to ponderous zombies to demonic imps. The spell system has been complicated from previous Ultimas, and while the alterations are not really improvements per se, they are nonetheless interesting enough for one installment of Ultima.

The Bad
Although everything about the world of Pagan reflects the grim sensibilities of its conqueror, The Guardian, the pervading sense of hopelessness actually makes it quite a memorable game. Being the lone wolf merely to escape this dark world, instead of being the usual paragon of virtue is a refreshing development for the series. The experience of butchering hordes of zombies with a great axe is a visceral affair, with more weight and gravitas to your swings and strikes than in Diablo and its sequel. Production values are uniformly high, the plot is largely forgettable, but the overall experience of playing through the game was well worth the money back in 1994.

The Bottom Line
While Pagan may have been somewhat of a let-down from the near-perfection of The Black Gate and Serpent Isle, it does stand in its own right as a very satisfying three-week gaming experience.

DOS · by Chris Wright (85) · 2009

If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

The Good
*2nd update. Minor changes, hated the last One-line Summary.

When I say this, I probably would speak for all Ultima fans: WE DID NOT EXPECT THIS. Which isn't really a problem, only that statement was meant in a bad way. But, I'll explain that in the "didn't like part".

Actually the game isn't bad really, quite good actually although I never thought in my worst nightmares that Ultima would actually have an action version...aaaaaaaah!

Anyway, better graphics, better sound, more complex, more everything. The key here is realism...they made a good job out of that (although the Ultima fans might disagree...I'm one of them).

I must admit though, that the combat is very much entertaining. Not much strategy in the combat though, just click-click-click. The magic is more complex, more variations. Pagan has more variations and is more complex than its ancestors in addition to much detailed animations.

The Bad
Although personally I like the game, I am obligated as a hardcore Ultima fan to say this: OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD! WHAT HAVE THOU DONE?" (Repeat as many times as possible) - which is basically the essence of all the other reviews...

Change is usually good. No one is really against change, especially when it comes to Ultima. They made a brilliant change from Ultima V to Ultima VI. Now, they tried challenge tradition again. But this time at least to my opinion.

They really did a good job in making Ultima Pagan, but they failed big time in the most important things. They failed the fans and they failed the Avatar.

Everyone loved the Ultima VI-VII game engine. We were used to it and we still weren't bored of it. We loved the story, we loved the characters in the game, we loved the ideals and morals in the game...and they took it all away with this new concept.

I have never "felt" so alone and lonely playing a Ultima game. I always thought that you'd be stuck forever with Iolo, Shamino and Dupre...even if it reached Ultima 100. The game is playable, but I probably experienced a "gaming cultural shock". I experienced the same thing while playing Ultima VII...knowing Merry the Mouse couldn't join the party. Well, now they've totally screwed it by eliminating all team members.

This would be a great game if it was a standalone. But it's not. It's part of the Ultima Series, the Legend...and they ruined the legend - The Avatar without a Soul. Now I'm really depressed. :p

Now combat was a major dissapointment for any RPG fan. Probably because the combat DOESN'T EXIST! Combat like I said in this game is - Click, Click, Click. Who thought of THAT incredibly stupid idea. No strategy whatsoever. Every monster you see is "click'em" to death. If only there were a "block or parry" button with it...

The Bottom Line
ULTIMATE CULTURE SHOCK (valid only for hardcore Ultima fans). A great game really, especially if your not familiar with Ultima.

DOS · by Indra was here (20752) · 2004

Umm... ah... well...

The Good
Well, it still had the same basic feel, STORYWISE, mind you, of the Ultima series. The implementation isn't as bad as most people claim, the debunkers probably mostly being those weird purists who resisted the new interface and graphics rehaul back in Ultima 6. The new spellcasting system is also slightly less cumbersome in the long run, something that definitely needed fixing after the switch to real-time. Oh, yeah, and the graphics were a lot cleaner than the previous outings, so that the Avatar didn't get lost whenever I passed a tree.

The Bad
Okay, I try being nice. REALLY I try, but I think that badness is inherent in most every game there is. It's just the varying degrees we have here. Ultima 8 is well balanced in these respects. First, even though the new interface is not bad, it's a radical departure from the RPG style of the old Ultimas. Richard "I wear costume jewelry" Garriot should have remembered that his audience consists of people whose idea of strenuous physical activity is placing a conference call, and all the additional clicky-clicky action here gave several people heart attacks. And to be serious, some of those platform jumping sections were pretty rediculous. Second, while the story is still pretty involved, it seems that the Avatar has to behave like a total hooligan to achieve his goals. This is fine for Ultima, or should I say Ultima One through Four, but hey, we're an Avatar now! I fully expected part 9 to depict a fall from grace, but apparantly the moral here is "Hey, it's not my planet. Let's litter!" If there is actual alien life in the universe they probably haven't contacted us yet because they have played Ultima 8, and they know we suck.

The Bottom Line
This is actually a nice game. If you don't mind something different, something a little more actiony, try it.

DOS · by Vance (94) · 2000

Hard to get past the short-comings but ultimately immersive and rewarding...

The Good
Ultima 8 was oft berrated at the time of release for moving away from the traditional Ultima style, e.g. the changed isometric perspective, no party system and rendered (not hand painted) graphics. Putting that aside however the game's graphics are excellent for the time and the world is even more finely detailed than in Ultima 7.

The removal of the party system and having the player being alone for the whole game I found as a bonus too. The atmosphere and loneliness that this creates is invaluable in sucking the player into the world. As the player gains skills in spellcasting and the like you get a real sense of "a single force to be reckoned with" evolving in your character.

The story of this game I find is more memorable than previous games (probably because it takes place in a different Ultima universe) and there so many cool little touches that stick in my memory.

The Bad
The game was not without it's problems. Certainly the release version was plagued with problems; the worst of which made the jumping puzzles next to impossible to complete. In the release version the Avatar could only jump set distances and directions which made landing on specific targets (e.g. moving platforms) a very hit and miss affair, involving a lot of saving and reloading.

This was addressed (along with numerous other problems and bugs) in the patch release. The patch made it so the Avatar jumped to wherever you pointed the cursor, provided it was in range, and although the jumping puzzles were still irritating, you could put up with them.

The Bottom Line
This game requires a bit of effort to get into; to get past the bugs and gameplay flaws, however at its core is a good story and excellent attention to detail which made (for me) a memorable RPG-come-action experience.

DOS · by Tibes80 (1542) · 2007

The Avatar loses his virtues as he goes the route of action hero.

The Good
Unlike most games in the Ultima series, Pagan has less going for it than against it. The graphics are crisp, clean, and pretty (although one can easily lose items behind walls due to the isometric perspective). They convey the world around your character in an adequate manner, if sometimes a little too bright and colorful. The rich sound and music tradition from Ultima VII continues on here and the little voice acting in the game is done well (most noteably the ever ominous Guardian). For those who like the recent game Nox, or would like an action-oriented role-playing game that has a little more depth than Diablo, this game may very well suit their needs.

The Bad
Often called the worst addition to the Ultima series, this game's biggest faults lie in breaking the status quo. In terms of gameplay, Origin decided to take the game down a more action-oriented path, resulting in what was (although not appreciated as such at the time) a predecessor to Diablo and Nox. Countless jumping episodes and other arcade-related activities frustrated RPG fans, especially since the interface wasn't the most user-friendly.

Worse than the decision to go with action is the deviation in story/content. In the continuing trend of lessening the personalization of the Avatar, in this game you are forced to play a male, bucket-helmeted Avatar, making the character more and more distant in many people's mind. The Avatar himself no longer seems to be the Avatar. This 'paragon of virtue' who strove to be honest, humble, compassionate, etc in the previous four Ultimas suddenly has no qualms about lying, stealing, and murdering (to the apparent point of genocide). There are no ways around these plot points as there were in the past. The evil choice isn't just the easy's the only way. The plot is fairly linear and although the hand-holding is fitting considering you're stuck in a land run by the Guardian, it, along with the action, tends to make people feel like their playing some scrolling jumper game (ala Super Mario Brothers) rather than a RPG.

The characters and world in this installment lack the interest, appeal, or fascination of the people and places in the earlier chapters. I never realized how much the character portraits from U6 & U7 added to the personality of the character. Here, the characters all look little wooden artist models with clothes on. Lacking in any feelings for them, I began to lose my digust over the Avatar's behavior. Much like he, I started to not care. I just wanted to get it all done with.

The Bottom Line
Ultima VIII: 'Super Avatar Brothers' is the low point for both the Avatar and the series. Origin took a shot on redefining 'role playing games' and, while in retrospect helped define a genre later perfected by Diablo and Nox, it was a disaster. It was too actiony for long term fans and too complex for simple action fans. The main character, once the epitome of a virtuous hero, throws it all aside in an attempt to escape from world totally under the control of his arch-nemesis. The clean and colorful graphics give life to the world, though the faceless clones may remind one of Ultima Online. The game appeals in its attempt to convey being a prisoner in a world without bars, but the Avatar's contempt for rules and 'good behavior' remove any real concern for him.

DOS · by Ray Soderlund (3501) · 2000

Good Sequel, The last good Ultima...

The Good
The great atmosphere, nice graphics and dark setting gave the game a distinct and unique look. The Avatar now alone and in hostile territory, had to find a way back in Sosaria in order to defeat the Guardian, there are no virtues here, only nasty elemental gods to rob of their powers. The Avatar has no allies and needs to steal, trick, and murder in order to escape Pagan. The premise is great along with great story writing and general ambiance.

The Bad
The scrolling is atrocious, even on top notch hardware the background seems to shift behind the Avatar's feet and the animation lack frames and look bad. The rendered graphics looked good at the time but did not age well, when playing you can notice the repetitive "tiles" that form the backgrounds, some of them don't mesh well with the objects. Really annoying jump puzzles and lack of a party to speak of drag the game down to a watered down action adventure.

The Bottom Line
A good game with a huge heritage that falls kinda short of expectations

DOS · by Paolo Cumin (11) · 2007

Not very Ultima, but still a great game

The Good
U8's music is very very good. A little bit too epic if you compare them to the elegantly small music of the earlier parts, but the music is rather evocative anyway. Graphics are pretty good too.

The Pagan game world is pretty good, and definitely interesting (even though I would have preferred Britannia or something...) and the game definitely stays interesting. There's all sorts of good and terrible things to keep me on toes.

The Bad
Extremely frustrating user interface. This is, above all, an action game. Action games require precise UIs. Yet, right now, I always encounter some silly problems, like when I open a door and try to walk through it, the Avatar tries to walk through the wall instead, or when I should run, Avatar starts to sneak, or the brain-dead simple combat in which the only action is to stab forward and even that misses half of the time... in other words, the UI is very very very clumsy. The patched version adds targeted jumps, which is good (though even then, the Avatar doesn't always jump, but instead stays on spot to do rude animations).

The action focus isn't good in my opinion. I much preferred Ultima VII where you can just hit 'c', sit back and watch baddies die.

The game performance isn't stellar (the game was pretty resource-heavy and these days just about the only reliable way to run the game is in DOSBox, since the Pentagram engine isn't release-quality yet...)

The Bottom Line
Hoo boy. Ultima VIII. Also known as "Ultima III: The Action Game". Also known as "Super Avatar Brothers". Fans thought this was the worst part of the series until Ultima IX was released and someone actually found the Escape from Mt. Drash game.

Yet Ultima VIII has its good sides - it has a pretty interesting game world, very good music, lots of interesting details, and good story. Pretty dark, but good anyway. The game as such was pretty well thought of - even when it didn't actually have a lot of actual Ultima flavor.

Some of its bad reputation is definitely undeserved. Yeah, it has far too action and a pretty awful UI - but the game itself is definitely interesting. If you aren't afraid of tons of quickloading, I definitely recommend it.

(For what it's worth, I've played through about a third of the game...)

DOS · by WWWWolf (444) · 2005

A big stretch, and a big departure from the previous Ultimas.

The Good
The graphics and sound are very good, and the mouse interface is fairly easy to learn and use for character control.

The Bad
It's almost nothing like all the other Ultimas. In fact, if you call it something else ("Land of Pagan", for example) and name the hero something else ("Gunther" instead of "Avatar"), you'd never know it was made to be an Ultima.

Also, combat is kind of tricky since it's real-time and mouse controlled. You can swing your weapon (normally used), or kick your opponent. Kicking is rather silly, I think, and contributes to the "Super Mario Brothers" feel of the game.

The Bottom Line
All the jumping and kicking aside, this is still an okay game to play. However, I think you'll like the other Ultimas better.

DOS · by Mirrorshades2k (274) · 2000

Contributors to this Entry

Critic reviews added by Patrick Bregger, shphhd, Cantillon, Dae, Sun King, WONDERなパン, Alsy, Scaryfun, Parf, Tim Janssen, eradix.