After almost fifteen years of churning out Ultima games, each one generally better than the last or at the very least quite comparable in quality, Origin finally falls short. Very few companies have a comparable outstanding track record and with good reason -- it's nearly impossible to only make good games. Even the most brilliant minds occasionally have bad ideas and Ultima VIII: Pagan is certainly a case in point.
Ultima VIII: Pagan, like all Ultima games, is a story about the Avatar and his quest to live a perfectly virtuous life, subsequently liberating oppressed people wherever he goes. To this end, his nemesis, the Guardian thought it would be interesting to toss him into the world of Pagan where the Guardian is worshipped as a benevolent deity and the Avatar's struggles would surely fail.
The plot is quite solid and an interesting diversion from previous games. Where this adventure starts to go wrong, however, is in its gameplay. At first, the opening movie and initial play seems much the same as Ultima VII: The Black Gate but problems quickly begin to arise. Origin made a decision to try and incorporate the best elements of an action game into this role-playing franchise even though Ultima CRPG fans voiced concern. As it happens, the fans were probably right as the initial version of Ultima VIII: Pagan was extremely frustrating to play.
Jumping puzzles, the likes of which usually aren't seen outside a Super Mario Bros. game, suddenly materialize. Real-time combat is more difficult to deal with than that of Ultima VII: The Black Gate. Furthermore, the linearity, first seen in Ultima VII: Serpent Isle, runs rampant to such an extreme degree that randomly stealing something in town gets you instantly killed by a teleporting wizard lawman. It is one thing to have Iolo admonish you for being a naughty Avatar when you grab a loaf of bread from somebody's table but to be instantly killed for it is another matter entirely. The designers intend for you to explore the world and obtain items in a certain order and you have to comply.
To be fair, Ultima VIII: Pagan has its fair share of good features. The SVGA graphics are often quite lush and exquisitely detailed, a testament to Origin's enduringly fantastic art department. The game's alien atmosphere is never once broken via inappropriate graphic design or lackluster attention to detail. Sound Blaster sound effects are also quite appropriate and enjoyable and the Ad-Lib compatible MIDI music, while not quite as good as previous games, still holds its own.
After ages of ridicule and consumer complaints, Origin released a new version of Ultima VIII: Pagan (the subject of this review). Fortunately, the update fixed many of the problems such as the parts of the game that require you to jump over randomly shifting blocks perfectly or die -- they've been reworked with a more CRPG-friendly variety. The new version also addresses multiple bugs of varying degrees of seriousness and make the game far more enjoyable as a whole. However, the linearity remains a problem and the cloth map, a staple of Ultima releases, is poorly done.
This time, however, the Avatar completes his quest alone since none of his faithful companions are available to help. He has to do everything by himself and deal with an awful combat system as well. The real-time approach is similar to that in Ultima VII: The Black Gate but, here, you actually control your character's individual combat maneuvers with various buttons for kicking, swinging, hopping, skipping and prancing merrily.
Fortunately, most enemies in the game are none too good at understanding the strategic "swing and back up" move, so at least you have an advantage. There are plenty of weapons and armor from which to choose and each weapon, such as the ever-popular undead-crushing mace, has specific strengths against different types of monsters. The magic system is quite similar to that found in previous games though there are different schools available in the adventure due to the bizarre magical properties of Pagan.
The citizenry of Pagan, from the village of Tenebrae to the Hall of the Mountain King, seem entirely willing to answer any bizarre questions you ask about your predicament as you struggle to escape the land. Unlike previous games, though, no character portraits appear when you initiate conversation, an aspect that further detracts from the endearing atmosphere of previous games. Earlier adventures built upon the strengths of each previous title, something Ultima VIII: Pagan fails to do as it tries to re-define the Ultima series. The game has some merit but, overall, it's a disappointment when compared to a long line of fine games.
Graphics: The game's art certainly holds its own with an admirable SVGA palette and the look of the game is consistent throughout.
Sound: While not as good as previous games in the series, the sound and music lend a fair amount of positive atmosphere to the game.
Enjoyment: If you like action-based CRPGs, the game should appeal to you but for fans of more traditional games, the emphasis on reflexes will not be welcome.
Replay Value: The Ultima tradition of finding things hidden in all sorts of nooks and crannies your second time through is kept alive but the linearity makes any sort of serious replays slightly chore-like.
People who downloaded Ultima 8: Pagan have also downloaded:
Ultima 7: The Black Gate, Ultima 9: Ascension, Ultima 7: Part Two - Serpent Isle, Ultima 6: The False Prophet, Ultima 5: Warriors of Destiny, Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness, Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress, Ultima III: Exodus
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