“PAGAN: Ultima VIII” went on to be released in March 1994. As one will have noticed, much like Exodus before it (and originally Ultima IX), the main title of the game remains Pagan… with the “Ultima VIII” only kept as a subtitle.
Originally planned for Xmas 93, the game ended being postponed in no small parts due to the various delays Serpent Isle suffered before it. Of course knowing that Ultima VIII got delayed almost at the last minute is somewhat ironic considering the end result… but more about this below.
After a Serpent Isle that was critically acclaimed by reviews and fans alike… Ultima VIII would end up on the opposite side of the spectrum, remaining to this day what is probably the most controversial episode of the series (with Ultima IX being a close second though it is hard to objectively said which was ended up the most controversial). Fans for the most part panned the game, and reviews varied a lot depening on what part of the world you were in: while it often got outstanding review in Europe, the US press generally panned the game as well.
In hindsight, however Ultima VIII was not a bad game at all – however there are many reasons which lead to these reactions, some legitimate, others not so much – but all very much understandable.
At first sight, Ultima VIII felt glorious. It offered graphics of a quality unseen of at the time – they were beautiful, colored, with an animation absolutely breathtaking (the Avatar sporting over 1200 sprites of unique sprites!). Rather than the top down view of Ultima VII, it took a true isometric approach with a camera closer to the Avatar. The UI and interface was also pretty much like Ultima VII, except with the addition of a jumping capability.
This technical quality was also found in sound and music as well – with a lot of quality digitized sound and absolutely amazing music composed by Nenad Vugrinec (who had worked on previous Origin games such as Strike Commander and Privateer).
So on the whole you might feel this had everything to be an amazing game.
The issue really is that it took an approach that is… quite different from previouses Ultima games – or rather that removed quite a lot of features.
Now for starter, while the game looks great – everything is broken up into zones. Which meant the end of the seamless world introduced with Ultima VI. Dialogues abandonned the keyword for a sentence approach – but removed the character portraits that were dear to many fans (altough I personally feel this was a good move). Also due to the world being plunged in an “eternal twilight”, there were no night&day cycles anymore and NPC schedules were reduced to their bare minimum, with people just teleporting to the place they were needed depending on the time of day.
But the “coup de grace” really was the removal of a party system, with the Avatar having to play through the whole game in solo with no companions of any kind. While this was somewhat logical due to the context, this just didn’t went well with many fans.
Ironically though, all these cut features and removal are but the tip of the iceberg to what really was the main issue of the game to many fans: Ultima VIII just took a much more arcadish approach than any Ultima game before, with real time combat consisting mostly of clickfest (altough I would argue this is better than Ultima VII’s auto combat) and a lot of action elements in dungeons with sprining traps or fireball to avoid as if you were in Prince of Persia or Zelda… and a lot, a whole freaking lot of jumping which lead many disguntled fans to nickname the game “Super Avatar Bros”. The design of the world also left little in term of cities and NPC with only one actual city and two other smaller settlements – which means most of the game was comprised of dangerous dungeons areas, making Ultima VII feels more like a hack’n slash dungeon crawler (indeed in some way one could see Ultima VIII as some sort of predecessor to Diablo!) that an Ultima game.
The reason for this approach is simple: Origin wanted to attract new players the series and choose to take a more mass market approach. It actuallly payed of, because Ultima VIII did brought a lot of new fans and while there is this misconception that lives on that Pagan sold terribly, Origin actually stated on record that this was the most successful Ultima in terme of sales.
But this new approach just didn’t sit well with fans, which also for many criticized the plot and the writing – altough to be fair a lot of content ended up being cut on the Altar of corporate deadline (much like Serpent Isle before it, and of course Ultima IX later) which left a plot that felt incomplete with a lot of plot holes and hanging plot threads. The fan reaction however drastically changed the approach to be taken with Ultima IX – but we’ll get to this once we get to Ultima IX.
Altough I’m gonna stand on my soapbox a bit and argue that in some ways Ultima VIII does feel like a logical continuation of the Serpent Isle philosophy.
I mean when you look at it, Serpent Isle had like barely 3 cities, and a couple of other settlements and NPCs throughout the rest of the world. All the rest, all things considered, was just wilderness and dungeons. When you compare it to Britannia and its dozen of cities/village or so… you could almost say Serpent Isle was a dungeon crawler as well. Now personally I tend to think Ultima VII focused too much on the city side, and Serpent Isle striked a better balance – but in essence you could argue Ultima VIII just pushed the same philosophy forward (to the point that IT became more dungeons crawling than anything). I mean, jumping aside, the dungeons design on the whole are also very much in the same kind of design as Serpent Isle as well – even the whole fireball coming from everywhere was very much present in the Ultima VIIs – except the arcadish approach of Ultima VIII actually makes it possible to avoid them.
Personally, Ultima VIII is one of those games that just grew on me over the years – and I am not ashamed to say that I love the game.
Now when it was released it was a different matter. For starter I couldn’t play it right when it was released and I had to wait at least a whole month before actually getting it. The reason being that it was freaking expansive and my mother refused that I bought it (that’s the hard life of a teenager!) – but I knew a guy with contacts at EA who could get it to me cheaper, so I eventually did got it cheaper… except that it took a long time, which made the wait even more frustrating as already many people where playing (and panning) the game.
Of course I began with by reading the manual (which I loved) and I started the game, happy that it wasn’t hard to get to work unlike the Ultima VII and their Voodoo crap! Now one point of note: I actually played Ultima VIII on a 386 DX 40. I’ll even go and say it: it ran well. There was some disc trashing when there were too many people moving around at the same time, and loading a save could take a very long time – but the game was definitly smooth beside that, which for a long time made me wonder why so many people claimed it needed a 486 DX/2 66 to run. I found out later on however that the Speech Pack of the game actually slowed down the game to a crawl – as it happens I didn’t had it (which annoyed me because I was supposed to), so this was a blessing in disguise (especially since I found out ten years later that the french voices of said pack were terrible).
Now for the first few hours I really loved the game: it had a great atmosphere and exploring Tenebrae was very fun. Getting to Mythran was nice too, altough I could already begin to sense some frustrations with Jumping.
My whole world collapsed by the time I arrived at the Hall of the Mountain King with its dissapearing and moving platforms straight out of Mario Bros. The frustration was already building up to that point, but something just broke in me at that point. I just realised how dissapointing this game was. I completed it, and was eager for Ultima IX anyway… but it left a bitter taste in my mouth.
Over the years however – and due in no small part to the patch which fixed most of my frustrations thanks to the new Jumping system – the game grew on me. I loved the look and feel of the game. I loved the world and the atmosphere of it. And for all its issues and cuts, I really enjoyed the plot as well. I’ve come to realise that while It wasn’t an Ultima game in the strictest send of the term, it was still a very good game on the whole and a nice addition to the series, albeit different.
So I really look forward to replaying it.
One point of note, while I could use DOS Box to play it, I’ve decided to use Pentagram to play it this time, in order to have a higher resolution – and using the opportunity to report any issues I might find to the team and hopefully It’ll work better than the last time I tried (where unfortunately I end up with a systematic crash by the time I reached the dead Necromancers in the Catacombs).
So here goes: Pagan awaits!