Ultima VIII: Pagan is the eighth entry in the Ultima series and was developed and published by Origin Systems for PC MS-DOS in 1994. Like its predecessor (The Black Gate), Pagan goes for a darker, more mature tone than most of the previous Ultima games, and it is also more puzzle and action-oriented.
You arrive on the shores of a strange land, having fallen into the sea and been dredged up by the fishing net of a local man called Devon. When you awake, Devon is standing over you and answers your questions. You’ve apparently landed near an ominously-sounding city called Tenebrae, ruled by a malevolent woman called Lady Mordea, and you were lucky not to have been eaten by a sea-faring creature called The Lurker. He mentions a man called Lithos and his army of grave-digging Necromancers. He offers you some food, and in return you steal his bedroll, and he then suggests that you go into the city to look for a man called Bentic who might be able to tell you more. He also seems anxious about something happening to the west.
Travelling a short distance west you come to a pier where a commotion seems to be happening. And before you can even introduce yourself you witness a local man being beheaded in the presence of his hysterical wife, and another woman who you can only assume is Lady Mordea. Which is quite an introduction to this place…
Ultima VIII is depicted from an isometric viewpoint, with The Avatar in the centre of the screen and the environment scrolling around him. The controls feel similar to Ultima VII, with the mouse used for movement (by holding down the right mouse button and pointing the cursor, The Avatar will walk/run in that direction), and to interact with items, people and objects (left-clicking identifies someone or something, and double left-clicking a person or object either starts a conversation or uses something). The keyboard is also used to bring up information windows and inventory containers. In fact: most commands have both a mouse and a keyboard alternative, like – for example – pressing the ‘Z’ key will bring up The Avatar’s attribute panel, and double left-clicking on The Avatar himself will do the same.
Actions that can only be performed with a mouse are mostly new to the series, like run, climb, and jump, and these are an important part of Ultima VIII. Running is performed when you hold the right mouse button while the mouse cursor is at the extreme edge of the screen, and it really could’ve been done so much better. Climbing is done by clicking both mouse buttons at the same time, but you have to do it a particular way (hold down the left button first, then click the right button, while pointing at where you want to climb). Jumping requires similar and is again a very hit and miss process. You can also hold down the left mouse button while jumping to hold onto a ledge when you land. This, however, is all easier said than done and it does make you wonder why they decided to make this game more action-oriented with a control system this cumbersome.
Combat is real-time and is somewhat similar to the previous game, except that this time there are no battle tactics and there’s no auto-attacking. You press ‘C’ to enter combat mode, and The Avatar will then control differently to when he’s just moving around. When he’s in a combat stance The Avatar can use/swing his weapon (provided one is equipped), kick, block, and retreat. He can’t run, climb or jump while in combat mode, so you have to toggle out of it to run away from a fight. In general, combat is mostly spamming double-clicks on a target, and dying, and is pretty unsatisfying. Most true Ultima fans will probably be yearning for the days of turn-based combat after playing this game, and I have to admit that I was one of them (because the series has gone from having some of the best turn-based combat in fantasy role-playing history, to having dumb, click-based real-time combat).
Managing inventories is very similar to Ultima VII. You drag items from the game world to The Avatar to automatically have him carry something. You can carry small boxes and sacks inside your backpack to keep certain items separate, to try to stay organised. These inventory windows can be re-positioned on-screen (by left-clicking and dragging them), and you can have multiple open at the same time, and can drag items between them. And, like in Ultima VII, it can be very fiddly trying to click on tiny items with the tip of the mouse cursor to move or use them.
Graphically, Ultima VIII is very good, with rich, colourful backgrounds and a large and varied world to explore. The scrolling isn’t silky smooth, but it’s good enough. The animated characters, however, leave a little to be desired. They look a bit too ‘early 90s pre-rendered’ for my liking, and the animation is a bit unnatural. The Avatar strides around like a machine, rather then a realistic person, but I guess when a character is dressed from head to foot in armour they’re going to look a bit like a robot.
Sound-wise, Ultima VIII is also very good. Background music ranges from superbly atmospheric, to warbly DOS pseudo MIDI muzak. There’s also a liberal helping of digitised speech, although thankfully this is used sparingly (the voice acting is pretty cheesy, so I don’t think I could’ve handled it being used everywhere). A digitised speech pack was made available after Ultima VIII‘s initial release and this provides full voices for a few of the main characters – particularly for The Guardian, who taunts you throughout the game. You have to remember that digitised speech was still very much a novelty in the early ’90s, so was seen as a selling point back then.
Gameplay-wise, Ultima VIII is a bit of a mixed bag. While the game is massive, complex and challenging, and is definitely absorbing to play to some degree, it does have a number of issues that hold it back from being great. The main problem with it is that the controls are very cumbersome and performing simple actions – like trying to walk through a door – can sometimes be a right royal pain in the arse. Never mind trying to climb or jump… The cursor-based movement system is too restrictive and really doesn’t work that well. Like, for example, when trying to open a door, or interact with something; more often than not the game will not allow you to do anything unless you’re close-up to the object you’re trying to click on. You have to be too close, to be honest. And this creates a lot of frustrating instances where you’re failing to do stuff because you’re not close enough to something; even if it looks like you are. A bit more lenience with proximity would’ve gone a long way in this game. Especially when it comes to opening doors. Another thing that really annoyed me about the movement in Ultima VIII was the way short-stepping works. If the cursor is close to The Avatar he’ll take a short ‘shuffle step’, and I found myself doing this accidentally all the time. You really do need the patience of a Saint to get used to Pagan‘s annoying control system. There are also numerous instances where you have to climb or take running jumps (and hold down the correct mouse button to hold onto something and pull yourself up), and this is also very hit and miss. So much so that you’d better make a save before you attempt anything like that, because you’re going to fail more often than not. Origin‘s attempt to turn Ultima into an action game – using mostly mouse controls – turns out to be more of a failure than a success, and you’ll likely be pining for gamepad controls when playing this game, or at least a better, more responsive and more accommodating control system. Which is a pity because Pagan is an interesting game, but it really is let down by sluggish and flaky controls.
Another disappointment is that you don’t seem to be able to recruit companions in this game. While I understand that The Avatar is now in a different world, and therefore his friends Iolo, Dupre, Shamino – et al – are not present to be recruited, it would’ve at least been good to have had some backup during a fight. Instead, you must fight alone, and this is not as tactical or interesting as party-based combat. That said, while I do understand that – with the game’s hefty system requirements at the time of its original release – it wouldn’t have been practical to have had companions trailing behind you, it still doesn’t make up for the loss of party-based adventuring, which is what the previous Ultima games did so well.
On the plus side: street signs are now written in plain English, instead of in druidic runes that require translation (this saves time when looking for a particular location); food – and the need to eat – seems to play a much lesser role in this game, which is a great thing in my opinion as I got tired of feeding everyone in Ultima VII (all food seems to do in this is replenish The Avatar’s health), and the keyring that was first introduced in Serpent Isle is included in this from the beginning, which makes organising and using keys much easier.
A fan-made game engine, called Pentagram, is available for running Ultima VIII on modern operating systems (similar in many ways to Exult, for Ultima VII). You of course must own the original game files to get it working.
Ultima VIII runs well in DOSBox, which is the version that’s still available to buy/play from GOG.com, but it still contains a few bugs that can hamper the game (although they’re nowhere near as bad as the bugs seen in Serpent Isle). Occasionally a character will move around while you’re talking to them, which can wreak havoc with responses. The screen will be constantly moving, following the NPC around, which makes it very difficult to actually click on a conversation choice. I experienced this with Devon (the guy who you speak to at the very start of the game), in my very first play-through. He was constantly moving, making it almost impossible to reply to him. Also: on occasion a character will talk to you while they’re close to the edge of the screen and their caption text will be cut off, making it impossible to read.
Overall, Ultima VIII is still fun to play, even though the control system does leave a lot to be desired and it does have its faults. These later Ultima games just have so much interactivity in them; items to find, treasures to plunder, monsters to fight (and run away from), quests and puzzles to solve, and things to see, that they’re still well worth playing today. And Ultima VIII: Pagan is no exception to that.
An expansion pack, called The Lost Vale, was planned for release for Ultima VIII, but never materialised. The add-on was reportedly complete and ready for release, but after Ultima VIII‘s “relatively poor sales” it was cancelled. Screenshots of The Lost Vale do exist, and the extras supplied with the GOG.com version also provide a variety of design documents detailing its development. It is a pity, though, that the expansion was lost and never made available. It would’ve made a great inclusion to the GOG re-release…
Ultima VIII: Pagan Keyboard Commands:
c = Combat Mode on/off
i = Inventory
o = Options
z = Statistics
Alt+h = Change mouse handedness
Alt+v = Version number
Alt+x = Quit game
Escape = Open/close diary
Backspace = Close all open windows