From the pages of the past, games of yesteryear – Pagan: Ultima VIII

Flames and a pentagram also illustrated the box for the first release of the game, coming somewhat full circle since the days of Exodus.

While another team at Origin headed up development on Ultima VII Part Two: Serpent Isle for 1993, Richard “Lord British” Garriott and his own crack squad worked on the officially “numbered” next chapter of the series — Ultima VIII which was released in 1994. It was also the first Ultima that Garriott would develop for Electronic Arts after the buyout, something that the ad above further notes in adding “An Electronic Arts Company” blurb right beneath Origin’s logo. Today, you can snag it over at Good Old Games.

Like Exodus: Ultima III, this next game was titled the same way as Pagan: Ultima VIII after the world that it takes place on. No longer is the Avatar on Britannia having been transported to Pagan by the Guardian at the end of Serpent Isle. Now he’s on a world that knows nothing of the Virtues that the Avatar had stood for, one that has been ground beneath the heel of his greatest adversary, the Guardian. It’s from this prison that the Avatar must escape from before Britannia is reduced to ashes. No friends provide company this time around, no party to help tackle the challenges ahead. This is a solo action adventure.

So goes the latest setup for the next major entry of the long running Ultima series. Yet longtime fans also remember it for every different reasons. Some had considered it “okay”, others had decried it as the death knell to the series, ultimately pandering to a new demographic inspired more by fast action and bleeding edge graphics. CRPGs were also facing increasing competition from multiple fronts whether it was Doom on PCs or the runaway success of the increasingly lucrative console market with its wide swath of JRPGs.

Personally, I didn’t hate Pagan — it was very different from the ‘classic’ Ultima as I knew it then, but it wasn’t quite the “Super Avatar Bros.” that it had earned as a nickname from certain quarters. Yet seen through the lens of history against what the series was known for over a decades worth of sequels, it’s also easy to understand why many longtime and die-hard fans that had been with the series since the beginning were upset over the changes. To them, Pagan was the “universal ammo” moment or “third-person shooter” shift for the Ultima series.

Pagan’s controversial cover and content had also elicited a voluntary rating of MP-13, the same way that Ultima VII had. It didn’t pull any punches and was about as mature for what it allowed the player to do as Ultima VII and Serpent Isle were, eventually receiving the ESRB’s first “Mature” rating for the series (raising the voluntary MP-13 age to 17+) when it was finally instituted in the same year the game was released. The play guide for the game even covers the use of the pentagram with the following disclaimer:

“Ultima VIII Pagan is a fantasy role-playing game designed solely for entertainment purposes. The game’s setting involves a confrontation with the classic mythological Elemental Titans and their polytheistic worshippers. In the game, the terms pentagram and pagan were selected for their relevance to the storyline and setting. ORIGIN wishes to imply no additional connotations for the worlds and concepts defined above.”

Quite a change from the Ultima III days.

But there was no doubt that the game was every bit as intended for mature players whether it was because of the story-based material used in the game as well as the range of NPCs that could be on the other end of the Avatar’s weapons ranging from fury-fired adults to controversially wicked children within the world of Pagan. As always, the Ultima series left it up to the player and their own considerations on how to deal with each situation as it came up. It didn’t always force them into keeping their noses clean, something that the series often left on players’ shoulders.

While the story and the content of the world followed the spirit of the series, it was a much smaller place than the previous games as efforts were focused on building the 3D/2D art and animation giving Pagan life as Garriott points out in this video from 1998’s Ultima Collection:

Gameplay-wise, things were a far cry from the previous series’ crunch heavy roots. Another piece of the old classics, gender selection, was gone. Players could now only name the Avatar who would be male, wear a great helm, and be able to jump, climb, grab onto ledges, and leap across narrow gaps. He was a medieval Lara Croft, or the great grandfather of Nathan Drake, with a clicky sword arm that players bashed foes with. No more hitting the ‘C’ button and watching the Avatar (sans friends) automatically hack enemies to the ground.

Avatar in 3D…2D

Shifting the game into an isometric adventure with action-oriented trappings was a surprising turn for the traditionally more deliberately paced CRPG series, one that fans didn’t necessarily ask for. It was a design approach that related it more closely with titles such as Sandcastle’s The Immortal from 1990 or Wolf Team’s Arcus Odyssey in 1991 — two isometric action oriented titles with light RPG trappings. The technology also had a familiar name attached to it — Tony Zurovec — who would go on to use the lessons learned to build an isometric shooter that threw away any role-playing pretense behind the new engine a year later with Crusader: No Remorse in 1995.

It also didn’t help that the actual jumping had its own issues. Timing jumps onto platforms using the dodgy controls led to multiple reloads in a Pavlovian exercise of guesstimating what the sweet spots were. In a more arcade-oriented platformer on either the PC or the console, this kind of issue would be unforgivable and a patch was actually issued to make things easier to manage.

On the other side of the coin, the concept brought back memories of time spent in Ultima Underworld II peeling back the veil on the Guardian’s conquests. Pagan was a bigger version of one of those worlds but also much smaller than the previous Ultimas. The included booklet laid bare the rather brief history of Pagan with an included section on that of Britannia’s — just enough to hint at the Guardian’s influence over the world and the ruling Titans lording over the people of the volcanic island the Avatar is stranded on. Players coming off of the vast lands explored in U7 and U7 Part Two will wonder why, for such a big chapter, it feels like a much smaller place.

As for the people that live there, the actual Pagans are those who worship the Titans — the Zealans are those that still pay lip service to the three original powers that once ruled over the world. The Pagans were inspired by an ‘inner voice’ and warned of a Destroyer that would come, telling them that they needed to focus their worship to new powers that would save them and to forget the old gods. When the Destroyer came, players should recognize the description in the book as that of the Guardian (and that the voice also belongs to the same) which the Titans battle and “win”. Aside from the setup, however, the degree of cultural depth in the game seems a bit shallow, especially in comparison to a lore-heavy title such as Serpent Isle.

This is also a much darker chapter mainly because the player is left largely to their own devices on what they should do and how to go about doing it. Very un-Avatar actions with no real in-game repercussions ranging from murder to theft are cavalierly encouraged and forced onto the player during the campaign. While some of that that earns kudos for leaving the player free to do what they should in a general sense, it almost begs the question of why even pretend to be the Avatar anymore.

By the time the Avatar makes it to the end of the game, he’s laid waste to most of the already apocalyptic island behind him before escaping back to Britannia. Those Pagan guys? See you in the next life and sorry for the mess? If the game didn’t have the Ultima name behind it, it could have been mistaken for a completely different title.

Broken World

Pagan was also released relatively unfinished which the jumping controls alluded to. Dino’s Ultima Page (which is sadly no longer updated) has a wealth of information on Ultima VIII covering a number of things “omitted” from the game at the last minute but still exist in some way within the actual code.

Part of that reason likely stems from EA’s aggressive scheduling — they wanted a game out based on a “seasonal model” like another Madden, kicking the game into a cyclic release schedule. Ironically, that’s also something that would repeat itself with BioWare’s Dragon Age 2 more than a decade later as it sped through development, ultimately releasing to a less-than-enthusiastic reception even from those that invested themselves into the first game. But the days of when an Ultima could be coded by a lone guy in a closet in a little less than a year were over, something that EA didn’t seem to realize.

Garriott also recalls in an interview with Eurogamer that they had “shipped Ultima 8  more or less on time, but the only way we got there was by really cutting out huge swathes of the game all the way to the point where the cloth map was completely unrelated to the map of the real game because we threw out so many bits and pieces of it.” Sheri Graner Ray, one of the writers and designers on Ultima VIII, recalls the brutal “death march” crunch of “10 months of mandatory 12 hour minimum days, 7 days a week” to get the game out in an entry discussing The Lost Vale, an expansion pack that was literally canned at the last minute due to the apparently low sales of Ultima VIII.

Ultima VIII also had a speech pack released separately as an add-on for those with the sound card support. The CD-ROM version came out shortly afterward with different box art (the Guardian’s hand reaching out from a glowing pentagram in space, holding the Avatar in his palm). The game was later re-released with yet another new box design which featured only flames, no pentagram. Unfortunately, EA’s ‘classic’ re-releases left out the Pagan coin and cloth map leaving the documentation scanned into the CD.

There was also supposed to be an expansion pack called the Lost Vale. In the booklet for Pagan, reference to a “Lost Vale” was made as a place where one of the elemental Titans (Lithos) had sealed away a group of Zealans during the war between they and the Pagans who supported the new gods thanks to their ‘inner voice’. As related earlier by Sheri Graner Ray, it literally was finished when Warren Spector let her and the team know that the decision came down not to release it after all.

The Guardian Isn’t Finished Yet, Avatar

Ultima VIII had stumbled for Origin but it wasn’t the end of the CRPG era, though things had begun trending towards Doom killers, graphics cards, sound cards, and CD-ROM based titles in the early 90s.

Other developers such as a relatively young Bethesda Softworks would put their 3D foot forward with The Elder Scrolls: Arena, the first of what would become a legendary series spanning nearly two decades of sandboxed adventure. Westwood Studios had Lands of Lore. Jon Van Caneghem and his team at New World Computing would also continue to follow and develop their 3D approach through their Might & Magic series. Even adventure games would follow the trend with titles such as Adeline Software’s Little Big Adventure in the same year, coming out a few months after Ultima VIII with a solid interpretation of where Garriott and his team could have gone control-wise. And consoles would continue to wage their own war for users’ dollars and mindshare with a growing library of JRPGs and action games adding additional pressure on developers and publishers.

Ultima VIII’s action-oriented re-invention was already somewhat dated by the time it arrived drawing comparisons to titles that did what it wanted to do better elsewhere from a mechanical perspective, especially to those examples on consoles. Sure, Genesis or SNES games didn’t look as good, but they had the kind of control that Pagan could have benefited from. Yet EA would continue to bet on the series with an MMORPG and then finally, into the ninth and final chapter that held the hope of ending the Guardian trilogy on a high note.

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