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Pagan Online is an odd, fun mashup of Diablo and Warframe

In Pagan Online you clobber monsters in classic action RPG style. You chop them down with the left mouse button, hammer them with the right mouse button, jump on them with spacebar, dash away from harm with shift, and spin around on the spot with weapons outstretched to mulch them into delicious experience. After each encounter clears, loot sprays everywhere and you gather it into your inventory screen with a series of eager clicks.

So far, so Diablo, but Pagan Online’s broader structure is less conventional. 

Missions are very short, and primarily exist to give you crafting materials. Instead of fighting your way through skill trees and customising your character’s abilities, you grind for access to whole new heroes with their own dashboard of skills. In this sense the game behaves like Warframe, where you repeatedly run missions to earn blueprints and materials that eventually let you new frames with their own ability sets. Like Warframe, you have the choice to run different types of mission, like assassination and wave survival, in addition to story missions that typically chain a few wave survival rooms together and give you a boss to melt at the end.

There are bugs in this Early Access build, like vanishing sound cues and an objective that occasionally points the wrong way, but the game looks and feels really quite good. You move your character around with WASD while targeting with your mouse. Enemies teleport in from nowhere, often right in your grill, which takes some getting used to. It does mean you’re constantly in combat however, and I’m particularly happy with the sheer number of enemies Pagan Online can throw at you in a given wave. A big (too big) arrow near your character means you always know where the next waves will appear, and there are bonus chests with countdown timers that incentivise you to build the most efficient damage-dealer you can.

I can’t help but miss the feeling of watching my character’s shoulder pads get bigger and sillier as I find more powerful gear.

There are some key progression elements I miss from traditional action RPGs. You can eventually unlock new skins for your hero, but apart from your weapon, your character’s appearance doesn’t change as you pick up bits of loot. Pagan Online is about building a stable of characters you can switch between, but I can’t help but miss the feeling of watching my character’s shoulder pads get bigger and sillier as I find more powerful gear. 

As a player used to long dungeons and teleporting back to town when I need to, I find Pagan Online's enforced town stops jarring. The way the game walls off each room and hits you with a wave challenge disrupts the idea that you're playing through a continuous campaign, but this feels like an action RPG for newcomers less wedded to genre conventions, particularly newcomers who might prefer quicker drop-in games. 

The skill upgrade system is basic too. When you level up you get a skill point that you can spend, along with some more crafting materials, to slightly upgrade an ability. For the default character this always seems to equate to plus five, ten, or 20 percent damage. There are a couple of points where you can spend rare crafting materials to unlock a special upgrade, but these aren't exciting. You can make your pistol shot template slightly wider, or give it a bit more range, but given that all the combat happens at point blank range anyway, there seems little need.

Without a detailed skill system, crafting has to carry the day. The crafting interface is satisfyingly chunky and watching an item card explode out of the forge feels like opening an enormous Hearthstone card pack. You craft items from blueprints that drop in battle, and once you’ve crafted it the blueprint is consumed. This again encourages you to keep going back out into the world to run a ten minute mission and farm some more. You can definitely feel your character hitting harder in combat, but few of the many stats on my character sheet seem to matter to my build in these early stages.

You unlock a character by picking up shards of their essence as rare drops in normal missions, and consistent drops in assassination missions (though to run these you need to farm key-pieces to craft keys). You need 50 of a character's shards to unlock them, which will take a while. If you have already unlocked a character you can use further shards to unlock new skins and pets. Pick your starting character carefully; you'll be using them for a long time.

Pagan Online is in Early Access now for $30. Once I got used to the stop-start rhythm I started to enjoy the combat more, and the new characters give you a strong reason to grind out materials and take on tougher challenges. It's easy to see the roster eventually expanding as the game grows, which is very on-script in the era of shooters with ever-expanding hero rosters. Why shouldn't the action RPG genre have its own take? 

I'd give it a month or so for the bugs to be ironed out and to see when co-op will be added ("shipping very soon" the devs say), but if you're looking for a bite-size Diablo-like without too many crunchy upgrade systems, keep Pagan Online in mind.

Based in Bath with the UK team, Tom loves strategy games, action RPGs, hack ‘n slash games, digital card games… basically anything that he can fit on a hard drive. His final boss form is Deckard Cain.