Ultima VIII: Pagan begins where Ultima VII: Part Two - Serpent Isle ended. The Guardian banishes the Avatar to the land of Pagan, a world under his control. Stranded in this unknown land, without his companions to help him, the Avatar's goal is to find a way back to Britannia. He has to confront four Titans in this world who are embodiments of the four elements, as well as master different styles of magic and fight many opponents on his way.
The gameplay is significantly more action-oriented in this installment than in the previous Ultima games. The Avatar is able to jump and climb, and some puzzles are based on these abilities, adding platform-style elements to the game. There are no companions to help him in battles; combat is action-based and relies on the player's dexterity. The game also abandons the leveling system of the previous entries, utilizing instead a training-based approach, similar to the one implemented in Quest for Glory games: the character's parameters are increased by continuously using correspondent actions (e.g. the Avatar's strength gradually increases as he swings his weapon).
Magic occupies an important place in the game, also departing from the style of the preceding games. The player still needs to gather reagents for spells; however, the exact preparation and casting of the spell differs depending on the elemental school it belongs to. There are four different magic schools in the game, and mastering their spells bears plot-related importance as well.
Like in the two previous Ultima installments, the game features physical interactivity with the environment: the player is able to take, drop, and move most objects from place to place. As opposed to the topic-based dialogue style of the earlier games in the series, Pagan uses conversations with selectable responses. It also reduces NPC interaction, focusing more on exploration of a hostile world and combat.
A speech pack was released separately, which added voices to some of the major game characters. It was included in the CD-ROM edition of the game.