Norse mythology is a fascinating backdrop for fantasy games, and hack-and-slash action-adventure Rune is one of the more violent examples.
(USA 2000, developer: Human Head Studios, publisher: Take-Two Interactive, platforms: PC, PS2)
Shortly after his initiation into the Odinsblade, an order of warriors who protect the rune stones forged by god Odin to bind his evil brother Loki, young viking Ragnar has to battle viking Conrack who wants to destroy all stones and bring destruction to the world with Loki and an army of the undead.
Not the deepest of stories…
If one expects an epic tale with memorable characters and action set-pieces, one should lower one’s expectations, because despite the length of the game, it doesn’t provide much insight into either the hero or the villain. While the levels are connected by Odin appearing once in a while, the main protagonist remains speechless except for a few words at the end, making it difficult to identify with him. The villain has quite a big mouth, and so do various goblins in their native tongue (with subtitles), but this doesn’t amount to anything more than promoting their warmongering and craving for power in addition to making the player feel insignificant as one warrior against a dangerous world.
…but a bigger world to explore
And maybe this is where the game shines the brightest: in its world building. The setting isn’t very original in the fantasy genre with its castles, caverns, and hilltops, but the architecture is often quite impressive with wide environments dwarfing the player and smaller ones evoking claustrophobia. The only problem is that the levels are simply too long and rarely break out of the monotony of slaying mostly the same enemies with a questionable lack of intelligence. Only one or two boss battles, the ride on a winged creature in a non-playable cutscene and the transformation of the player into something more powerful at the end are memorable set-pieces. A few more of those would have made progressing through the game less tedious.
Heads are used for chopping…
Combat is vicious fun and even requires a bit of strategy at times. Lobbing enemies’ heads or limbs off isn’t simply a gratuitous violence gimmick, it’s essential to prevent skeletons to revive or others to use their weapons. Destroying shields with certain weapons like clubs or hammers also helps to defeat nasties faster, which is recommended, because one is frequently surrounded by more than one can handle. It’s also possible to use magic by collecting runes that, depending on the amount of power one has accumulated, enhance weapons with different attacks or defensive abilities. While these aren’t necessary to complete the game and can’t even be leveled up, they still make battles easier and more varied to a certain degree.
…but not for puzzling
There are also some puzzles, but except for few parts that play with a level’s theme (like shutting down steam engines or overcoming a maze), these aren’t that varied, relying too much on finding the right lever and demolishing walls to enter hidden rooms. This can sometimes lead to unnecessarily running around, inspecting each crevice and remembering where a closed door is. Scripted events can also be frustrating when enemies only make passages accessible after others are defeated.
Graphics and sounds of the past
With a game from 2000 using the outdated Unreal technology, one shouldn’t expect a visual masterpiece. However, the character and enemy designs still look quite good on higher resolutions, while the gory decapitations feature some rather smooth animations, offering gratuitous fun even today. The levels themselves can’t compete with the impressive architecture and lighting effects of a Clive Barker’s Undying, but they’re still expansive enough to evoke that typical open-world fantasy feeling.
This is further enhanced by the great sound design, with some orchestral music, nifty weapon sounds and echoes in wider spaces, making it feel more epic than the story itself. Voice acting is quite good as well, although the main villain’s shrieking over-the-top voice is a bit too much.
Not a classic, but a guilty pleasure in small doses
Rune is one of those games that have almost all the right ingredients for an epic action-adventure: violent fighting scenes, expansive and claustrophobic spaces, and a larger than life soundtrack. Unfortunately, the level design is pretty uninspired and features sections that are way too long. Variety is also lacking, as there are very few memorable scenes, while the story and character development is almost non-existent. Even if there is a Rune Classic version that trims some of that fat, it’s still a game that will be remembered mostly for its gameplay about chopping off limbs and eating lizards to replenish health than providing clever level design and storytelling.
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