The stereotypical big-screen Viking is one wearing a long beard and a rugged helm with two protruding horns (which the real Vikings never wore), wielding a giant double-sided battleaxe in one hand and a mug of ale in the other. Few movies and even fewer games really touch on the finer points of Norse mythology and imagery. I mean just consider Ragnarok, for starters, the inevitable teleological apocalypse.
It’s not pleasant, but it is an incredibly colorful and well-documented finale. Loki, the trickster, breaks free of his bonds. The wolves Skoll and Hati Hrodvitnisson swallow the sun and the moon, bringing total darkness into the world; the Fenris wolf runs rampant and kills Odin, all-father of the gods. The Midgard serpent revolts and causes the seas to rise. There are battles aplenty, and the sky eventually falls into a pit of flame while the earth sinks into the sea.
Sadly, Rune manages to capture almost none of this richness and drama, instead focusing on the run-of-the-mill Hollywoodized Viking – horned helmets, big axes and lots of mead. There is of course an audience for this kind of stuff, but it’s a bit disappointing to see a developer take such good subject matter and dumb it down.
Rune’s story is amazingly simple. An evil Viking, Conrack, has made a deal with Loki to destroy the Runestones and bring about Ragnarok so that Loki can escape Odin’s prison. It’s up to Ragnar, namely you, to stop him. Fortunately Ragnar has the help of Odin, and while it’s never made clear why Odin wants or needs a scrawny mortal to do his dirty work for him, that’s exactly what you end up doing. Odin shows up (or at least his head does) a few times in cutscenes to provide encouragement.
An Axe to Grind
But forget the story. This game is all about killing things and, to be fair, it does that pretty well, and the game looks pretty good, too. After a run-in with Conrack in the opening scene, you are left alone and unarmed in the aptly called Underworld, and you’d better get used to it because you’ll be spending way too much time down there. While the texture work and sheer size of Rune’s levels are commendable, they do suffer from a lack of variety. Too much of the game is spent underground, through dark caverns, tombs and crypts, and it’s only after the second half of your journey that you’ll see the light of day again.
You’ll learn that escaping the Underworld is no simple feat. Later on you’ll find some weapons and will soon be hacking your way gleefully through hordes of fell warriors, powerful beasts, and crustaceans. Combat is where the game shines. Despite its Unreal-powered shooter roots, Rune involves no real shooting at all. Combat is of the melee variety, and while lacking the tactical complexity of your average fighting game, it does have a particular visceral appeal to it.
As you progress, you’ll collect an arsenal of swords, hammers, and axes. The first weapons you find are small and plain; later in the game you will wield monstrous axes and hammers that would make Mjolnir look like a child’s toy. You’ll also find shields for your off-hand. You can use these to deflect damage by hitting the right mouse button, although you’ll have to remember that they will eventually brake after sustaining enough damage, usually in the middle of a fight. Weapons, by contrast, are everlasting.
Your ranged attacks come from your Runes. You’ll collect Runes that are scattered about Midgard, and you can burn their energy to enhance your weapons. Each weapon has it’s own Rune power, such as a frost attack that allows you to freeze and then shatter your foes, or an earth attack that shakes the ground with a mini earthquake. All of these powers use a significant chunk of your energy, however, so their wanton usage is limited.
If only there were more foes to smite down! You meet only a handful of creatures throughout the game, most of them in the second half. By the time you fight your way out of Hel (about a third of the game), you will pray to never see a zombie again. These undying lost souls will haunt you endlessly until you chop their heads off, a hard trick to pull off at first, but easy once you’ve figured it out. Later in the game, after finally escaping the Underworld, you’ll get to fight other Vikings. While their AI is mostly consistent, you’ll no doubt find instances where enemies lose track of you the moment you go around a corner.
Rune falls short of a Norse epic, but if you’re the closet Viking who also enjoys the likes of Severance and Die by the Sword, then this game is probably up your galley (ha, look at that pun! A master wordsmith practicing his trade right there).
System Requirements: Pentium II 300 Mhz, 64 MB RAM, 16 MB Video, Win 95/98/ME