Contrary to what people say, I enjoy a good action game as much as the next guy. While it is true that I have trouble enjoying a heavily scripted action game, when a game allows me to feel like a total badass and raise all kinds of hell, then I’m sold. This is why I love Rune, a third-person action game from the early 2000s. Never heard of it? Aww… that’s too bad. Rune is… well…I can’t say what’s it about in two sentences now, can I? Tell you what, since it’s Saturday, why don’t you Sunny Jims sit around while I go pick up my rose-tinted nostalgia goggles and tell you a story of divine proportions.
*Puts on nostalgia goggles*
Making Norse Mythology Great Again
Rune is an action adventure game developed by Human Head Studios and published by Gathering of Developers in 2000. Human Head Studios is a relatively unknown developer back then (still is, to some extent) who were still a new fish in a pond full of sharks and whales. They would come into the limelight later on through the release of the fps Prey and the cancelled Prey 2 (not to be confused with Arcane’s Prey). Human Head at the time was formed of former Raven Software employees and contained people who had worked on the original Heretic. Everyone remembers John Romero’s colossal disappointment of a game, Daikatana. Daikatana was supposed to have a sequel and Ion Storm hired Human Head Studios in a contract basis to develop the game. For that, they licensed Unreal Engine from Epic games. But the project ultimately fell through to no one’s surprise. In an interview, Human Head co-founder Shane Gurno said, “When Daikatana 2 was cancelled, Epic was incredibly nice and let us use the Unreal engine even though we didn’t have any contracts with any publishers.” They would use this license to develop Rune. The genesis of Rune occurred while Human Head founders Ted Halsted and Shane Gurno were working at Raven Software. Halsted, who had always been fascinated by Vikings, took inspiration from the Icelandic Völsunga saga. When Daikatana 2 fell through, Viking idea was revived and work began on Rune with the publisher Gathering of Developers. Contrary to the popular trend back then, the Unreal-powered Rune wasn’t an fps. It was a third-person hack and slash adventure set in the backdrop of Norse mythology. Rune didn’t have any shooting. The weapons used in the game include swords, axes, maces, and other medieval fantasy melee weapons. Despite using an engine made for shooting, the interface lends itself well to a playing style consisting of running, jumping, and hacking at opponents. Although the game includes no ranged weapons, any weapon can be thrown.
A new feature introduced in Rune is that anything dropped by a dead opponent (body parts included) can be picked up and used. Limbs can be swung as clubs, and heads can be carried and used as weapons. Enemies whose sword arms have been chopped off will run away from battle. This was made possible using the new skeletal animation system added to the Unreal Engine by Human Head and Epic.Rune was released for Windows on October 30, 2000. The Mac OS version followed in December 2000 and Loki Software released the Linux port in June 2001. In October 2001, Rune was re-released with Halls of Valhalla (a multiplayer expansion) included, as Rune Gold. Both Rune and Rune: Halls of Valhalla (a multiplayer expansion) were released with their own RuneEd toolkits which the community quickly used making several popular multiplayer mods. Although a few single player add-ons have been made, it is Rune‘s multiplayer aspect has been the focus of several mutators, skins, and hundreds of maps that are available through many clan and resource websites.
Rune was released to generally positive reception with the critics praising the atmosphere, graphics and the combat while the common criticism was the enemy AI, or their lack of any tactic in particular. Rune sold enough copies to make the game a sleeper hit and put Human Head Studios on the map.
Kicking Ass and Taking Names
Viking action games are somehow severely lacking in our great industry. It’s kind of funny though. Norse mythology would be a perfect setting for a brutal hack n slash action game, yet the concept is largely underused. Other than the newly released God of War, Viking- Battle for Asgard, War of the Vikings, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and Rune, there aren’t a lot of games that offer visceral combat set around Norse mythos. This is where Rune shines. Rune is the definitive Viking action game.
In Rune, you play as a young bearded Viking warrior called Ragnar (before entertainment media started overusing the name) who is inducted to a sect called Odin’s Blade, who defends the earth against Loki’s tricks. At the beginning of the game, you and your party of bearded veterans are betrayed by an ally under order from Loki. This results in the death of everyone in the party, including Ragnar’s father. But you’re not an Odon’s Blade for nothing. Odin, the god of war and death resurrects you and is tasked with defeating the trickster god himself. Just appreciate how frigging badass it all sounds. Now, playing as a Viking warrior alone is an appealing proposition in itself. But one who fights his way out of the underworld and cuts through dozens of otherworldly creatures to defeat a god himself is just so damn cool. You’re basically a walking juggernaut armed with swords, axes and warhammers all weighing in pounds.
Gameplay in Rune mostly comprises of combat and platforming. But in-your-face melee combat is the name of the game here. Throughout the game you’ll swing, slash, cut, slice and crush and all animated things, and sometime’s you’re not even that discriminating. At the start of the game, you’ll be armed with nothing but a short sword that is not worth cutting down foliage, let alone undead monstrosities. But by the end of the game, you’ll be swinging gigantic two-handed swords that look way unpractical for even Ragnar. That, combined with Ragnar’s changing appearance, from a crappy leather armour to full metal mail and the appearance of hulking pieces of metals and bones as your enemies combined with the natural progression of different looking environments establishes a sense of progression that is lacking in other similar games. It feels like an actual journey instead of a series of disconnected levels leading you from one to the next. The game takes its name from the rune system that is a power-up for Ragnar, allowing him to apply a buff to whichever weapon he is carrying at the time. These vary from stealing health from enemies, shooting an arc of fire, freezing enemies allowing them to be shattered and shooting lighting balls in all directions. This rune system adds some variety to an otherwise standard melee brawler. Overall it’s a damn good game man.
Legacy of Rune
Despite running on a 20-year-old engine, Rune just oozes out atmosphere in gallons. Some of the environments still look stunning from an artistic point of view. The controls are smooth as they can get and the immersion is unbelievable. There are a few early 3D platforming sections that can get annoying, but these are few and far between. Rune is the kind of game that I’d say should have been the industry standard for third person melee brawlers, but somehow it became an obscure title with the passing of time. Rune doesn’t do a lot of things nor revolutionize the gameplay mechanics. But what it does, it does goddamn well. After nearly 20 years, Human Head Studios are working on a sequel to Rune. The open world sequel was titled Rune: Ragnarok. But the devs have changed the name back to just Rune maybe because the name Ragnarok has been overused lately.
Rune is available on Steam and GOG as Rune: Classic and will only cost you a few bucks. It supports modern systems and resolutions quite well and still is an absolute blast to pick up and play. It easily deserves a spot in your Steam/GOG library.
Rune comes from a time where the gaming industry used to be much simpler and people could get away with a lot more than they could right now. There is a timeless quality to games like these and it’s just astonishing to see how far we have come since then. Rune fully deserved a sequel that it’s getting now. Hopefully, it delivers on what the original did so well. With that said, I’ll see you next week with another forgotten gem on Retro Saturdays. Till then, enjoy the weekend and happy gaming!