RUNE II is one of 2019’s biggest surprises. Originally set for release in September last year, the game was delayed and delayed again, with the result being a product that proves Shigeru Miyamoto correct: “A delayed game is eventually good, a bad game is bad forever.” After The Quiet Man bombed and Survived By failed to survive early access, gamers could be forgiven for doubting Human Head Studios’s ability to deliver on the long-awaited follow-up to the classic Norse action-adventure, Rune. However, the team has come out swinging with one of the most satisfying—if not necessarily best—adventures of the year.
The first thing to note is that RUNE II leans heavily upon the trend towards freedom and open worlds without letting those principles guide the fundamental game design. The archipelago that comprises Midgard feels enormous, yet Human Head has left it unpopulated. Players need not fear an ever-growing list of distractions from the main quest. Similarly, survival aspects such as eating, crafting, finding resurrection points, and (re)building safehouses are all present. However, these elements are not the driving force of the gameplay loop. RUNE II is not a survival game, like Conan Exiles or Green Hell, and avoids the frustration of death in those games. Instead, RUNE II shows respect for its player’s time. Death is followed by near-instant resurrection, with almost all items being carried across lives. RPG and survival elements are co-opted into a linear adventure set within a sprawling environment, and this curious melange of genres and styles works surprisingly well.
Players need not be familiar with 2000’s Rune to pick up this sequel. Decades have passed since Loki was locked away, and the trickster god is free once more to unleash Ragnarok upon an unsuspecting world. The game begins with Heimdall reviving a dead warrior, and so begins the player’s quest to slay Loki. The story is lightweight and offers little in the way of a unique take on Norse mythology. Nevertheless, Human Head delves deep into the lore, incorporating dozens of snippets and myths scattered across the world. The game is a compendium of stories that will sate anyone whose interest was piqued after God of War or Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.
Killing the god is no simple task. Loki has locked himself away on the plain of Vigrid, which can only be reached when either the world ends or the barriers between the realms are sufficiently weakened. In RUNE II, Ragnarok is cyclical. After a set period (usually between one or two hours), meteors blast Midgard apart, transporting the player to the plain of Vigrid, where a frightfully tough battle awaits. This process can be sped up by collecting Artifacts of myth and delivering them to Bifrost gates, then blowing Heimdall’s horn Gjallarhorn. Each Artifact adds another resurrection within Vigrid, which provides better opportunities to bring down Loki—at least in theory. The god can only be slain by certain weapons, access to which are level-gated. This design provides significant padding to the adventure, which some gamers might find too much to bear.
Notably, collecting the Artifacts can be tiresome. Most of the islands within the archipelago have one or more Bifrost gates that players can activate to act as resurrection points, but these are not always present and nor are they necessarily easy to find. Moreover, considering how difficult some of the boss battles that guard the Artifacts are, returning to them after multiple deaths becomes a trial of patience. Not infrequently will a lengthy trek across choppy seas result in a swift slaughter.
Thankfully, the strength of the gameplay overcomes the frustrations caused by the design. RUNE II is as straightforward as action-adventure games come in terms of the moment-to-moment combat. One mouse button attacks, the other defends, one keyboard binding is reserved for a lunge, and another for use of a godly power (chosen from between Odin’s ravens, Hel’s ice spikes, and Thor’s lightning). Similarly, no intricate combos are to be found—only basic hack-and-slash action. In some ways, the simplicity is a drawback, but a multitude of weapon types and an overwhelming number of individual weapons prevent it from negatively affecting the experience in any significant way.
However, the veritable wealth of items can become problematic. Like Borderlands and Diablo, RUNE II provides endless amounts of loot: weapons, armour, consumables, crafting items, body parts. Every enemy, tree, and rock can be looted for more items, and the inventory quickly grows to be unmanageable—especially when the stat differences between the items is negligible. Inventory management becomes a game entirely of its own. Buried beneath the weight of the system, the player will have to decide just how much they can handle before they begin to lose interest. However, the game works hard to prevent that from happening.
As noted above, Ragnarok is cyclical, and after each foray to the plain of Vigrid, Midgard begins a new age. In one, night is perpetual. In another, the world is more prone to frosts. Each age presents unique survival challenges. While some are immensely frustrating due to reduced visibility or the increased likelihood of death, others are delightfully engaging, forcing players to rethink their strategy. This constant refresh may be little more than another method of extending the player’s engagement with RUNE II, but it is effective nonetheless in one of the many small ways that the game avoids becoming a bloated, tired mess in much the same way as many contemporary open-world games.
RUNE II lacks the wow factor to be a serious contender in most Game of the Year lists, but that does not mean it should be overlooked. The game is solid and dependable, its faults never quite enough to sink it. Moreover, Human Head should be celebrated for daring to take a different approach to its open world. Where many games try to drive engagement through more quests, more distractions, more collectibles, more everything, RUNE II pares that drive back to its bare essentials. The result is a game that successfully walks the tightrope between appealing to the linearity-loving traditionalists, fans of sprawling RPGS, and the adherents of Minecraft’s make-your-own-adventure style of play.
Reviewed on PC.