No reviewer should approach a game with preconceptions. That being said, it’s hard to stay impartial when Rune II is released on November 12 only for its developer, Human Head Studios, to close its doors on November 13. The collapse of Human Head Studios was even a shock to Rune II’s publisher, who are now frantically trying to assemble a new team to look after the game post-launch.
So, the question I’m sure you’re asking is this: is Rune II really so bad that it caused the developer to close down just 24 hours after its release?
We will never know the answer, of course. Human Head Studios cited “economic realities” as the reason for its closure. What we do know is that Rune II feels at best, unpolished and at worst, unfinished.
Rune II Review | The Premise
Like its predecessor, Rune II takes place amidst Norse mythology. You play as a resurrected Viking warrior looking to stop Loki from raging eternal Ragnarok over Midgard. By defeating the big bad, you can reverse time to before the apocalypse and… save the world? Go back to being dead? It’s not clear. In fact, not much of Rune II’s opening moments are clear. Barring some hurried crafting tutorials, you’re left on your own to figure out what to do and the best way to do it.
Despite the lack of direction, there is a definite sense of urgency as you begin. A 90-minute timer ticks down in the corner of the screen as you play. During that time you must travel across Midgard collecting artifacts that contain the power to defeat Loki. When the timer reaches zero, Ragnarok begins and you face him in the final battle.
Your first few attempts will be frivolous as an overpowered Loki quickly kills you, casting you back to Midgard and resetting the timer. This time loop is at the center of Rune II. It’s also a novel approach to difficulty, a circular learning curve where both you and your enemies grow stronger in every 90-minute segment. Ragnarok’s countdown builds pressure over time – continuing even while the game is paused. Which would be fine if the other parts of Rune II weren’t so laborious.
Rune II Review | Learning the Ropes
The first thing you do in Rune II is build a longhouse. These serve as safepoints where you can repair weapons, craft items and cook food. Longhouse foundations are located all over Midgard, but you’ll need to mine the necessary materials to build them: chopping down trees and breaking down rocks a-la Minecraft. Both are abundant, but mining them takes up plenty of time until you craft stronger weapons.
Rune II’s combat is largely the same as the original. There are heavy and aerial special attacks, but most fights involve clicking the left mouse button to swing your weapon and clicking the right mouse button to block. I’ll let you decide whether an ‘old-school’ combat system can survive in 2019 without feeling uninspiring. It functions fine, for the most part, although hits often fail to register and the three-strike combo only seems to work when it wants to. Although simple, the combat is a good challenge. Enemies can quickly overwhelm you and drain your health in seconds if you’re not careful. Fortunately, the AI is easily fooled. If you get in a tight spot, you can always head to the safety of a two-foot platform that NPCs find insurmountable.
Like your health, your stamina drains quickly. Anything from fighting to sprinting and jumping costs meter. It adds another layer to fights, but adds nothing but annoyance as you travel across the map, restricting faster movement to short bursts.
I want to make it clear that traveling anywhere quickly in Rune II is impossible. This one decision is where the game’s biggest fault rears its ugly head.
Rune II Review | Traversing Midgard
Ragnarok has left Midgard fractured, with the mainland broken into several smaller islands. In order to sail between them and collect artifacts, you must build a raft from wood and tree pitch. Sailing across the vast open waters is painstakingly slow, so finding the Bifrost Gate on each island comes highly recommended. Each gate acts as a respawn and fast-travel location, helping you avoid as much raft time as possible.
Despite this, Rune II really wants you to spend most of your time on a raft. Strong enemies guard each artifact and you should avoid them at all costs until you find the island’s Bifrost Gate. If you die before finding the gate, you’ll have to journey back to the island all over again. Of course, when you die, your raft is right where you last left it. If you want to return, you’ve got to build another one. It’s back to chopping down trees, building a raft in your longhouse (perhaps building a new longhouse, if there isn’t one nearby), and sailing back to the island… only to die again before you find the gate. Repeat, ad nauseam.
I’ll reiterate that this back-and-forth is avoidable if you find the Bifrost Gate – although artifacts with a purple circle around them don’t support fast travel (that would be too easy). Fast-traveling between Bifrost Gates is the best way to play Rune II because you can avoid the vast, empty nothingness of Midgard. During your travels, you might sail past the odd statue or find a crate hidden in a small hut, but 80% of Rune II’s map is a soulless void. Which is a shame because the environments look pretty good. They might not win awards, but they hold their own in 2019. There is just so little to look at – nothing to make Midgard feel like a living, breathing world.
Rune II Review | Ragnarok on Repeat
If you collect all the artifacts before the timer reaches zero (or you simply can’t bear another moment dawdling through Midgard), you can sound the horn to summon Ragnarok and face Loki. Artifacts provide buffs and lives – giving you a possible eight total respawns – so they are worth collecting. If you beat Loki, he will disappear and drop a crafting recipe for a legendary sword. It is here you realize that only a special sword can truly vanquish the God of mischief. A sword that requires you to be level 25 to craft it. I got this recipe at level 11.
This is when Rune II’s time loop devolves into an incessant grind, a series of awkward hoops you must jump through before you can finish the campaign. Multiplayer is the only catalyst, allowing you to team up with others to fight Loki. Of course, this requires other people to be playing the game. The servers were as desolate as Midgard; I couldn’t find more than one other person in any of them.
Rune II Review | These are the End Times
When all is said and done, Rune II is an RPG that looks pretty good and controls ok, with satisfying item progression and a decent story. Its core is intact, but the swathes of bugs and questionable design choices ensure that players only experience fleeting moments of enjoyment. I noted plenty of frame rate drops in my playthrough, as well as four crashes. The inventory system is a mess, the second half of the game is a grind, traveling anywhere is tedious… I’ll stop there, if only because I don’t wish to beat a dead horse.
Rune II is dead. Its developer is gone, leaving its publisher to try and piece together what’s left. In Norse mythology, Ragnarok causes “the remains of the world to sink into the sea leaving nothing left but the void”. The world is purged to begin anew. Rather than try to fix what is broken in Rune II, the publisher may be better off starting again.
TechRaptor reviewed Rune II on PC with a copy provided by the publisher.