Having long been known for their deep and complex historical strategy games, looking at Paradox Interactive’s upcoming portfolio is fascinating for the breadth and variety that’s now on show. There’s everything from the sequel to the utterly barmy Magicka to city builders and fully 3D space strategy games, and with Runemaster, one of their games that’s also coming to PS4, they’re diving deep into Norse mythology.
With Ragnarok, the end times, seemingly coming to the world, you are cast as the hero that can decide the fate of the world. Who your hero actually is, however, is entirely up to you, as you pick from six races that also decide where in the six worlds taken from Norse mythology you start off in.
Playing as a Troll or a Human sees you start off in the thick forests of Midgard, more commonly known as Earth these days, but there are also Dwarves, Giants and others which will see you start elsewhere. As a Human, who I decided to call Geoff, and given a choice between Berserker and the ranged Skald, the choice was quite obvious; you’d pick a Berserker every time, wouldn’t you?
These are just the first choices on a lengthy journey though, and as you progress through the isometric 3D world and talk to people, your choices and actions come to define your character across a range of eight character traits. Though I initially planned to be the most cautious and level-headed Berserker the world had ever seen, I quickly found myself impulsively rushing headlong into battle and ill considered situations, boosting my Boldness characteristic and falling into the typical stereotypes.
So it was that Geoff, rather than bopping Olaf on the head for even thinking about bringing his girlfriend back from the dead, ended up fighting in the spirit realm to defend her from other spirits and resurrect her.
Of course, this wouldn’t be Norse mythology without tales of glory and combat, and these plays out as tactical turn-based combat. You gather an army to your hero quite quickly, whether earning them for completing quests or hiring soldiers to bolster your ranks, and these could be from any race in the game. Alongside your hero, you’ll also be able to upgrade your army’s abilities, such being able to set up a shield wall to bolster their defences.
It’s not just about abilities though, and you’ll have to have a little cunning on the battlefield too, using the randomly generated terrain to your advantage. Taking the high ground, for example, will give you the advantage over enemies lower down, while crossing streams and rivers will slow you down and make you more vulnerable to attack.
In addition to taking damage, the battle can also instil them with a feeling of terror that sees them flee rather than stand and fight. Taking damage doesn’t just do this to the unit being attacked, but also affects nearby units, so that a full on rout could be on the cards if you’re not careful or if you’re able to tear through the enemy’s ranks.
While the demonstration had a set structure and mission, the fascinating twist with Runemaster is that a large amount of it is procedurally generated and randomised. The story sees the ever-popular Loki and Thor butting heads as to whether or not it’s time to bring about Ragnarok. It’s not as clear cut a decision as you might think and while siding with Thor will preserve the world, Loki’s attempt to bring about Ragnarok will see the world reborn. Your actions and decisions seeing your character sway between the two sides as you travel through Midgard, Jotunheim, Muspelheim and beyond.
However, aside from certain touchstones, each time you start the story afresh you can find yourself with a completely different experience, and not just because you’ve chosen a different character and starting location. The world layout itself is randomised, but so too are the quests that you can take on, as the game picks from a database of missions and dialogue. On top of this, cultivating certain characteristics will see different quests and rewards open up for you.
With a Swedish team behind it, there’s little doubt that their take on Norse mythology is going to really capture its essence and all of its quirks, but what grabbed my attention the most was how Runemaster changes and gives you different quests each time you play it, whether you make different decisions or not. Your final destination might always be the same, but the journey that you take to get there will be something practically unique.