Though Paradox Interactive has been gradually broadening its portfolio over the last few years, the grand strategy games produced by the internal team at Paradox Development Studio have remained the predictable and reliable cornerstone of their catalogue. Historical series such as Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis, Victoria and Hearts of Iron have all enjoyed sequels and expansions, fascinating hardcore strategists for well over a decade. They've established the studio as one focused on intricately detailed, carefully researched games that are firmly rooted in the real world, albeit ones that give players the chance to send history in new and unexpected directions.
This means that Runemaster is an announcement entirely out of left field. It has no precedent at Paradox Development Studio. A role-playing game of mythological world-hopping, featuring turn-based combat between dwarves and dark elves, sits side by side with more than a dozen real-time strategy titles set on humdrum planet earth. It doesn't so much look like the black sheep of the family as the black troll, too different to ever fit in. It would appear to be the cuckoo in the nest.
But its paternity can't be questioned. Runemaster is the "dream project" of studio manager Johan Andersson who, although he has been instrumental in the development of Paradox's ever-growing grand strategy collection, has always had hopes he'd one day make an RPG. After many years, his ambitions are finally being realised, and with a distinctly Nordic flavour.
Depending on your allegiance, Runemaster will be the story of how you and an ever-growing band of allies prevent or bring about Ragnarök, the great upheaval of Norse legend that won't so much end all worlds as throw the reset switch, drowning them and bringing about a new beginning. Side with thundering good guy Thor and you'll want to stop this at all costs, while troublemaker Loki and his crowd aren't too keen on the status quo and are quite happy to submerge the current world to see what resurfaces.
Runemaster has been announced at a relatively early stage in its development and Paradox haven't been able to show every facet of the game yet, but initial descriptions point to something very much in the vein of the King's Bounty or Heroes of Might and Magic series. Taking control of a single character, players can amass piecemeal armies as they journey through six different Norse worlds, from Midgard to Svartalfheim to Yggdrasill and beyond, sacking cities and defeating legendary monsters.
While the developers had a working version of the overworld to show off at the recent annual Paradox Convention, with a protagonist stepping through portals between worlds to explore thick forests and complex cave systems, they're not yet ready to show off the combat. The plan is for it to be a turn-based, tactical affair set across a hex grid made up of different terrains, with a player's armies composed of troops recruited in a rather rag-tag fashion throughout their travels. These armies could become quite eclectic in nature, reflecting a combination of the cause they fight for, the race they've chosen and the choices they have made on their travels.
And here lies one of the most interesting propositions for Runemaster. While the overarching plot will remain the same, being the crusade to either protect or end existence as you know it, the rest of the game will be far less directed and rely heavily on emergent storytelling. Each of the six game worlds will be procedurally generated and packed with a multitude of quests that will gradually shape your character and guide your destiny, quests which producer Linda Kiby says will be much more significant than "just collect ten wolf ears." The choices you make in your adventures, as well as how you resolve them, will determine both how you develop and how the world(s) respond to you. "If you make a greedy choice at the end of a quest," says Kiby, "your character's going to become greedy too. From then on you'll get more greedy options, more greedy storylines, a greedy reputation."
Furthermore, your own character's race, as well as the races of those you work with, will also have a part in your progress. Runemaster's six playable races are humans, dwarves, trolls, giants, light elves and dark elves, each leaning toward either Loki or Thor. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend," Kiby says, and while the many cities that populate the land will offer all sorts of recruitment options for the passing adventurer, some factions will inevitably be friendlier than others. Grow powerful enough and you might even start looting some of those cities, should you feel so inclined, though this will only affect your reputation further. Kiby adds that whatever loot the game generates for you will be "significant" and that the game won't be coughing up lots of throwaway items, but instead have you making important choices about what you want to use.
So Paradox's vision of Runemaster is not just that of a long, deep and involving RPG, but also of one that will be profoundly different with each playthrough. They're also hoping that modders will expand the game further and so, as is increasingly common with the studio's catalogue, they're designing it with modding support in mind. This might give players a chance to tweak the mythology to their taste, too, as Kiby points out that some elements of Norse mythology are contradictory. Amongst all those two-headed giants, shining heavenly halls and world-encompassing serpents, quite a few details are up for debate.
Much of Runemaster is still under wraps and it seems like Paradox still have a few things to iron out themselves, among which is whether to include support for multiplayer. "We're focusing on single-player right now," says Kiby. "Technically, we can fit more players in, but we're not sure what's going to be the most fun." A multiplayer campaign would certainly be quite the time investment, as current estimates suggest that each Runemaster playthrough could be up to a hundred hours, even if players only take some sidequests or don't venture too far off the beaten track.
Runemaster is an ambitious and unusual departure for Paradox Development Studio, but it doesn't look like the developer is showing any apprehension, nor any willingness to compromise on either scope or production values. Andersson is particularly excited to talk about working on something he's wanted to make since, he says, he was very young, and it will only be a year before he gets to share it with the world. Runemaster is slated for release in early 2015, when gamers will be able to decide whether they're happy with the worlds he's given them, or whether they want to tear them down to create something new.
This article was based on a press trip to Miami. Paradox paid for travel and accommodation.