Valheim is Steam’s latest top-selling, out-of-nowhere indie game, and from some angles, it sure looks the part. Depending on what screenshots you stumble upon, you might get some serious PlayStation 1 nostalgia vibes, with characters, animals, and trees that look straight out of the first ’90s Tomb Raider game.
We’ve seen this before when it comes to Steam Early Access hits, usually because a game maker spends more time on gameplay and depth, not screenshots. Hence, it’s not surprising to notice similarities to other survival-creation fare like Minecraft and Rust, where glitchy simplicity is part of the charm. But starting and ending with the graphics in this epic, Viking-tinged tale misses the modern-gaming forest for the blocky-voxel trees.
To understand why the $20 Valheim has surpassed the 2 million sales mark in only 13 days, and why its Early Access buyers can’t get enough of it, you have to scrape a few hours beneath the comparison-heady surface level. Get that far, and the game’s allure becomes clearer. This is a survival game made by people who really like survival games—but don’t necessarily like the genre’s tedium.
I’m a dozen hours into Valheim, and I’ve been fortunate to share a multiplayer server with friends who’ve already cracked the 80-hour mark. Between these two extremes, I’ve been astounded by how many ways I’ve been able to access and enjoy what Valheim has to offer—and to lose track of the gameplay’s ceiling of potential. For an Early Access game, it’s honestly hard to tell where Valheim‘s content thus far runs out.
Valheim begins with your in-game character—a blocky, low-polygon Viking—carried by a massive crow through a thunderstorm. As the clouds and rain part, a wild forest spreads below, and you’re dropped next to a series of rune-covered stones and pillars. Your fate, as told by these stones, is that you must figure out how to conjure supernatural beasts, then defeat them.
In a classic series like Legend of Zelda, this is the point where the game might tell players, “It is dangerous to go alone! Take this!” From there, your journey is wide open, but your mission is narrow (usually requiring you to visit specific dungeons, where you’ll find essential items and totems of power). Modern series like Minecraft, meanwhile, begin with a massive, randomly generated world … and zero direction. You may figure out in those games that you should punch trees to collect wood, then use that wood to craft useful items, and so on, but otherwise, you can quite easily ignore its hints of a quest.
Valheim‘s opening splits the difference between these. Like Minecraft, every new Valheim quest begins in a randomly generated 3D universe. Unlike Minecraft, combat is impressed upon new players as an imperative path of quests (with no “creative” mode as a safe playground), but you’re also dumped naked into the woods with a mythological hint that you’re supposed to start by killing deer. Trouble is, this game’s deer sure are a pain to get to. They run too fast to catch up with, what with your pathetic default punches and your piddly stamina bar.
All you can do at first is jump, run, and punch (as seen from a third-person 3D perspective). Punching the big trees doesn’t do anything, but the small ones explode into wood when beaten. What’s more, once you have cut wood in your hands, that same crow who carried you appears again to tell you: Touching these cut-up trees has taught you how to make a few useful things. Pick up some nearby stones, and the same thing happens. Simply holding a new object is Valheim‘s “educational” system. Wood and stone, thankfully, unlock your path to making some implements, particularly a hammer. Equipping this lets you make floors, walls, ceilings, and other basic wooden building blocks, along with a “workshop.”
Oh, and the workshop only functions when you place it somewhere with a roof. I guess we should make a building.
Valheim regularly teases out progress by announcing the final objective of a quest—killing a beast of legend—then letting its massive, varied overworld serve as an amorphous “dungeon” to reach that point. Players must puzzle out how to make each quest-specific beast appear, usually in the form of an animal sacrifice, and then survive and battle well enough to face each legendary beast. They’re typically much more difficult than the boars and simple zombies found in the first few hours of play.
For starters, you have to craft better weapons and armor, and some of these require finding specific elements. Maybe you need rare stones to make something, as hinted at by one of the game’s lore-filled pillars, but you can’t get certain stones with just any hammer. You’ll need a pickaxe made out of bones, and bones can only be found when you kill zombie skeletons, as found at abandoned castles (which themselves are a journey to find). Take bones from these corpses, and you’ll learn how to craft a useful pickaxe.
Once you finally break down a vein of tin or ore, however, that helpful crow from earlier comes squawking in your own language: “Those unrefined elements need to be smelted.” Off to another zone you go, to find what you need to create a smelting system.
Stories like this play out all over the place in Valheim, and each leads to a new zone of potential battle or elemental damage. With each newly discovered danger comes new needs: weapons, armor, machines, potions, recipes, and more, whether to survive the bitter cold of a snowy mountain or to lug a massive number of unrefined stones to a home base so they can be processed.
Thankfully, the game’s mechanical core consistently feels tuned for fun and simplicity—meaning, even though the game’s universe is constantly telling you to aspire to bigger quests, it’s not a pain in the butt to get from point to point.
In one cool Valheim twist, players are almost immediately given the building blocks needed to go to great architectural lengths with whatever homes they want to build. You’re quickly taught that structural integrity matters in what you build, so you’ll need to place pillars and blocks of various heights to buttress everything from a single-story shack to a multistory smelting factory—and you can point a hammer at parts of your house to gauge how structurally sound they are with easy-to-read color highlights.
As soon as you have the hammer, by the way, you’re basically a grizzled house-building veteran, in terms of what you can quickly build out of basic wood and stone. Stairs, walls, floors, roofs of various angles, and chimneys snap together easily thanks to an auto-snap default for architectural dunces. (Hold down a single button to disable this “snap” functionality, and you can build much more complex designs, which lock together with the game’s robust physics engine if they’re architecturally sound.) Valheim‘s simple default system soundly outpaces trying to do the same in Minecraft, and if you’re anything like me, the quickness of building your first one-story house will lead you to get a little more adventurous with an additional story, a basement, or a fenced-off garden nearby.
This is all helped by one of Valheim‘s best core tenets: rebuilding and repairing are instant, free tasks. Did you build a roof in the wrong place? Tap a “deconstruct” button to get its cost of wood back in full. Is your roof damaged? If there’s a working workshop nearby, just tap “repair” and it’s back to 100 percent for free. Same goes for any wear and tear on your weapons, armor, and tools. Valheim wants you to be mindful of wear-and-tear enough for you to return to a home base (or build a new one) and fix things up on occasion but in a far less punishing way than other survival games. Still, Valheim incentivizes returns to a home base in a few ways, particularly with a small default backpack that you’ll find yourself emptying at home on a regular basis (or building a cart to lug cargo from larger dig sites).
Buildings are imperative, by the way, thanks to a day-night cycle and random bouts of rain and snow (plus the fact that any “workshop” you build doesn’t work without a roof over its head). At first, you’ll merely stand indoors with a cozy fire for a few minutes to offset conditions like “cold” and “wet,” which otherwise bring down your stamina (and avoid the more dangerous foes who wander at night, though these can be warded off while holding a torch). Later, you’ll learn that pimping out your homestead gives you a longer-lasting “resting” bonus to take into the wilderness. Your home also lets you create and lock up chests to store supplies—and create a convenient “spawn point” in the shape of a bed, in case you die in battle and need to gear up to run back to your supplies-loaded corpse.
Crucially, the simplicity of house-building helps when you need to create makeshift shelter on the way to a distant objective. Who doesn’t love a guest-house-in-a-box? (Or, in a pinch, a quickly constructed treehouse, whose branches count as cover for much-needed fire pits?)
Eventually, your unarmed punches give way to a solid arsenal of swords, spears, bows and arrows, shields, axes, and more. The battling system is admittedly the game’s wonkiest aspect as of its current version, and it resembles Zelda: Ocarina of Time but without that classic game’s “Z-focus” ability to strafe around targets. But it contains a decent amount of depth, thanks to a healthy dodge-roll option, a perfect shield ability that parries and harms foes when you time your blocks correctly, and a solid “arrows drop after a distance” physics system that feels satisfying to master.
Combat is linked to a stamina meter, which also affects your ability to sprint, jump, sneak-walk, and use your crafting and mining tools. In good news, Valheim is liberal about letting you level-up your abilities. Simply do a certain action over and over and over, and it will become stronger. Heck, go punch trees for an hour or so, and you’ll be a veritable Jackie Chan in terms of unarmed damage and stamina. Though thankfully, that kind of grinding isn’t necessary. In my experience, my character’s ability scores have ramped up at an appropriate, organic rate—though not enough to stop me from seeking more powerful weapon upgrades in the world’s wilds.
Sometimes, combat in Valheim boils down to your connection to a central server, since multiplayer only works if a player runs a “dedicated Valheim server” instance via Steam. You and your friends might want to pony up for a dedicated hosting instance in the cloud, because as solid as the game feels in single player, Valheim was clearly built for multiplayer fun.
In fact, some of my best time in Valheim has been tagging along with higher-level friends as they’ve scoured their server’s farthest regions for useful supplies and crafting materials. In one session, my group joked about me being an “embedded journalist,” then gave me an upgraded armor set that focused on sneaking and hiding so that I could hang back and snap photos while they dealt with wyverns, wolves, and other beasts. This all happened on an arctic hike up a mountainside and into a silver mine—which they’d already built out with a roof and doors “to keep the damned wolves out”—and forced them to hand me some temporary potions so I wouldn’t immediately die from chilly conditions. (They’d already played through quite the chain of conquests to find and craft such potions, along with others, which I’ll leave unspoiled.)
I really enjoy how Valheim scales for various expertises in an adventuring party. Want to get into a crazy battle with a boss or a large group of foes? Sure! One person, adept in combat and adorned in shiny armor, can rush a boss and “kite” it to control its movement, while weaker characters can hang back to either shoot arrows at the largest foe or assist by killing weaker minions nearby. Or maybe just follow strong friends to a far-off destination and help them load useful items into a rolling cart for the sake of a central base’s operations.
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All along the way, a robust physics system underlies everything you do in Valheim, which ranges from immersive to wacky. When you chop down your first tree, for example, you’ll come to learn that giant trees fall to the ground based on the angle of your blows—and they can harm or kill any friends nearby (or do damage to nearby houses, whoopsiiiie). Then you’ll notice that enemies affect the environment the same way you do… and maybe that means the massive troll in a forest full of valuable, higher-ranked wood can stomp around while chasing you and more quickly knock trees down for other members of the party to scoop up before running the heck away.
Those anecdotes may sound all too familiar if you’ve been down the survival-crafting game hole before, but Valheim is clever by gating its content behind specific battles and objectives—and adding just enough overt purpose to its randomly generated landscapes. The storytelling potential amongst friends is strong with this game, a fact that becomes louder as you uncover magical abilities upon defeating bosses. (There’s a bit of an endgame spoiler to how these learned boss-based abilities link together, but let’s just say the developers tease out clever reasons to retrace discoveries you make earlier in the game.)
Yet there’s clearly room for this “Early Access” game to grow from here on out. Most obviously, players can’t ride any horses or beasts just yet, though Valheim hints that this could change. Early in the game, players are taught that maybe instead of killing wild animals and cooking their flesh for health bonuses, they can tame animals to become domestic, breed-crazy pets in a home base’s gardens. Hopefully we’ll get to do that soon with horsies or gnarly Viking-caliber mounts someday (like the spiky, oversized porcupines known as Lox). Also, I haven’t even mentioned traversal over the game’s rivers and oceans, which at this point are nothing more than ways to get from place to place; some *Assassin’s Creed–*caliber sea combat would be a real treat.
But any Valheim wishlist betrays the truth of the game’s current, “unfinished” state: there’s already so much adventuring, crafting, building, and discovery available—and in ways that can easily be shared amongst friends for only $20. (And if the screenshots I’ve chosen haven’t made clear, this game can be very pretty, as its engine smothers its blocky characters with handsome effects and gorgeous vistas). We’ve put games in our year-end lists for less potential than what I’ve already enjoyed in Valheim thus far, and I don’t see us getting out of 2021 without repeating praise for this killer multiplayer adventure option on PC.
This story originally appeared on Ars Technica.
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