Four million Vikings! That’s the latest news from the team at Iron Gate, a small group of Swedish developers who have overseen the most staggering indie game launch of the year so far. Valheim is an early access survival title that has comprehensively taken over Steam, clocking in over 500,000 concurrent players at one time on February 21, just 19 days after the game’s launch. With four million players and counting and an ‘Overwhelmingly Positive’ rating after 90,000 user reviews, it doesn’t look like it’s slowing down anytime soon, either.
It’s quite an unusual game to be sitting so high on Steam’s most-played list, just behind gigantic esports behemoths like DOTA 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. In Valheim, you play as a fallen Norse warrior trapped in purgatory who has to craft and explore their way through the realm, building up to progress-gating boss battles.
It’s also nowhere near as refined as its peers. Valheim doesn’t feature slick, high-fidelity graphics — but it’s still gorgeous, with its retro PS1 textures juxtaposed against magnificent sun-lit vistas. The game’s combat isn’t the most engaging on the market either, but it has a certain something to it, a Dark Soulsian clunkiness that keeps it addicting and hard to master.
Valheim is most definitely a work in progress, and the worst thing you could expect from it is a perfectly polished experience. In our adventures, we’ve fallen out of the world, suffered rubberbanding issues in co-op and lost progress and important items to the server maw. It’s been frustrating, sure, but it’s never stopped being fun either. To give you an idea of how much depth is on offer here, we’re 25 hours deep into the game, and we just beat the third boss.
There are still many more biomes and features to discover, and so many bonkers ideas to execute upon, inspired by Valheim’s silly physics systems. Any game where you can kill yourself by cutting down a tree and having it land on your head is going to be a brilliant cradle for the human imagination. We’ve recently been causing civil wars by pitting the game’s enemies against one another and using fallen trees in boss battles to carve through health bars with careful chops.
It’s such a refreshing game to lose yourself to because it’s full of constant surprises. No matter how much you think you understand it, Valheim will find a way to shock and delight you. Just last night, we were cataloging our finds into carefully labeled chests (a thankless task, don’t bother) when the head of a deer boss we slew several hours ago started talking to us. Similarly, while charting the coastline in a Viking longship, we stumbled onto a floating island covered in barnacles we found we could mine for precious chitin. Everything was dandy until we realized we were standing on the back of a suddenly unhappy Leviathan…
Changing the formula
Valheim will certainly feel familiar if you’ve played survival games like ARK and Rust before, but it excels beyond them by warping some of the more conventional elements of the genre. Instead of frantically managing multiple meters, the only thing a player needs to think about in Valheim is putting food on their stomach, which is done in a clever layered fashion.
You’re not going to starve if you don’t eat — you’ll just have a lower health pool. So as you scale up into the mid-game, there’s an emphasis on finding items that provide more nutrition, which leads you to build farms on your homestead and embark on expeditions for rare resources to make, um, entrail sausages… instead of cramming anything you can find into your mouth.
This is quite a neat summation of the game’s unique selling point, actually. Like any survival game, there is an endgame coming which will be Valheim’s first real hype reckoning, but the more appealing overall focus is the exploration and sense of discovery. In that sense, it reminds us of Minecraft. The game’s pace is intentionally lumbering so that you smell the roses, take screenshots and make memories as you play. Even if those memories are unintentionally wandering into a Troll Cave and recruiting the entire server to take him down to get your items back…
There’s no one way to be a Viking
Its adaptability is another one of its greatest strengths. All play styles are welcome and encouraged in Valheim. A complex building system and a wealth of vanity items will please The Sims ex-pats and wannabe interior decorators. Lone wolves can sink their teeth into the game’s tricky boss battles and Dark Souls die-yards will enjoy Valheim’s overwhelming subterranean dungeons that reward tactical thinking, well-timed blocks, prepared potions and careful weapon choice.
But if you just want to barrel in guns blazing and ignore mechanics like sneaking and parrying, then it’s still heaps of fun wailing on mobs with your mates (and perishing in increasingly absurd ways.) There’s no wrong way to play Valheim at the moment, which is a rare thing in a modern survival game, as they often funnel into one accepted playstyle that is ordained by the community. There’s no rush either.
Some nights we’ll just spend a few enjoyable hours farming resources, developing farms and breeding animals rather than rushing the important content.
Jumping the Kraken
Every so often your base will get raided by a horde of random mobs too, which keeps things fresh by brewing tremendous chaos. This brilliantly incentivises building trenches, fences and other defensive structures. If you take care of your home, it’ll take care of you!
The beauty of Valheim’s current cultural moment is that like Minecraft in its heyday, you can get in on the ground floor where everyone has no idea what they’re doing. While many are trying, there’s no comprehensive Wikipedia explaining all of the game’s intricacies and items just yet. It’s pure experimentation and silliness, propped up by inventive, dynamic systems. We might not be playing it by the end of the year, but there’s no better time to enjoy Valheim than the present before all of its systems have been catalogued and understood. The average early adopter probably hasn’t hit the endgame plateau yet. Nobody can see the forest for the beautiful trees.
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Jordan Oloman is a journalist and documentarian with experience across the pop culture/tech spectrum writing reported features, reviews. news, guides, op-eds and more for a wide variety of outlets. He is also an affiliate streamer on Twitch and have previous experience in scriptwriting, podcasting, game consultation and creating video content.