Valheim hasn’t just broken records, it’s annihilated them. The survival sandbox title was released on February 2, and by February 21 (three weeks!), the title reached 500,000 concurrent players on Steam. It’s currently the 4th most played Steam title of all time, according to SteamSpy, trailing behind only CS: GO, Dota 2, and PlayerUnknown’s BattleGrounds. Considering that the game was created by a team of only five people, Valheim’s numbers are astounding.
If you’re wondering just what the fuss is all about, this preview will break it all down for you faster than you can say Huginn and Muninn. From the first moment you awake in this Norse mythological world to the moment you shatter the iron horns of a deer god, it’s time to dive right in.
Valheim is currently in Early Access on Steam for your regional pricing. The title is consistently updated, and bugs are tracked via a crowdsourced list on the game’s website. Do yourself a favor and take a stroll through the official wiki as well for some helpful tips.
STORY – FLIGHT OF THE VALKYRIES
I delight in stories that also explain game mechanics. Here, players control dead Viking warriors whose souls have been taken to Valheim, the Tenth World, by the Valkyries. The mission is to defeat Odin’s greatest foes as the custodian of this purgatory world. Naturally, as a battle-worn warrior, things will not be easy.
The enigmatic world results in many trial-by-fire situations, and death abounds. As a soul relegated to this plane of existence, there isn’t any substantial risk when you die: you simply respawn with nothing and have to make the trek out to recover your inventory. The place where you died is marked by a gravestone, and your items will all be waiting for you (provided that you survive the trip).
This is the sort of world-building that I adore. Progression is slow and at times arduous, but that’s because you have all the time in the world. You’re dead! The world bosses are Odin’s ancient rivals that he hasn’t been able to kill yet. Time marches on, but in Valheim, the days don’t ever end. You are free to do what you please, but you need to work for it.
I’ll tell you that I initially didn’t think much of the story. Coming in after last year’s Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, another Viking title seemed more like it was a cash grab. Thankfully, I can report that I was wrong because this makes for an extremely interesting framework that the developers can build upon.
Since the title is currently in Early Access, the road ahead for content is shrouded in mystery. There is certainly plenty of opportunity for an eventual expansion into any of the Nine Worlds or some cameos by other ancient Norse figures.
The expectation of the future, both while playing in the world and thinking about what is to come from the development team, is full of exciting possibilities. And with 4 million players following along, I know I’m not the only one.
GAMEPLAY – CONTINUE THE CYCLE
The best way to talk about Valheim‘s gameplay is to go over my experience. I spent a few real-life night sessions exploring my own world, clearing trees, and fighting Graylings (the lowest form of a dwarf enemy). I fumbled a lot. There were many deaths. My initial camp was very close to my initial spawn point, so the only things I could see were trees and meadows.
My rudimentary crafting items (stones, wood) were not sufficient for long-term survival, no matter how many trees I felled. I resorted to using an abandoned shack I found for a house, although it provided me with no protection from the elements (or wonky camera angles). I couldn’t craft armor or weapons, and I was at a standstill. But again, I was all alone.
In order to get the full experience, the one that’s been shouted about for three weeks, I teamed up with KeenGamer’s own Luis Cano, Kira Laib, and Kole Taylor to band together and try our hand at the first boss. Starting with fresh seeds, we were able to work congruently to quickly achieve our goals.
The power of four meant that we quickly established a central location for our home base. Kole and I went to work gathering wood and leather scraps while Luis built us a sturdy shelter. Kira scouted out the edges of the dangerous Black Forest, alerting us to the locations of skeleton warriors and trolls.
Working with others also brought about some greater dangers. Toppling a tree down on another player was always a risk while working in close proximity. At one point, I came over a hilltop into a nest of Graydwarves and was forced to fight them as I retreated down a cliff face.
I succumbed to my enemies on the far side of the river, a full inventory now lost. Kole accompanied me to loot my own grave and was then chased by the same group of dwarves while I tried to traverse the terrain again to get my items back. Had I been playing alone, I might have abandoned that particular item trove, but far more likely, I wouldn’t have made it that far to begin with.
Over the course of about three hours, we were finally ready to take on the first boss, Eikthyr. Based on Eikþyrnir in Norse mythology, Eikthyr is a giant stag with horns made of iron. The first boss of the initial Meadows biome was an important step, effectively acting as a sort of first chapter’s end to our journey.
The progression gimmick in Valheim is that in order to battle the different ancient beings and progress, you need to find (and make offerings at) their altars. So while this iron stag may be the first, he certainly isn’t the last. After an exciting and, honestly, beautiful fight, we emerged victoriously and were all granted one of Eikthyr’s horns, which then allowed us to craft pickaxes.
This was exciting! The power to level a mountain, to alter the terrain itself, opens up many different doors for the party. But the thing that got us the most interested wasn’t the pickaxe, which we all got. It was a recipe for a gigantic war hammer that I received when I was clearing trees upstream. The Stagbreaker looks like it’s made out of the horns of fallen stags, and it does a significant amount of area damage when used. It’ll be a key component to our future explorations and is merely an inkling into what we can expect to find in the future.
I can’t say for certain that others will struggle with a single-player run as I did. From looking at dozens of reviews and articles about the title, there is definitely a strong recommendation to play with friends (something I also urge you to do). But I’m not a shelter-building kind of guy. We relied on Luis to do that in our group. I found the crafting controls to be vague and void of helpful directions. Initial progression is absolutely an issue that I hope gets reworked as time goes on.
When it comes to the actual combat, I have nothing but praise. From unarmed attacks to fighting with a spear, combat feels satisfying and smart. Not on the level of a Souls game, but you need to balance offense as much as defense and dodging, and here I think they’ve found a sweet spot. And the amount of drop in your arrows? It’s both impressive and realistic. Hunting creatures takes some serious focus, and it’s worth spending hours crouching around trees, waiting for a herd of deer.
In many ways, I was reminded of that South Park episode where they play World of Warcraft and grind experience by fighting thousands of low-level boars. Yes, there are boars here too, but the connection I made is the relentless pursuit of small victories. Crafting a sturdy shelter takes a lot of time and energy. The buffs you get when finally resting in a dry bed are nice, but the actual feeling of accomplishment is something that can’t be beaten.
GRAPHICS/AUDIO – LORD OF STORMS
The graphics of Valheim are definitely a topic of interest. The game appears to have the textures of an older console title but the lighting effects of a modern RPG. These two seemingly-conflicting attributes come together in some pretty stunning ways.
I managed to snag some pretty excellent screenshots, particularly during a thunderstorm, on a PC that was running relatively high settings. There’s just something about the garishly low-quality characters and enemies against the sunlight effects; I just think it’s a beautiful game.
That’s not to say that those who find the textures lacking are stuck with what they’ve got. In Lyubomir Iliev’s list of Valheim mods, he calls out a mod that brings some higher-quality textures to things such as stones and roofs. There are ways to manage if what you see isn’t what you like, but as always, you need to remember: it’s an Early Access title. Things will change as time goes on!
The audio is fairly standard and didn’t blow me away, but I will note that when the deer are running away, they sound like dogs, and it is both confusing and unsettling. If you’re playing in multiplayer, though, you’ll likely just hear your friend’s voices instead.
Valheim is available now on Steam in Early Access. A key was provided by SwipeRight PR.