Over the weekend, Viking survival game Valheim crested to a concurrent player peak of over 360,000 players on Steam. While Steam and other game storefronts are inundated with survival titles to choose from, ranging from Minecraft (and its many assorted mods) to Ark to Terraria to Rust, the new early access title from Iron Gate AB is barging its way onto the scene. From a core list of features and mechanics, Valheim may not appear different at all from many other survival titles. So what separates Valheim from any of the other survival titles out there? Should you give it a try? Here are a few key takeaways that help explain Valheim’s rise through the ranks…
Two Distinctly Different Speeds
You can explore the world of Valheim by yourself or with 9 other friends, on dedicated servers or just by joining your friend’s world. While the single-player experience is fundamentally the same game, it plays much differently. Alone, the game is more of a Zen garden of sorts, allowing you to take each day at your own pace, enjoying every little piece of cooked grub and being the sole owner of every exploration, every triumph, and every discovery. Pacing as a solo player is much slower, and becomes a sort of survival meditation as you plan each day and overprepare for every step outside your door. After all, there’s no one to help you out should you get killed and need to perform a dreaded corpse run to get your gear.
Multiplayer is more traditional survival as players work together to craft multiple bases and take on the challenges of building, gearing, exploring and boss-slaying together. Some players shy away from this style of play, as not logging into the game for even a single day can have profound effects on what tier the server is at (We’ve all started Terraria worlds, left for a day, and come back to our friends zipping around in the sky with laser guns as we hold up our little baby wooden pickaxe…). But after around a week of diving into Valheim, the co-op multiplayer is the best way to play. Meeting up with your friends and bonding over a raft ride in a storm or just heading out to mine some copper together is a blast.
In fact, you can resummon big bosses and they have multiple spawn locations per world, so if you did want to play independently but still have a support group on a server, that’s an option as well. If your crew is anything like mine, players will naturally fill the archetypal buckets of builder, explorer, fighter, and more, making for a fun time whenever you log in. If you choose to go the multiplayer route, I highly recommend forking out the cash for a dedicated server so you and your friends can come and go as you please instead of having to wait for a friend to set up the world every time you want to play. While I think the multiplayer is vastly superior and teamwork makes the dream work, the solo game is an enjoyable, albeit incredibly different, activity in which you’re sure to enjoy every discovery yourself.
Of additional note, the barebones PvP is entirely opt in and pretty much just for fun, making the multiplayer aspect of Valheim completely co-op. This (almost) eliminates the griefer vibe that can permeate some other survival games. Yes, theoretically someone could come into your game and smash your house down if you open your world up to the public, so try to play with people you know!
Simplicity Is Key
Valheim’s structure is immediately discernible and understandable even for players far removed from the survival genre. Essentially, each biome is a tier and ruled by a boss. Farm the zone for resources, make new gear and recipes, kill the boss, rinse and repeat with tools to tackle the next zone via the boss drops. The boss battles create server-gathering events for you and your friends, and if you’re playing with a particularly inquisitive or adventurous group there are creative ways to sequence break the natural order of progression. The key here really is that the game is understandable from the get go, with a helpful crow giving players tutorial steps. You don’t need to worry about making fifty other items to craft a single item or complex multifaceted crafting schools, it’s just get up and go and start making progress in your world.
Conquering the Meadow is a breeze, the Black Forest offers a significant bump up in exploration and challenges, and things get considerably more intense in the Swamp, Plains, and Mountains. And Valheim has optional secrets to discover as well that exist outside the biome hierarchy that can greatly enhance your options and progress, like the merchant and a certain sea creature I won’t spoil. There’s something to be said that you aren’t tasked with trying to cobble together thirty different types of resources just to get things going, wood and stone is enough. Survival titles are somewhat inherently intimidating by genre, and Valheim is surprisingly welcoming for a game where Vikings battle werewolves in the snow.
Rewards Instead Of Punishment
Yes, Valheim has some fairly hardcore consequences for death in that you need to run back to your body to recover your gear and items, but you can prepare for it quite well. Outside of that though, Valheim rewards you for interacting with survival mechanics rather than punishing you for failing to do so. Eating food makes you much harder to kill, providing hit point regeneration, stamina, and other bonuses – but you won’t die from not eating. You’re incentivized to find shelter and warmth from the cold and wet conditions, but these things won’t kill or damage you either. From a gameplay standpoint, this makes dealing with the world a lot easier. You know that if you’re going to be doing any difficult task like forging ahead into a new biome or taking on a boss you’re going to want to be fully rested with hearty meals in your belly, but you are not constantly nagged to death by hunger, thirst, or weather meters. This design shift is highly significant for alleviating excess player frustration in a hostile world.
Punctuated, Powerful Discovery
Most survival games have meaningful discoveries, and Valheim puts an exclamation mark on them with sparse musical notes and well-utilized effects. Valheim’s world is surprisingly beautiful at times, with impressive lighting and weather adding accents to the action. Rainstorms. Lightning. Blizzard whiteouts. The first time <redacted> comes at you while you climb up the frozen slopes of the Mountains, your first journey on the sea where you run into the great <redacted>, and summoning your first boss are just a few examples of momentous moments that you’ll have, by yourself or with your Viking crew. While much of the fare in Valheim is in fact featured in other survival games too, Valheim nails the discovery aspect, filling players with equal parts trepidation and exhilaration as they wander into new areas for the first time. Finding some of the optional discoveries lends much to the standard Biome > Boss > Biome recipe that might otherwise render the journey rote, and hearing the horn the first time you set sail on the sea is something you simply can’t find anywhere else.
Coming Back To Reality
Yes, there’s also the COVID-19 factor that is shining the spotlight on gaming experiences both solitary and social, but it would be dismissive and wrong to attribute Valheim’s success to that aspect alone. I’m happy that Valheim is seeing a ton of early access success, and I hope it means the team can eventually push out an amazing final product. The realities of the situation are that because it is early access and only about half the content is there worldwise, there’s going to be an inevitable fall-off as players hit the end of the current content offerings. Many will likely wait until the full version is available rather than tackling every patch on the roadmap. While this is perfectly normal and expected, expect plenty of cries from the peanut gallery that Valheim is a “Two-week game” or “Lol dead game!” as the playerbase trickles out after the initial surge. Valheim is looking great as an approachable, intriguing, and flavorful world. You should probably take a look.