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.”