Iron Gate Studio’s Viking survival game, Valheim, has come onto the scene in a big way lately. The developers recently announced that the game has sold three million copies on Steam, along with (at the time of the 20th of February) being the 7th most streamed game on Twitch.
These are big milestones for any developer, but for a small studio like Iron Gate, it is a huge moment of validation for a title that is still in Early Access. For a lot of people, the term ‘Early Access’ has a bit of a dark cloud over it. Oftentimes games are stuck in this state for excessive periods of time, are littered with bugs, or, in the worst-case scenario, are completely abandoned.
Not Your Average Early Access Game
Luckily, Valheim is reasonably far along in its development by Early Access standards, with its Steam page stating that “Feature-wise the game is about 75% complete and content-wise it is about 50% complete.” At the time of writing this, I have about 30 hours in Valheim and have experienced very few bugs. There is also a huge amount of content ahead of me, with large swathes of Viking landscape remaining unexplored on the game’s circular map.
Valheim is a game of simple beauties and the large circle encompassing the world of Yggdrasil is one of the first you are likely to notice. At its centre is you, a Viking sent to the world by Odin in order to kill 9 vicious monsters as part of your ‘primordial purgatory’, as the game puts it. What that amounts to is entirely up to you. As with most survival games, your first few hours of gameplay will revolve mostly around chopping down trees and hunting wildlife. Much of this can feel like busywork in other games, but Valheim does a fairly good job of introducing moments of satisfaction in amongst the tedium.
Manual Labour Never Felt So Good
Chopping down trees in most virtual landscapes is often an exercise in patience. Chopping down trees in Valheim is a non-stop game of Russian Roulette, where the gun is loaded with a giant oak log that will crush everything in its path, including you. This may seem like hyperbole, but throughout my time in Valheim, I have come within a hair of death more times while performing lumberjack roleplay than I have in the deepest depths of the game’s many dungeons.
This is how Valheim keeps its resource-gathering tasks interesting, not always by trying to kill you, but by breaking up the more monotonous moments with elements that keep you on your toes. After killing the first major boss you will be able to mine and process various types of ores, such as copper and tin. This is perhaps the grindiest aspect of the game and yet, even as the resident smelter of our three-person server, I can’t help but find the process oddly gratifying.
You locate a deposit of copper ore, mark it on your map, and then return to it later with a few pickaxes. If your mining operation is high-tech you can even bring a handcart so you can maximize your ore collection —ores are heavy and without a cart, you will quickly run out of inventory space. Once all of the copper has been mined and is on the cart, you can begin the treacherous journey home.
The cart becomes more cumbersome to move the more weight it has packed onto it, which often means that our group of three had to have one person in front of the cart driver clearing the path of trees and flattening the ground to allow the driver to traverse the rockier pathways. The other person was tasked with fighting off the monsters that would inevitably show up for a chance at our hard-earned copper.
When you finally do arrive home, that is when you can finally fire up the kiln to produce some coal, and use that coal to ignite the furnaces that will smelt your ores into usable bars. This is a process that will have to be repeated multiple times in order to upgrade your gear, open up new building options for your home, and construct ships to sail to new lands.
All of this can certainly become a bit of a grind later on, when the charm of the smelter plopping refined bars onto the ground ceases to outweigh the pile of ore you have to process. But even at its worst, the laborious tasks in Valheim are always punctuated with memorable moments.
More importantly, each task feels like it has been performed strictly by you. The mining isn’t a scripted animation, you actually crack the chunks of rock apart yourself. Using the cart to carry extra goods feels like a stroke of true ingenuity, and marking areas on the maps helps to bind you to the world you are exploring in a truly tactile way.
Valheim is a Game of Stories
While Valheim’s actual plot is a reasonably vague Viking tale of Norse Gods and general mythos, the actual stories are the ones created by the players. The harrowing journey my group endured to return our haul of copper back to base was just one of many adventures that have occurred throughout my 30 hours with this game. Just recently we nearly lost it all after a lengthy sailing jaunt went awry and we found ourselves in an uncharted Plains biome, with monsters we weren’t ready to fight guarding the shores we had beached our boat upon.
We had the ingredients for a portal home but were killed before constructing it. Luckily, our third server member had his own boat and was able to take us to our corpses to sneakily retrieve the portal materials, construct it, and teleport home. What started out as a whimsical boat ride, quickly became a tumultuous two-hour mission to save tools and items that had taken days of in-game time to construct.
Valheim shares this with other games of its genre, such as Minecraft and Rust, where goal-oriented gameplay makes way for complete creativity. A less obvious example though is PUBG. Although PUBG certainly has a goal, (winner, winner, chicken dinner!) the reason the goal is satisfying is often due to the story of how you got there. Traveling from miles through the blue zone, only to crash your car and have to fend off teams while making your way to the final circle is certainly going to be a win to remember. What Valheim takes from these games is that when the stakes are high, players will often create longer-lasting memories.
The Gods Reward the Brave
The inspiration of PUBG and survival games like Minecraft and Rust is seen in another important way. Death in Valheim is punishing. When you are killed, you will drop a gravestone on your body, and all of your loot will be left there. Luckily, a map marker in the shape of a skull and crossbones will tell you where you died and help guide you back to your loot. In this sense, the game is kinder than a lot of similar games in the genre. Unlike Minecraft, which will despawn your hard-earned loot after a certain amount of time, your tombstone seems to stick around indefinitely.
This is something that Valheim gets consistently right. Many systems in the game are dangerous or punishing, but none of them feel unfair. Equipment has durability, but repairing it does not require any resources, just a workbench or forge. Resource gathering is laborious but rewards the player with enjoyable experiences along the way, and death may feel like a crushing blow, but it is often an excuse for another adventure.
A World You Want to Be In
Valheim is a game that feels like it was built by people who truly love the survival genre. There is a true emphasis on immersing the player in the game’s carefully crafted world. The music erupts at all the right moments, to signal a battle or a pioneering sea venture, or maybe just to give a relaxing backdrop to a ramble through the meadows. The music never feels distracting or grating either, an important quality when you will be hearing the various atmospheric tracks hundreds of times over the course of your adventure.
Visually, the game’s art style is unique. At first glance, it looks to be entirely modern, with vast open fields of lush grass and god rays punching through the Black Forest canopy. All of a sudden though, the camera will swing in just the right way for you to see the pixels on a tree trunk or the polygonal construct of an attacking monster. These moments of pixelation are a wonderful reminder that the game you are playing was made by a team of just five people.
Five people made this game and three million have purchased it. Iron Gate Studio has already triumphed with Valheim, but with a huge amount of content still in the works and more features to implement, the game is likely to only get better.