Great video games are built on great moments. Those can be anything from that thrilling boss fight and cinematic action set piece to the smaller aha moments where everything clicks to the quiet moments where you soak in a sublime sunset or landscape.
There are very few games that can bring everything together into an engaging package, but the latest indie smash hit “Valheim” does it better than just about any game in recent memory. At nearly 70 hours invested in the game since I first launched it roughly a month ago, I’ve had so many great moments in the Viking-themed survival and exploration game that I’m already itching to log back in.
The opening moments of “Valheim” see you dropped into a mystical land, nearly naked and surrounded by runestones that indicate you’ll be on the hunt for five mystical monsters somewhere in the world. But before you can get to the search, you’ll need to collect resources, experience and explore the land around you. Like “Minecraft” and other survival and exploration games, a stick and a rock can be crafted into a hammer, that hammer can be used to build a crafting table, that crafting table (once you’ve built a roof and enclosed it) can be used to build a base and gear essential to exploring the harsh world around you — stronger axes, pickaxes, weapons and armor. It’s always been a satisfying loop, but “Valheim” feels like the most complete and approachable implementation of it yet. Everything seems to work like you’d expect it to, buildings need supports and, critically, chimneys so you don’t smoke yourself out. Felling a tree carries the risk of it crashing down on your head.
My first magical moment with the game came while building my first cabin. I had misplaced a few boards and went to take them down only to find that I got all my wood back. It’s the same with everything else in the game, meaning that you’ll never see your collections go up in smoke and you’ll never be locked into one idea. It’s a small thing but it felt respectful of your time investment in the game, inviting me to explore and experiment. The building doesn’t need to be punishing because the world already is.
“Valheim” can be played solo but it’s best enjoyed with other players (the game currently accommodates up to 10 players in a game at a time). And that creates for fun interactions like the time one player yells “Um, guys, I think I saw a big blue troll ... uh oh! It’s chasing me! Help!” and we run across the island to find a massive troll pummeling everything with a tree trunk as a weapon.
As the game progresses, you’ll unlock more ways of exploring the world. Carts will help you haul materials; teleporters will help you bridge areas you’ve already explored (with some limits); and boats will help you cross oceans. The first time you set sail was the first time I took a close look at the map to realize just how massive the world was. Several dozens of hours had been spent on our first island and discovering that there were dozens more islands to explore felt like a magical moment where the size and scope and possibility of the world came into focus.
There was the time that we first launched our longboat to explore the distant islands, reaching what looked like a sunny and peaceful meadow. Along the coast we saw campfires and pack animals that we recognized from the one merchant we met on another island, so we leaped from the boat and swam to shore … missing the fact that bloodthirsty “deathsquitos” filled the air and menacing goblins inhabited the villages. Those pack animals were also wild and similarly unwelcoming. We were all dead in a matter of frantic minutes, an ocean’s distance between us and our gear. The next time we would be a little more careful on our approach, finding a quiet part of the coast where we could set up a small cabin in safety, equipped with a teleporter to make traveling between the two locations a snap.
While the game is still in early access, meaning that the designers are still working on the game, “Valheim” is already such an impressive display of clever and forward-thinking game design. The building system is particularly stellar but so too are the game’s stamina system, its combat system and its resource system.
Many survival games touch on these systems in a way that ends up making the moment-to-moment gameplay feel like a chore. What exactly is fun about finding drinkable water? But in “Valheim” food grants you additional health and stamina, which late in the game can amount to enormous bonuses that make traveling the world that much easier. Where base-building in other games felt like a distraction, “Valheim” integrates it with a comfort system. The higher your base’s comfort, the longer your rested bonus is, which results in faster health and stamina regeneration. And while teleporters make traveling between already-visited areas easier, you can’t transport precious metal ore through them which makes voyages of ore-laden ships fun and challenging.
What’s so special about “Valheim” is how its many systems and clever design all work together to allow players to create their own moments and grow to meet the challenges of the world. It turned out that the plains were far tougher than what our bronze gear could handle. It was several dozens of hours and a trip into the icy mountains later that we had the silver-infused gear necessary to safely return to the deadly plains.
Matt Buxton is a freelance writer and gamer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.