I'm 25 hours into Valheim when I finally climb aboard my raft and cross the sea for the first time. It's a tense journey. As I slowly bob over the waves on my vulnerable little square of logs, the land gradually fades away behind me and all I can see is the ocean. Night falls and fog rolls in, leaving me to peer through the inky darkness for some sign of land that may not even be there.
I've seen video of sea monsters. I know there are new biomes I'm not ready to face yet. I stupidly didn't pack much food. As I travel through the night I completely regret leaving my cozy little fort behind.
I finally reach another landmass and step off my raft, relieved to have survived the slow, uneventful, but completely harrowing journey. I slap together a tiny building and construct a portal, which allows me to teleport back to my main base. Even though absolutely nothing happened on my voyage I don't think I've ever felt such relief to return home. It's a tiny step I just took, extending myself across the ocean to establish a new base, but for a Viking who spends most of his time hunting deer, keeping bees, and farming carrots, it feels like a brave, bold leap.
Valheim is good. And it's rekindled my love of survival games.
I used to play a lot of survival. Minecraft, DayZ, Ark: Survival Evolved, Starbound, The Forest, Green Hell, Miscreated, and lots of others. But at some point I just lost my passion for them. Most began to feel very similar: start with nothing, pick up a rock, grab a stick, and you've got yourself a stone axe. Then just murder trees for the next 75 straight hours. Chopping down trees became one of my least favorite things to do, so much that I ranked tree-chopping in survival games from worst to least-worst.
But here's Valheim, the co-op Viking survival game, and I'm loving it all again—even though I'm still spending great gobs of time chopping down trees. It didn't happen immediately—as I wrote earlier this week, at first Valheim felt like a very standard survival experience. But the more I played, the more I loved it. It does a lot of things right.
Harsh yet forgiving
Valheim is described by its devs as punishing, and it definitely can be. Stamina management is really rough, and I often find myself completely drained in the middle of a fight, with not enough energy to swing a weapon or run away. Dying means everything you're carrying is dumped on the ground and you respawn back at your bed—and if your bed has been destroyed, you respawn back at the point you first entered the world, which can be miles away. I've been brutally and abruptly killed in tombs, surrounded and slashed by greydwarfs, hammered to paste by trolls, and shortly after reaching this new continent, mobbed to death by draugrs. Even with newly-crafted brass armor and weapons, I'm often near death's door during an encounter. Hell, a tree you're chopping down can kill you, if it falls on you.
But Valheim is almost shockingly forgiving at the same time. Repairing weapons and gear costs nothing. Nothing! If you have a brass or flint weapon, you don't need more brass or flint just to repair it. Similarly, if you destroy something you've crafted—walls, floors, workbenches, smelters, kilns—you're refunded the entire building cost. That means rearranging or even uprooting and moving your entire base only costs you labor, not materials. Those 5 surtling cores you used to build your smelter? When you deconstruct it, they wind up right back in your pocket. After years of survival games penalizing you for taking things apart, it's refreshing as hell.
And you can bring the same character, and all their belongings, into any world you choose. Want to try a new world with a different seed, or join a friend for some co-op, or jump onto a dedicated server? You don't need to start over from scratch, and you can bring back anything you've gained to your original world. If you're worried about being killed by another player, you can turn off PvP damage with a simple click.
Slowly revealed depth
Valheim feels kind of basic for a while. Combat, building, and cooking initially seem very simple, maybe too simple. But the more I play, the more I find there's some real depth to it.
Some enemies have weakness that can be discovered by testing different weapons and attacks on them. I was really struggling with battling skeletons in tombs until I discovered that blunt damage, like from my awesome hammer, did much better against them then the spear I'd been using. And parrying blows from enemies, when timed properly, will open them up to heavy crit damage. What felt like mindless hacking and slashing turned out to be a more finely tuned system than I thought.
Construction has a neat feature where the pieces you're snapping together will be shaded different colors to indicate if their weight is being supported properly, letting you know how sound your building is and how durable it'll be under enemy attacks. And cooking seemed simple—raw meat plus fire—but since I've unlocked brass crafting I've got a cauldron to create base potions that then need to be placed in a fermenter.
The complexity isn't all dropped on you at once, it comes along slowly with progress, experimentation, and exploration. (I've just discovered how to craft sausages, which feels like a game changer because they boost my hit points through the roof.) And I'm grateful that the complexity is revealed at a moderate pace. Sometimes survival games throw too much at me at once, but in Valheim it feels like I discover new steps and stages when I'm ready for them.
Even the game's big bosses will patiently wait for you to summon them, letting you decide when you're ready to up the challenge and take the next step.
Beautiful but not demanding
Valheim's game files are less than 1GB to download, which feels shockingly small these days and much appreciated in a time when I'm constantly having to uninstall Red Dead Redemption 2 so I can reinstall GTA 5. And it's lo-fi enough to play on older machines and laptops that don't have a lot under the hood.
But it's still really lovely! Despite the low-fi looks, with animation and character models that would be at home in game from a decade ago, it's got some beautiful lighting effects and some really amazing weather. A game doesn't need next-gen graphics and or a roomy SSD to be effective and enthralling.
Plus, Valheim only costs $20 in Early Access. I may have only just made my first trip across the ocean, but I feel like I've already gotten my money's worth.