When the world was slowly coming to a pandemic-induced pause, there was a quiet rumbling in the Early Access section of Steam. A new multiplayer, survival game had been released in which you crafted, fought and explored a massive open world. You could play solo or invite your friends, and each player would start with the same skill level and tools. Its simplicity and style had already caught the eye of the Steam community, so when governments started enforcing lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, the game’s stunning visuals and co-op capabilities offered an escape we desperately needed.
Valheim’s plot and setting is simple: you are a Viking who needs to defeat the evils (in the form of bosses) within the world of Valheim to prove yourself fit for the halls of Valhalla. You are offered some helpful hints by a raven (Huggin), but for the most part you are on your own and have to figure your way out as you play. The scenery changes with the different biomes and the music slowly shifts as you traverse the terrain: from meadows to swamps, from thick forests to mountains. You fight, build, fish, mine, farm, cook and sail as you slowly gather resources, build your base and upgrade your armour. You can control the pace and for the most part choose how you want to progress on your own without the fear of dying from hunger or losing out on timed events.
It isn’t a game for everyone. The slow pace can get monotonous and the stamina/food mechanic can get frustrating. If you die, you spawn at your last spawn point, manually marked with a bed, and you have to make your way to your place of death to gather your items. If you’re out at night without a fire near you, you can get cold and your stamina will deplete. If you try to traverse the mountains without building a fire or without the proper clothing, you’ll freeze to death.
Challenging game mechanics, coupled with a lack of tutorials and guides, is not usually a winning combination. But where there was a lack of tutorials came an abundance of forums and community-led groups. Players from all around the world, old and young, came together to find solutions on how to overcome the challenges of the terrains and its monsters. There were girl gamers enjoying the online multiplayer aspect without the rampant toxicity that plagues other popular games. People shared how they were able to rekindle old friendships through the game. And one year on, it remains an active community with people continuing to inspire and encourage each other, celebrating each other’s achievements and builds.
Like for many others, Valheim offered me a way to connect with other people. I still play the game regularly with my friend, at least once a week, where we’ve had some very serious encounters with trolls but also silly dance competitions. Some days we focus on tackling a boss, other days we’re goofing around trying to lure a boar onto a boat to take it across the ocean. For all its challenges, the game offers you many more opportunities to personalise your playthrough without making it so difficult that it becomes frustrating, or so easy that it becomes boring.
For a game that is still Early Access, the success it has had is what makes PC gaming so incredibly fun and dynamic. What could have easily been yet another survival crafting game has gone on to win PC Game of the Year, which is an incredible feat for an unfinished project that came out the same year as Hitman 3, Resident Evil Village and Deathloop. So while I cannot say how long I’ll continue to enjoy the game – 200 hours in, I feel like I’m just getting started.