My time with Valheim so far can be summed up thusly: I killed a fuckton of deer. They screamed in fear and died in agony. It made me sad. Then I killed the biggest, meanest deer ever conceived, and it was metal as hell.
Valheim, Steam’s latest out-of-nowhere mega-hit, mashes up an epic Viking tale with survival mechanics that, initially, seem like pretty standard fare. It’s something of a slow burn. If I’d written this piece after playing for an hour or two, I’d probably be like, “Eh, it’s alright.” But it is not merely alright, Nathan from yesterday, you witless infant. It is very, very good. It is an intricate grandfather clock of intertwining systems, and when it chimes, you pay attention.
Here’s the setup: You’re a freshly dead warrior, but Odin—who never gives anyone a break—wants you to clean up the purgatorial tenth Norse world, Valheim, for him. You’re plopped into the place with nothing but a handy mythological raven, who guides you through the basics of survival. This involves a lot of crafting. One of the game’s most immediately noticeable nice touches is that you learn by doing. If you want to boost your stats in running and jumping, you... run and jump. Each time you kill a new enemy or acquire a new material, you instantly learn new crafting recipes. It’s all very straightforward and clean.
For the first few hours, Valheim guides you in the direction of simple sustainability. You have to build a fire to keep warm when icy Nordic winds blow through at night. You need walls, a roof, and a bed to sleep through the night and get stat boosts from being rested. Even these basic items build on each other; without a fire nearby, you cannot sleep in the bed. The fire is also good for cooking and keeping roving enemies away—the latter of which I discovered organically, without the game ever telling me. To collect materials, you need to hunt and gather. These systems scale up alongside crafting in ways that make intuitive sense. You might be able to hack away at an aggressive boar with a basic stone axe, but you’re going to want to use cloth from boars to build a bow in a hurry, or else you’ll never catch almost comically skittish deer.
In the early goings, at least, it’s soothing. The environment is ethereally beautiful, landing somewhere between World of Warcraft, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, and actual Valhalla. The music is calm, but it has character. If you play alone, there are no people, aside from yourself. You can hear every howl of the wind and rustle of the leaves. Animals roam, but they are relatively few and far between. It’s an unnerving sort of solitude, but you get used to it. After only a couple hours, I came to cherish it. Nothing really threatens you, aside from trees that you, yourself, chop down and fail to get out of the way of. I also got killed by boars once, but that’s because I ran headlong into a pack of them and started swinging my club like a child with anger issues in a batting cage. The lesson, then, is clear: you are a person, not a god. You’re a decently strong person, but even animals and inept woodworking can kill you if you’re not careful. So can cold and starvation.
You spend the game’s first handful of hours coming to terms with this and creating a nice little system for yourself. I went from wandering aimlessly in cloth scraps to having a house, leather armor, and a cookfire where I could make myself breakfast every morning—which nearly quadrupled my HP, albeit temporarily. Even once you’ve made tangible progress, the refrain remains the same: you are mortal. Your accomplishments are not you.
All the while, in a cold, whispering corner of the woods, something waited for me. It was an altar. Next to it stood a statue of a deer. “HUNT HIS KIN,” read runes beneath the statue.
This is where the heart of Valheim lies. Odin wants you to slay his ancient enemies, but first you have to figure out how to summon them. After hunting for hours and amassing a deer bodycount that probably numbered in the hundreds, I obtained a deer head trophy—nine of them, actually. That, I figured, was what the altar demanded. I was right.
On my sixth in-game day, I woke up and had breakfast. Then I summoned a gargantuan fucking deer. His name was Eikthyr. Everybody, say hi to Eikthyr:
Eikthyr was absolutely terrifying. Up to that point, the gnarliest things I’d fought were annoying little tree monsters that I could dispatch in three hits. Everything else was just animals. Eikthyr, meanwhile, was something off the cover of a power metal album. A concept album, even! One about him, probably! The forest darkened and the sky turned red as he sauntered up to meet me. Lightning crackled between his antlers. He was (at least) eight feet tall and wrapped in chains. I was just some guy.
As Eikthyr hurled lightning at me, it occured to me that mere moments ago I’d been clumsily hammering together a house so I didn’t catch my death of cold in the night. I’d been living off berries because, until the in-game night before the fight, I didn’t even know how to cook. If Valheim was a less graceful sort of survival game (hi, Ark: Survival Evolved), my character probably would have been dealing with intensely uncomfortable shits in addition to everything else on his plate. I had been killed by regular, non-giant boars. After almost four hours of that, I was supposed to fight something so powerful that Odin, the goddest of all gods, saw fit to declare it his enemy. And I was supposed to win somehow.
Eventually, I calmed down and realized my shield blocked most damage Eikthyr could send my way, whether it was lightning or just a good old-fashioned headbutt. But even then, things were touch and go. While charging through the woods, Eikthyr knocked over a tree, which fell inches short of hammering me into the ground and killing me instantly. Also, one of those stupid little tree enemies showed up, and I had to deal with him too, even though I was very clearly busy at the time.
Ultimately, I prevailed. The fight was intimidating, but winnable. Still, the juxtaposition of my character’s own frailty and the sudden appearance of this godlike figure elevated the moment. It was thrilling—pulse pounding in a literal sense. I cannot wait to see what Valheim does next with this structure.
Based on what happened shortly after I won the boss fight, the game is on the right track. After sacrificing Eikthyr’s head at a different altar and gaining a special ability, I embarked on a quest to explore Valheim’s second major biome. Almost immediately, I encountered two skeletons kicking the absolute crap out of one of those little tree dudes. The skeletons noticed me. Still riding the high of my victory over Eikthyr, I charged them. Three hits later, I was in spitting distance of death’s door. They were skeletons—the most basic enemy in basically any other video game. I was still just some guy.