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Valheim nails exploration because of its looming sense of mystery

Valheim
(Image credit: Iron Gate Studios)
Why I Love

pc gamer magazine

(Image credit: Future)

This article first appeared in PC Gamer magazine issue 356 in May 2021, as part of our 'Why I Love' series. Every month we talk about our favourite characters, mechanics, moments, and concepts in games—and explain why we adore them so much. 

It's rare to feel a genuine sense of mystery about a PC game these days. Between overly aggressive marketing and hyper-engaged communities, any secrets a game may hide are excavated and detailed on wikis just days after release. It makes me long for that feeling of first setting out into the frozen wilds of Dun Morogh as a level one dwarf hunter when World of Warcraft launched in 2004—of being set loose in a vast, enchanting world waiting to be discovered. Thank god for Valheim. 

The words ‘Early Access survival game' might make you roll your eyes (I don't blame you), but Valheim is the exception. Not only does it run remarkably well, but it's also an exceptionally deep survival game that's more akin to Minecraft than Ark: Survival Evolved. It's more about having epic adventures with your buds than waking up to find that a malicious group of players obliterated your entire base while you slept. 

Valheim

(Image credit: Iron Gate Studios)

If you've played survival games, you know what to expect. You'll cut down trees, build forts, hunt wildlife, and go exploring. Valheim doesn't necessarily reinvent the wheel, but what's made it one of my favourite games of the past few years is how Valheim creates joy in the simple act of exploration and discovery. 

Upon starting a new character, you're thrust into a staggeringly large, procedurally generated ocean dotted with islands. A mysterious raven named Hugin appears and acts as a tutorial system, but you're really only given one clear objective: find and slay primordial monsters scattered across the hundreds of kilometres of lush meadows, swamplands, open oceans, and craggy mountains. Right now there's only five of them to find, but more will probably be added before Valheim's full release.

Due Norse

Each of these different biomes is home to different monsters, resources, and treasures. But Valheim is full of fun (and nasty) surprises. Giant trolls stalk the forest, eager to kill unprepared adventurers. Sea monsters prowl oceans, and that ominously glowing pile of branches might actually be the nest of nefarious greydwarves protected by ultra-powerful shamans with poison magic. It's a world that, when explored with a friend or two, feels like it was torn out of the notebook of a fantastic D&D dungeon master. 

It's a world that, when explored with a friend or two, feels like it was torn out of the notebook of a fantastic D&D dungeon master.

Last weekend, for example, I sailed my boat into an uncharted and extremely dangerous region called the Plains. Curiosity killed the cat, but what I didn't expect was to be murdered by giant, very angry mosquitos. Respawning back at home base but with my boat and valuable armour now leagues away, my friend and I had to launch a rescue operation. I thought it'd take 15 minutes or so, but after we were waylaid by a sea monster and forced to run our ship aground, it quickly became clear that our rescue operation might require yet another rescue operation. 

These moments of drama are enhanced by how staggeringly beautiful Valheim is. That's a weird thing to say about a game with textures and models that look more at home in a 1996 issue of PC Gamer, but Valheim is beauty in motion. It has some of the best real-time lighting I've ever seen, and when you're surrounded by its dense and dangerous forests, these tense moments take on a storybook quality. 

(Image credit: Coffee Stain Studios)

There's a certain majesty to seeing the silhouette of a deer grazing in morning fog so dense I feel like I can taste it, and a palpable dread when you spot the glowing green eyes of a greydwarf shaman stalking you in the distance. Valheim's forests are unpredictable and mysterious—stuffed full of terrifying trolls, precarious terrain, and hives of monsters guarding valuable loot.

It makes the return trip to my little cottage all the more sweet. And because Valheim is primarily co-op, I never have to worry about unwanted guests breaking in and ruining all our work. I instead can focus on venturing out into the unknown world and finding resources, bringing them back to camp and figuring out how to turn them into something useful. Discovering these interactions is fun—I was very excited when I discovered greydwarf eyeballs could be used to make portals to help me easily travel Valheim's vast distances.

Each day I play, I feel like I learn something new about Valheim's world. But those revelations only lead to more mysteries that need to be puzzled out. Coupled with its moody and often frightening forests, and it's clear that Valheim is a game that knows how to do exploration right.

Steven enjoys nothing more than a long grind, which is precisely why his specialty is on investigative feature reporting on China's PC games scene, weird stories that upset his parents, and MMOs. He's Canadian but can't ice skate. Embarrassing.