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When Minecraft was just starting to get big, I was already too old to take a game about building with blocks seriously. And as a result of that, perhaps misguided, aversion, I consciously skipped it, as well as a whole bunch of other games following a similar formula.
Then over time, due to the genre’s overwhelming popularity, these survival games started branching out to differentiate themselves from the rest of their kind. For some, that meant becoming survival-RPGs and adopting an RPG-like progression. Others evolved into these small-scale sandbox MMORPGs (MORPGs?) somewhat reminiscent of games like Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies.
Because of all this cross-pollination, we’ve already covered some of these titles here at GameBanshee. And so, when Iron Gate’s exploration and survival adventure Valheim entered early access and then quickly proceeded to take the gaming world by storm, I decided to finally bite the bullet and see what it had to offer and whether survival games could be of interest to your average RPG enthusiast.
Journey to Valhalla
In Valheim you play as a newly-deceased Viking on his way to Valhalla. Only before you get there, you first have to prove yourself to Odin by slaying a bunch of his enemies. A Valkyrie drops you off in a meadow and then Odin’s trusty raven Huginn sends you on your way.
From that point onward, you’re on your own (or aided by up to 9 of your friends) in this new hostile world plagued by all sorts of beasts and mythological creatures. You will need to find shelter and craft all your gear before setting your sights on the game’s big bads. Right now, there are five of them, but seeing how this is just the beginning of the game’s early access journey, the developers plan to add more.
Immediately, Valheim avoids some of the pitfalls that make the entire genre poisonous to a lot of people by taking a page out of World of Warcraft’s book. Instead of penalties for not eating or sleeping, the game grants you buffs for consuming food and resting. The strength of these buffs depends on how good your food is and how cozy a home you’ve built for yourself, respectively, which incentivizes you to actually care about your base and the logistics of procuring some decent ingredients for your meals.
However, if you choose to ignore those things and just spend a few in-game days exploring or building stuff, your character won’t die of hunger or exhaustion. Your stats will merely return to their base values.
Speaking of exploration, the game’s procedurally-generated world is absolutely massive. It's separated into a number of distinct biomes, each with its survival challenges, enemies, and valuable resources. Currently, there are six of those in the game, but there are already plans to add more.
If you want to beat the game, you'll need to advance through the biomes by first mastering their challenges, then crafting all the gear you can, using the resources available to you at the moment, and finally beating the biome's boss. Doing so will unlock a special power for your character, one for each boss, and grant you access to some new resources and gathering techniques. Some of the biomes also allow you to explore instanced dungeons that tend to be filled with enemies, but also useful loot and materials.
This creates a satisfying loop of discovering new stuff, unlocking new abilities, and making your character strong enough to tackle ever-increasing challenges. However, while there’s certainly a lot you can do in the game already, its early access nature leads to its vast open spaces feeling somewhat barren. For the game to truly shine, the developers should really add a bunch of additional points of interest and useful but not crucial items you'll be happy to see in a hidden chest, and liven the place up with some NPCs, as at the moment, the entire game only has one merchant.
Valheim also has a skill system inspired by The Elder Scrolls series. As you chop down trees, swing your sword, or just run across the plains as the local fauna tries to kill you, your skills gradually improve, making you a better lumberjack, swordfighter, or sprinter. You get the idea.
And should your character fall, you will drop all your items (you'll be able to recover them), but more importantly, you will lose a certain number of skill points, which can sting quite a bit in the later stages of the game, incentivizing you to better prepare for your expeditions.
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