On a simple journey, returning home after visiting Valheim's mysterious merchant on a neighboring island, I'm suddenly hit by what made this game so special when it first launched, two years ago. Cresting an innocuous hill, I look down the rocky slope, sunlight glinting off the stone after the recent rain, one of my co-op partners scrambling towards our ship, bobbing gently as the waves break against the natural harbor we anchored it in.
This is what made Valheim such a memorable experience in 2021: the sense that you're a part of this world, working with it rather than just exploiting it for your own gain. It's an often-mocked survival game trope that every game starts you out with a collection of sticks and rocks, and while Valheim is just as guilty of that as many other games, it makes clear that those basic tools don't make you master of your domain. Hacking down a tree can still send a falling trunk to squish an unsuspecting viking. An excursion to mine some metal ore puts you at the mercy of trolls and greydwarves. When the sun goes down or the rain starts to fall, the only thing that can keep you warm and dry is to huddle together around the fire as the lightning crashes above you.
More than anything, it was those moments, the ones that felt like they embraced the Scandinavian concept of 'hygge' – a lifestyle with an emphasis on coziness and contentment – that truly brought Valheim to life. The hunkering down, with a dedicated comfort meter to make sure you're warm, dry, and preferably swaddled in animal furs, letting you fast-forward to whatever the next day brought. Often, that next day was one filled with its own bizarre adventures, Valheim's sandbox approach to 'survival' being perfectly content to let you spend a day building, fishing, or farming. One day, after repelling a raid against our homestead, my party of vikings kept the party going with our own chaotic brawl, leaping off the Escher-esque roofs and staircases that constitute our home base.
Thriving, not surviving
Much has been said about Valheim's approach to player death (your only penalty is a trek back to your grave and a small hit to your stats) or the way in which it subverts survival 'meters', like hunger, sleep, or thirst. You'll never starve to death, and sleep is simply a tool to fast-forward through the dark and cold of the night. There's plenty that will kill you – quickly, violently, and often repeatedly – but those deaths will come amid a peal of chaotic laughter, not the gnawing frustration of being out of food. Roam far enough afield, and there'll always be something to take you down, but Valheim thrives in the juxtaposition of its most dangerous moments with the calm that you carve out for yourself.
In the two years since Valheim initially charmed its way into the survival game canon, little has changed on the surface. A new biome, the Mistlands, was well-received by veterans, but won't trouble newcomers for some time. Updates have brought quality of life changes to some parts of the game, and extra depth to others; the Obliterator is a tool to help rid you of the detritus inherent to the scrappy nature of the genre, while tweaks to things like cooking help players pick the foods that will best serve them on their next expedition.
But the charm is still there, in a game that delights in the small moments, leading you gently to its showiest setpieces but always welcoming you home. Even as Sons of the Forest claims the current survival game crown, as Valheim's Xbox launch nears, it remains one of the most joyful experiences of its kind, a game that captures the wonder of the wilderness, while still understanding the importance of the home.
Valheim launches on Xbox Series X, Xbox One, and joins the Xbox Game Pass list on March 14, and here's our list of some more upcoming Xbox Series X games.