Tribes of Midgard started me off in modest rags, like so many other survival games. Thirty minutes later I was clad in sturdy leather armor, wielding a sword and shield, and fighting a giant which could barely fit in my top-down perspective - not the kind of thing you usually get up to in the early hours of survival games. Speaking as an unabashed lover of video game neologisms like "levolution" and "transfarring," the fact that developer Norsfell is calling Tribes of Midgard a "surthrival" game handily encapsulates the difference. That's "survival" with "thrive" stuck in the middle, if it wasn't clear just from reading it.
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Our hands-on preview of Tribes of Midgard was led by the game's creative director Julian Maroda with a full server of 10 players. I also had the chance to interview Maroda after the hands-on, and I pressed him to explain what "surthrival" means to Norsfell. Also on how to spell it.
"It's a term we coined because the whole intent was to create a brand new genre," Maroda says. "The starting point of our thought process was bringing the survival genre to a larger audience - people who hadn't had a chance to experience that because it's too tough, because some players just don't want to play and be dead within 15 minutes. But survival and the notion of surviving is very human and very understandable for everyone, so we really wanted to spread the word. So how about we take the survival genre, we spin it into something a bit different so everybody can enjoy it?"
It starts with the world itself, which is procedurally generated for each new session of Tribes of Midgard, whether you're playing alone, with a group, or in matchmade co-op. The fates have foretold that Ragnarok will annihilate nearly everyone and everything, it's "the brightest Ragnarok you've ever seen." It makes sense that the opposite of a grim post-apocalypse would be a cheerful pre-apocalypse: the colors are vibrant, the dialogue and flavor text are full of Norse mythology puns, and I was personally introduced to the world by the goddess Freyja's chariot-pulling and wise-cracking cats.
Circling the Wagners
Everything in Tribes of Midgard revolves around one central village full of helpful NPCs, with a seed of the world tree growing at its center. Raids from monstrous helthings target the seed, and you (and anybody else you're playing with in up to 10-player co-op) will need to prioritize its defense from waves of minions, using a range of weapon types with their own special moves to fight and making the most of any fortifications you may have had the foresight to construct.
The nightly invasions are a relatively small part of the game, at least to start. Otherwise you'll be free to spend the days exploring the world, crafting more powerful gear, replenishing the seed with souls harvested from opponents and resources, and settling on which customizable class you want to play this time around.
Then the giants show up. Tribes of Midgard will herald a giant's arrival with an in-game announcement, and an ominous arrow off your minimap will point in the giant's direction as it steadily lumbers toward your home. It reminded me of Stitches lurching toward Duskwood back in the days of vanilla World of Warcraft. It's threatening, but it's meant to be manageable if you've put in a little prep work. You can even exit the session after taking down your first giant to collect your account-persistent spoils, if you so choose.
"We make sure the first one is fairly approachable, so you can complete that loop of 'I want to play for half an hour, jump in the game, gather my stuff, craft a few weapons, go and fight the giant, and then I take the Bifrost to earn my reward,'" Maroda explains. "And because you only had a half hour to play, you're totally able to do that."
If you have more time to sur-thrive, you can stick around in the server (it will automatically scale difficulty based on the number of players, just in case any of your fellow Vikings aren't in it for the long haul). You'll keep fighting helthings and giants, and can even accomplish special Saga Quests which will be added each season, for even greater glories and treasures until the arrival of the endless winter. Or you could play Survival Mode, which keeps cycling through summer and winter and bumping up the difficulty for as long as your settlement can hold out, but Saga Mode felt like the centerpiece from what I saw.
Viking the best of it
All of this is only scratching the surface of all the ways to play Tribes of Midgard, but let's take it back to the top-level for a moment: it's a solo/co-op survival RPG where up to 10 players can explore a viking-themed, procedurally generated world, crafting new equipment and taking on a series of progressively more difficult boss monsters… all of which also perfectly describes Valheim, the Steam early access phenom which has sold more than 6 million copies since it debuted early this year.
To be clear, there's absolutely no question if Tribes of Midgard was trying to copy Valheim's homework: it's been in development for years, and its first open betas were running before practically anyone outside of Iron Gate Studios had even heard of Valheim.
"It's just human, right? We try to predict what's going to be popular in the future, we see trends, and then we start working on these trends together," Maroda says. "I've never met anyone from the Valheim team, but it's kind of fun to see that we both saw the same kind of opportunities, like 'Hey, survival games are something that's growing.'"
Fortunately, as soon as you play Tribes of Midgard, it's clear that it isn't trying to be a top-down Valheim, and Valheim was never trying to be a third-person Tribes of Midgard. There's no hard feelings, either; Maroda has "played a ton of Valheim," and he finds the two games to be "very complimentary" in the different ways they tackle a seemingly similar high-level pitch.
Another key differentiator: Tribes of Midgard's proper launch is nearly here. Norsfell plans to release the game on PC, PS4, and PS5 on July 27 and jump straight into The Wolf Saga, the first of many free seasonal updates centered around the eponymous Saga Quest. It's tough to say how the experience of playing with a bunch of developers and other games journalists will compare to regular play after launch, it was more than enough to get me sharpening my axe in the meantime.
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