'Valheim' Is the Elder Scrolls Game Bethesda Wishes It Could Still Make

The hit survival game offers powerful hits of nostalgia for 90s RPGs, but sands off the rough edges to build something modern and beautiful.
March 4, 2021, 2:00pm
Valheim Fish

Set in the tenth purgatory world of Norse mythology, Valheim is a third-person survival game with a massive procedural map to explore, dungeons to crawl, and seas to sail. Vanquishing a series of “Forsaken” bosses rewards players with new abilities and tools. With more than four million downloads, the game has an impressive amount of polish for being in early access.

Its popularity makes sense. Valheim largely improves on the pain points of the survival sim genre. No more dying by starvation—instead, food gives you health regeneration bonuses—or wasting resources to repair items. These basic considerations constitute so much of the early grind in other survival games. And because they’re persistent, they can also derail late game, when other concerns take precedence. 

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But I suspect Valheim’s appeal also comes from the way it taps into nostalgia of early aughts RPGs. Playing transports me to some of my earliest gaming experiences, but with the kinds of gameplay tweaks you’d expect from a title coming out in 2021. In many ways, the series has recreated so much of what I love from the first time I played titles in The Elder Scrolls, while using survival sim conventions to make its gameplay more propulsive. 

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During the early 2000s - 2010s, Maryland-based Bethesda Softworks became known for making games that were both uniquely, impressively enormous and incredibly bug-filled. The Elder Scrolls largely redefined the open-world gaming landscape, by giving players the power to flip between and encounter numerous quests, and freely roam around maps that are still massive by today’s standards. Skyrim alone has sold more than 30 million units.

The Elder Scrolls, Morrowind in particular, have outsized importance in my memory—Morrowind was the first video game I ever played. I was ten. My uncle, acting as my babysitter, handed me his Xbox controller with the sage advice “I have no idea what’s going on.” Before that, I’d only ever played edutainment CD-rom games like Zoombinis

When I took that controller, it was impressive enough that I could freely walk around and pick things up. I had no idea what the point was, why I was walking so slowly after stashing away my seventh wooden bowl, or why burly men wearing chitinous armor would murder me when I tried to take things from shops. Over time, I picked up on the possibilities within Vvardenfell, even if I never really understood the lore and often killed characters critical to the main quest—“With This Character's Death” warning screens be damned. 

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From the moment the raven dropped me off in Valheim, I couldn’t shake the sense of familiarity. The lo-fi trees and flowers that look beautiful at a distance, but janky up close in a way that immediately warmed them to me. (This isn’t an insult, but a way of noting the intentionality of this design, versus the smoothed out low-poly or stylized 2d pixel designs of many modern indie games). Your character is dressed gracelessly in rags that cover only the scandalous bits.

The parallels continue into the fabric of the game design. A region might not be formally gated, but it will be skill gated. It’s easy to run to a new area, only to have unfamiliar enemies pile on and murder you, or to have environmental conditions prove lethal. Skill improvements are straightforward—sprint to get a +1 on your run skill, for example—and take me back to putting a paperweight down on the spacebar to get “Athletics” points in Morrowind. There’s also the amount of “Skyrim-ing” you can do to jump up steep ledges, as well as the precipitous slowness of being over encumbered.

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It’s not that these design choices are limited to The Elder Scrolls franchise—difficulty gating regions of a map or dungeon crawling are hardly new conventions, and games like Rust also play on the aesthetic of classic RPGs. It’s more about the way Valheim combines these retro mechanisms with Minecraft-like ecosystems and crafting loops, plus challenging combat, to recreate—and even improve on—the magic I found in The Elder Scrolls games.

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While I can still go back and play Morrowind, there are limitations on my enjoyment. The hack and slash is up to a dice roll, which made early game combat feel very haphazard, and later fights feel basically impossible until I’d leveled up adequately. Even those fights could feel unfair, because it was hard to figure out whether I’d hit the enemy—weapons only really slashed in one predictable fashion, and I had to judge by sound design and enemy HP whether or not they’d connected.

Valheim’s combat bears a similar aesthetic, with modern tweaks that make it much more enjoyable (reminding me of Skyrim, as well), and the added challenge of enemies detecting you by scent when you’re downwind. It’s just as fun being a pugilist early on, punching low level Greylings, as it is to sneak up on a deer or sink arrows into a Forsaken. Eikthyr, the first Forsaken, was a challenging but reasonable fight that taught me to manage my limited stamina as I sprinted to kite the giant, electricity wielding elk.

Mostly, these bosses have made Valheim feel propulsive, offering consistent goals that make sense of the large, traversable world; as well as crafting and skill rewards that tie the whole experience together. This has helped prevent me from my Fallout 4 fate of aimlessly crafting and managing my settlement (what son?), even though Valheim offers up architectural crafting very early. In Valheim, getting a little sidelined by crafting and designing can still serve the purpose of practicing shelter building, an important skill as lands get more treacherous. Plus, there’s only so much you can do or explore without a pickaxe (which you get from beating Eikthyr).

I had been mourning the conclusion of my most recent turn in Skyrim, a game I replayed when it came to the Nintendo Switch. But Valheim’s combination of boss fights, and well calibrated crafting loops, breathed life back into a type of gameplay I thought I’d left behind.