Valheim: Fast Track to Valhalla

I wanted to get to this sooner–rather, I thought I would have more time–but my new obsession gained Two. Million. new players almost overnight. It’s shattered almost all other benchmarks set by previous fan favorites on Steam, from concurrent players to peak players to players in general. Which is just insane. I don’t even remember where I spotted what I thought then was a diamond in the rough of Early Access games, but it was the equivalent of finding a Grade A adventure in the bargain bin at GameStop. Then, a few days later, my joy was everyone else’s. And I couldn’t be happier.

Let’s start with the basics, shall we?

No game is likely to disappoint that begins with a gigantic bird providing air taxi services to a dark and mysterious land filled with danger and death. The list of those games right now, off the top of my head, contains only two: Valheim, of course, and Dark Souls. But that’s beside the point. It’s a hell of a way to kick off a party. And there you are, the life of the party, dropped into what seems at first a peaceful meadow. How sweet, how nice. Like any other survival game, you quickly find yourself picking berries and chopping wood. Maybe you have a house by nightfall. Hopefully. Otherwise, when that sound cue hits and the music changes, I guarantee you’ll get a chill up your spine.

And that is perhaps Valheim’s greatest strength, more than likely what sets it apart from so many other games in a similar vein: What would happen if Breath of the Wild and Skyrim had a child that was then adopted by Minecraft? Well, you’d have Valheim! This is something we can find with most games that become startling breakout successes. Somehow, by brewing all these different ingredients in the same pot, the dish comes out fully its own and delectable. Make no mistake, there are plenty of games that try to cross genres and blend diverse mechanics only to end up a hobbling mutated mess. But the ones that carry it off? *chef’s kiss*

Soon after spectacular bird delivery, you will find yourself scurrying through the meadows and forests, plumbing ancient tombs and fighting trolls, and (best of all) braving the waves with spectacular fanfare and sunlit ocean spray. What Valheim accomplishes in spades is not merely its blend of varying genres into a complete experience, but also the feeling with which the game invests your movement through the world. Nothing quite drives this home as well as the first time you set sail, even on just a simple raft, and the exultant music begins. I truly felt at the start of an adventure, which might be the best way of classifying Valheim: as an adventure. And in a time when games have become more and more commodified, to the point that every would-be Adventure game feels scripted to the point of roboticism, this game is truly a shot in the arm.

So too is it the gift that keeps on giving. Every new environment poses new and often unpredictable challenges. Upgrading to new materials (and thus new types of equipment) is askew from the usual means, requiring advancements through what is Valheim’s pseudo questline. More than once I’ve stumbled upon something new, exciting and mysterious in an environment I thought I’d already combed over or explored thoroughly. I’m keeping more than a few things out of this review in hopes that you experience them in full effect for yourself. For a game that can’t really even be classified as Horror-adjacent, let’s just say Valheim serves up plenty of scares. Not unlike Dark Souls, to return to that brief bird-taxi comparison earlier.

The cherry on the top of all this, to use a cliche in reference to a game in which there are none, is that Valheim is not just in Early Access on Steam: it’s in Early-Early Access. Meaning, we’re just getting started, and there’s already so much to do. Indeed, this massive windfall of sales–a leap from thousands of players to millions–can only lift this longship even higher on the wave of success. I’m on the edge of my seat to see what these guys do next.

It’s rare enough that I enjoy a game this much, but rarer still that I enjoy it to the point I believe the hype is not only warranted but something I get caught up in myself. If you have the cash, and the time, I urge you to go and pick this amazing experience up as soon as you can. You won’t be disappointed.

Cyberpunk 2077: More Than Just A Game

It’s an experience, and I don’t say that lightly. I’ve been religiously playing games since I was old enough to hold a controller and reach all the buttons. Before I could go through the whole alphabet, I could go through every level of Super Mario World. So when I say that Cyberpunk 2077 is one of the best games ever made and easily the most immersive, even at its bug-ridden launch, it’s not without some amount of weight. And I’ve already sunk in roughly ~20 hours since the game first came online at 7:00 PM EST on December 9th, with each hour building to some crescendo I keep expecting to come. And I know I haven’t hit the high water mark yet. I’m fully prepared to be blown away, perhaps literally.

Your introduction to the world of Cyberpunk 2077 is through the eyes of V, a rough-and-tumble mercenary who’s lately returned to their netrunning alma mater and the game’s main setpiece: Night City. And what a city it is. An elegantly mad gestalt of genre tropes that are so seamlessly blended and remolded that you barely notice them at all. Part Blade Runner, part Neuromancer and part Snow Crash–each titans that spawned a genre–this simultaneously glittering and grungy metropolis is host to a delightful hodgepodge of cultures, aesthetics and social classes. And all of this is backlit by neon and holograms, permeated with the sort of debauched and euphoric techno-misery that only cyberpunk can conjure.

Navigating my way through Night City, dropping in on gangsters souped up with cybernetic implants, hacking soda machines for fun and profit, driving around in my robotically bulky yet sleek car, I can confidently say that this is the first time in all my years of gaming I’ve been able to say that I really feel like I’m in the game. CDProjekt Red have succeeded in crafting their masterwork of a complete gaming experience. You don’t question for an instant what you see relative to the setting. The combat is fluid and has weight to the point that even using the standard weaponry is a total joy. If you remember seeing something in a movie, you can probably do just that thing. Almost every part of the environment is traversable and makes for a multitude of approaches to any objective or self-assigned task, not least of which are the many open world missions that dot the map and bring the city alive in their own right.

And this is to say nothing of the story. One might be tempted to deride it as cliche, an overdone and tired homage to greater works that falls flat. But this is not so and for the very reason that the homage is carried off so well. Like many cyberpunk stories, and even cyberpunk adjacent games like Shadowrun, Cyberpunk 2077 centers around a heist, the details of which I won’t reveal and mostly because I haven’t gotten that far yet. I’ve been too busy, you see, gallivanting around and cutting clean through Night City’s seedy underbelly with my katana. But what I’ve seen so far is nothing short of thrilling, if not for the simple fact that I don’t have to distort it to fit my idea of playing through a Blade Runner or Neuromancer. Rather it is a perfect reproduction of what that experience would look like. Each character I meet is meticulously crafted to set the scene, to enliven and broaden, and yet so familiar that I feel right at home in the backseat of a fixer’s limo. I have to do no work, and what a gargantuan relief it is.

It is, it is…

Cyberpunk 2077 succeeds everywhere that Deus Ex: Humankind Divided fell short, and precisely because CDProjekt Red didn’t take the easy route. You aren’t a cop, a corporate operative or special agent for some kind of cyborg control unit. Those are villains of a different kind, no different from the pushers and fixers. You’re just lowlife scum like the rest of the downtrodden masses that populate Night City. Only you just so happened to have survived long enough to make a name for yourself and trick out your body with cybernetics. Indeed, you only exist above the rest because you were just more brutal and resourceful than the rest. As such, merc-for-hire V doesn’t exist outside the system or its effects on the world around them: You’re an intrinsic part of it, spat out from its ugly chrome womb and molded into a killer. The luxury of looking down and looking in on this twisted reality, brought about by corporate oligarchy and runaway technological advances, does not belong to you. Those in power are as distant to you as the heights of the towers you look at from the sidewalk. Like the police chief in the original Blade Runner says, “If you’re not cop, you’re little people.”

And in the world of Cyberpunk 2077, little people only have one way out from under the boot: cutting through or stealing from enough people to buy a chance at freedom. We’re just lucky it’s so damn fun.