Welcome to our Gameluster Top 10 of 2021! After our deliberations on the Game Busters Podcast, we’ve settled on an unranked list of the top 10 best games of the year. Each of these will be a short write-up on why our team is so passionate about these games, so stay tuned!
While everybody was "ooohing" and "ahhing" (and "booing" and "hissing") over Assassin's Creed Valhalla, there was another Viking themed game which came out. It had little fanfare, being an Early Access indie title on Steam, but it quickly attracted a following. And from there, a fanbase. Regardless of what Geoff Keighley and his ilk ultimately crown, 2021 was (for me) the year of Valheim.
Valheim casts players as Viking warriors who cannot truly die in a heretofore unknown realm, the branches of the world tree Yggdrassil arching through the sky, and a plethora of creatures both familiar and freakish roaming a series of procedurally generated islands. Whether alone or with friends, you must undertake a quest to defeat giant monsters whom Odin has imprisoned. Along the way, you'll learn how to build, how to hunt, and how to survive in this strange world.
It's seductively easy to dismiss Valheim as simply one more indie survival game with only a Viking spin to try and differentiate it. Yet such simplistic reductions also completely disregard the degree of thought and worldbuilding that went into it. Valheim is, quite simply, an unfettered joy to explore and build within. The islands contain different biomes, each with their own types of creatures, their own hazards, and their own resources which you will need to gather in order to improve your gear and your structures. The procedural generation sometimes causes groupings of biomes to be odd, such as single islands of one biome surrounded by another, but in each instance, the world is wonderful to behold.
It's not to say that there weren't problems at launch. Balancing issues, odd glitches, connectivity problems, design shortcomings, all part and parcel of an Early Access game. But, as I've learned, what separates a good Early Access game from the also-rans is how willing you are to overlook the stumbles and even play around them. When the existing design and content is good enough and engaging enough to make you remind yourself, "It's still in Early Access," and not make that reminder a slur.
Where Assassin's Creed Valhalla and God of War went for bloody handed bombast and tried to fit their respective stories into the larger framework of Norse mythology and Viking culture, Valheim has the feel of a lost saga. We're not sure if the events happen after Ragnarok, before it, or during it. The subversion of the typical myth of Valhalla as well as the cosmology of Norse myth engender a sense of gentle bewilderment, a feeling of "this wasn't in the songs and stories" that sparks curiosity rather outrage. There's a simple pleasure in roaming the Meadows areas to go hunting and picking berries. There's a visceral tension going into the Black Forests and the Mountains, uncertain what will be popping up to challenge you even as you keep your spear and shield readied. And there is boundless exhilaration when you build your first karve or longship and take to the sea, learning to read the wind and the waves to see what's over the horizon, or to see if you can outrun the sea serpents who've suddenly taken an interest in you.
During a time where our opportunities to get out in the world were drastically constrained, Valheim delivered a whole new world for us to explore. A chance to gather friends together and make memories, which become stories, which in turn become our own sagas. It was just what we, as gamers and as ordinary folks, needed and when we needed it the most.