Viking game Valheim is a survival sandbox experience that has been tearing up the Steam sales charts. Since its launch on Feb. 2, Valheim has been on the top of the best sellers list, and sits at an “overwhelmingly positive” rating with nearly 13,000 reviews. This vast game has a teeny tiny download, and looks like a 3D take on old school games like Runescape.

So, what exactly is Valheim, and why is it taking off so quickly?

Action and adventure with friends

Valheim’s progress is very similar to Terraria or Starbound, in that advancement feels organic and natural. Players start in a simple but vast meadow, and learn how to hunt animals and build simple shelters. Players learn to punch little stone golems to death, and craft a club. From there, players can begin building a starting settlement. Once that’s done, it’s time to start hunting boars, which drop the materials for a bow, which makes hunting deer easier. There’s a clear path of progression, with each step opening up the next advancement.

Eventually, my friends and I feel confident enough in the basics, so we explore. We find a great elk boss and fight it, which drops hard antlers — now, I can use that to make a pickaxe. That means that the more dangerous Black Forest is worth exploring now, because we can mine the ore within. Once we have that ore, I can start making more sophisticated tools and armor, which in turn open up their own recipes and options for advancement.

Image: Iron Gate/Coffee Stain Games

Here’s what a session with my usual gang of friends might look like. We want to head out to the Black Forest to fight a giant ent, but there’s a mountain range in our way. The mountains are freezing, but we spot wolves, and we think we can take their fur to bundle up. After a few unsuccessful scraps with wolves, we mark the spot on the map and pledge to come back and get revenge on another day.

We go south and travel around the mountains until we come across a massive lake that we can’t possibly cross on our own. Instead, we settle down and build a wooden dock and a Viking longship. The longship ferries us across the lake and we track down and then attack the ent, circling around the giant tree with bows and spears. It fights back by summoning massive roots and tearing us apart with giant vines.

The fight is going well until the ent calls dozens of goblins from the wood, so we flee in a panic, nearly losing our longship in the process. We didn’t get any treasure, but on our way back, my husband sings sea shanties as my buddy takes the wheel and navigates us home. We laugh and chat amongst ourselves, invigorated by the adventure.

As we explore, the world opens up outwards, leading to mechanics like building trade routes, establishing a magical portal network, and learning how to sail and chart a nautical map. Valheim feels like a world worth exploring and spending time in, especially because I don’t have to put tons of time in to maintain the progress I’ve made.

The models are simple, pixelated, and polygonal, but they’re uplifted by gorgeous shaders and lighting. It’s a balance between modern comforts and good old fashioned nostalgia. Sure, hunting ents and fighting trolls is great, but sometimes I just sit on a raft and watch the water lap against the shore, or the sun filtering through trees into a meadow. It’s cottagecore and deeply cozy, and the occasional brutal storm makes the bright and sunny days even more appealing.

Image: Iron Gate/Coffee Stain Games

A Viking’s life

Crafting and survival games often involve a rough start and a bitter grind before players can get to the sweet experience of building massive bases, hunting dangerous bosses, and conquering a hostile world. Even survival game success stories like Rust have gone back to make things easier and accessible for new players.

Valheim, in contrast, is $20 and highly accessible. Players take the role of Vikings who were granted an eternal afterlife by Odin himself. One of Odin’s ravens shows up to provide tutorials, and the game distributes tools slowly you get the basics of terraforming, farming, combat, bosses, and crafting. You can’t get in too deep without understanding your starting tools, and it leads to a good on-ramp to the game. Luckily, you don’t have to spend long punching trees to earn wood before you can get into the real action.

I’ve only encountered minor bugs during my 20 hours in the game. I can play with up to nine friends, and it’s super simple to connect to another person’s server. I can even hook up a controller without any problems. These are small feats, but they’re also issues that even triple A games like Fallout 76 struggled with implementing, so it’s a huge relief to dodge that sort of entire mess.

Image: Iron Gate/Coffee Stain Games

The game is also mechanically forgiving, without any of the usual survival game obstacles like expiring food or prohibitive repair and expansion costs. There are terrain manipulation tools, and a building system that lets players build elaborate structures and sprawling settlements. Building can be a bit fiddly, but players can either free-place wood or snap pieces together depending on their preference, which leads to something that is mostly easy and flexible. PvP is a toggle; unless I opt-in, I don’t have to worry about another player wrecking my house or sinking an axe into my back while I farm.

Games like Rust or Fallout 76 have built huge communities around their survival gameplay loops, but they’ve also left other players in the cold with either tough design decisions meant to increase difficulty, or technical issues. Valheim doesn’t do anything new or out there, but it doesn’t need to. Iron Gate has created a simple but deep game that works on every level, and that’s enough to blow up on Steam.

It is, in short, an early access crafting and survival indie game that actually works. There isn’t anything ridiculously flashy or totally new, but developer Iron Gate has created a solid foundation. All of the mechanics here have been done before in games like Ark or Conan Exiles, but the hard edges and frustrating grinds have been sanded down and smoothed away. In a genre so crowded with derivative, opaque, and downright broken titles, Valheim stands out by simply working well and making sense.