Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Into The Valley Of Ashes

Yeah... no. Not really. I cheated. Big time. If you're planning to visit the burning lands legit, you may want to skip the whole post. It's kinda spoilery. And you're gonna feel dirty after.

So, I read Wihelm's post on the arrival of Valheim's penultimate biome, the Ashlands, and I watched the weird, animated promo video that bizarrely looks like it could have been made for anime Valheim clone Dawnlands...

And then I thought "I suppose I ought to go take a look at it for myself"

But I wasn't really feeling it.

Valheim was amazing when it first arrived. It came out of nowhere and I'd never played anything like it. I went in cynical and ended up spending nearly four hundred hours there. By the time I got to the end of the Plains, though, I felt like I was done.

After that, I played a whole bunch of games that were like Valheim but different. In some ways maybe better. Valheim has a clarity of purpose the Palworlds and Nightingales don't but after a while that clarity can begin to seem less like a virtue, more like a limitation.

I tried the Mistlands - very briefly - but as Wilhelm has made quite clear, the Mistlands aren't all that much fun. What's more, they're not intended to be.

Iron Gate haven't gone the full passive-aggressive dev route, snarling back at players who don't play the game the way it's meant to be played, but they have made their intentions very clear. There's a post on the official website entitled Getting Ready for the Ashlands and, while it's friendly and helpful enough in tone, it does let the mask slip now and then:

"We also want to remind everyone that Valheim is meant to be a difficult game"

I have no problem with that. Nice that they're being up front about it. I would just like to make it equally clear to Iron Gate that I have absolutely no interest in difficult games. I avoid them at all costs. 

Clearly there's some discrepancy here, what with my four hundred hours played. I can clear that right up. I didn't find Valheim as it originally appeared to be "a difficult game", in the same way I didn't find EverQuest circa 2000 to be "a difficult game". People might say that but it wasn't my experience.

I found the two quite similar in some important ways. I found they required more care and attention than other games and they certainly took up a lot more of my time. You had to play them slowly, carefully, thoughtfully. I found them to be games that could, on occasion, make me quite cross. I did not, however, find them "difficult".

As Wilhelm's report on the Mistlands makes plain, the difficulty in that biome comes primarily from design choices rather than through gameplay. The land is jagged and unnavigable, while the field of view is obscured. It makes doing just about anything a pain in the neck.

That is the kind of difficulty I prefer to avoid, which is why I haven't attempted to play through the Mistlands content properly and am unlikely ever to do so. The new Ashlands content looks somewhat more manageable in that you can at least see where you're going and the terrain is flat but given that access to it is somewhat gated by completion of the Mistlands content, nopeing out of one effectively bars you from the other.

It may still be possible to make it across the burning waters (They literally set fire to ships other than the special one you have to build just to get there.) and limp through the opening encounters in your best Plains gear. It was certainly possible to explore the tougher biomes in the original game while still wearing armor from much earlier. At a certain point, though, it will surely become inevitable that you gear up from the last biome to do the next one and that means eating all your Mistland greens before you get your Ashlands pudding.

I am not going to do that but I still want to see the pretty new places. And they do look quite... well, not pretty, exactly. Impressive, let's say.  

Fortunately, although Iron Gate are keen to have everyone play their game properly, they're also unusually lenient in lending out their tools so you don't have to. Not only does the game have some fairly powerful difficulty settings up front - you can make all mobs non-aggro for example - even better it has a hidden set of developer tools that allow for even more radical rule-changes.

They did make the tools a little harder to find. You used to be able to bring them up just by pressing F5 but that probably caused a few too many customer service issues so now you have to make your alterations in the host platform, be that Steam or Game Pass. It's still extremely simple to do, though. There are full instructions in this PCGamer article.

The dev command I needed to go visit Ashlands was the one that lets you fly. I didn't decide to use it until I'd tried to get most of the way on my own. I knew it was the only way I was going to do the last part, across that fiery ocean, because I certainly wasn't going to be building any flameproof boats, but I did think I might be able to get as far as the opposite shoreline to take a screenshot of the smoldering land across the water.

I didn't do too badly, either. I ported to my southernmost foothold from back when I was playing regularly and headed further south overland from there. That took me through a swathe of Mistland, where I met some Dvergr Dwarves and had several conversations with Odin's Ravens, Hugin and Mugin, all of which was quite entertaining.

I also ran into an Infected Mine within the first five minutes, something that took Wilhelm a great deal longer. That's one of the more annoying aspects of Valheim's procedurally generated content. I had the same issue with one of the biome bosses - Moder, I think - who somehow eluded me for much longer than it seemed to take anyone else to find them.

I strongly advise against going into an Infected Mine just for a look-see. It has to be one of the most repulsive places I've ever visited in a game. Not the "mine" itself - the architecture is really quite impressive. No, it was the "infected" aspect that made my skin crawl.

Coming back out pretty swiftly, I carried on south until eventually I ran out of both land and light. I was stuck on a pillar of rock when night fell and I couldn't see anything at all. That was when I decided to quit pretending I was exploring and just take the tour.

With flight enabled I was able to swoop over the ocean above a forest of rocky spikes rearing out of the water to land on the grey/black/orange/red shores of the Ashlands. And they are impressive, if you're into hellscapes.

I won't bother describing the view. That's why I took all the pictures. I will say that the place is a great deal more built-up than I was expecting, with stone arches and runestones all over the place, along with some quite substantial towers and forts. 

Skeleton warriors and archers stand guard, large animals lumber around, firebirds whirl overhead. The place is teeming with activity. I imagine with mob aggression switched on it would be a slaughterhouse.

Since I had them all quieted down, I assumed I was completely safe to explore. That'll teach me.

I was standing under an arch, watching some orange globule do something or other, when there was a surge and a roar and suddenly I was dead. I still have no real idea what killed me. It won't have been a mob so my guess is a spume of lava erupted from the flow nearby and incinerated me. 

Or I could have died of heat exhaustion. I had the UI switched off for taking screenshots so I wouldn't have seen any warnings. Just goes to show you can never let your guard down in Valheim. Even when you think nothing's out go get you, something is.

I'd set the death penalty to the minimum, so I respawned wearing all my equipped gear. I had very little on me anyway. It doesn't matter if I get it back in any case because I'm as sure as I can be that I'm done with Valheim, at least as a game I actually play

I will almost certainly return to potter about in the original biomes (Okay, maybe not the Swamp.) but nothing I've seen of the Mistlands or Ashlands makes me feel it would be worth the time and effort required to master and tame them. I might fly around some more to see the sights. I might even put up a portal or two for easy access but I'm only ever going to be a tourist there.

I'll be very happy to hear about other peoples' adventures, if anyone has any. There were certainly plenty of people writing about Valheim a couple of years ago. At the moment, though, it seems as if the only blogger still interested in adventuring there is Wilhelm. 

Even though it's still technically in Early Access, I get the feeling Valheim has pretty much done all it's likely to do, commercially. I see from the Steam Charts that the arrival of Ashlands has pushed numbers up but it's still only around 10% of the game's peak. 

I suspect I'm not the only one who feels they've done Valheim and it's time to move on.


  1. I sincerely hope that Valheim's publisher, Coffee Stain, doesn't mess with their success. But given that Coffee Stain is owned by The Embracer Group, I'm not entirely confident about that.

    1. Hard to say what that means for the game. The developer is Iron Gate. Coffee Stain is just the publisher. I guess it depends what the contract between them is.

    2. I don't know what it is either, but you'd think that at first glance Embracer is responsible for Valheim if you visit their website. I'm pretty sure that's by design, although they do make it clear in the details that Coffee Stain publishes Valheim.

  2. The vibe I am getting it that the whole Ashlands thing is way over the top. I am not there yet, but the update broke stuff for me out in the pre-Ashlands world, so it isn't making me at all happy.

    1. I assume they'll end up toning the whole thing down, although I guess they could say they've given us the controls to do that for ourselves.

  3. My the ridiculously long time it took them after the initial biomes to release more content. We raced to the Plains with a group and had a blast.....then crickets for a very long time during which people lost interest and we also lost our server host. So back to square one and I gotta say, nothing I've read from Wilhelm or yourself about these new biomes entices me to put all that time in a second time!! :(((( BAH


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