Valheim has swept the PC gaming world by storm, selling over five million copies in under a month. There are over 120,000 overwhelmingly positive user reviews on Steam, but why the hell do so many of them compare Valheim’s action-RPG combat to Dark Souls?
One of the very first user reviews I came across posited that it’s basically Dark Souls without the difficulty. Another insists it has ‘Soulslike combat and punishment for death’. The real hair-puller, though: ‘Valheim is like a Minecraft version of dark souls’. If you aren’t familiar with Valheim, it’s an open-world survival game much more like Terraria than Rust. It focuses on sandbox co-op play, rather than PvP multiplayer. You control your character from a third-person perspective, explore a procedurally generated world, and gear up to take on a variety of enemies as well as legendary bosses.
Sure, it’s got RPG systems, lots of loot, light and heavy attacks, and blocking and rolling mechanics. Dark Souls certainly has those things – it’s a modern action-RPG, after all – but those gameplay descriptors don’t come close to capturing the essence of Souls games. The Witcher 3 fits this description, does that make it a Soulslike? How about Zelda: Breath of the Wild, or Monster Hunter World?
Combat is one of the keys to what makes the Souls series special. Fighting enemies is punishing, and crucially, stat and gear upgrades never trivialise a battle, even against early-game grunts. You have to learn attack patterns, the timing and direction of dodges, and how much damage an enemy can take before staggering. Only a thorough understanding of your opponent will let you ease past them.
Dark Souls is also loved for its intricate level and world design. Forging a path to a new bonfire, unlocking shortcuts, and gradually mastering each area is all part and parcel of the Souls experience. Its fantastical, labyrinthian environments also cohere with very careful, deliberate item descriptions and character designs – piecing together the narrative context of a new area and understanding its history is a laboured process, in exactly the same way as mastering its physical layout or conquering its inhabitants in combat.
Valheim has none of these elements. Combat in Valheim is functional but basic, and very often it’s your stats or the gear you have that determines whether you win or lose a fight. It doesn’t have the readable animations and precise hitboxes of a Souls game, or special attacks like backstabs and ripostes.
The world of Valheim is procedurally generated, too. Every world is a unique compilation of biomes, enemies, locations, and resource nodes. Generating everything through Valheim seeds has the benefit of added replayability, but it’s the polar opposite of Dark Souls’ painstakingly handcrafted levels and environments.
Genuine Soulslike games, like Nioh and The Surge, possess all these elements, in addition to fitting the broad descriptors of a modern action-RPG. Granted, there are some smaller mechanical similarities between Valheim and Souls games – the former does have a parry system that rewards well-timed blocks, and when you die you leave a little tombstone with all of your belongings, which you get one chance to fight back to and reclaim. But there’s a huge difference between borrowing a couple of ingredients and cloning the whole recipe, and there is a very real list of games like Dark Souls that are either directly or indirectly inspired by FromSoftware’s series.
In the wake of the original Doom’s release, ‘Doom clone’ became shorthand for first-person shooters. That ‘Soulslike’ is becoming a synonym for many modern action-RPGs is, therefore, a familiar phenomenon – Dark Souls is one of those rare games whose influence is so extraordinary that its endless comparisons have become a meme. However, the ‘Doom clone’ label was pretty much gone by the late ’90s as shooters like Half-Life diversified away from the Doom mould, that diversity already exists in modern action-RPGs. 12 years after the release of Demon’s Souls, we need to stop sticking the ‘Soulslike’ label on every such game with a dodge-roll.