Developer: Iron Gate
Publisher: Coffee Stain
Website: VALHEIM (valheimgame.com)
Genre: Action, Adventure, Exploration, Survival
Release Date: 2/02/2021
A code was provided for review purposes.
Norse Mythology has taken the gaming world by storm over the last few years with triple AAA games such as God of War and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla taking advantage of the rich Norse Mythology and bringing it to life in new ways. It was only a matter of time before a game developer took this trend and applied it to the survival genre. This brings us to Valheim, a game recently released to Early Access from developer Iron Gate. Valheim has already been taking Steam by storm. Selling an impressive two million copies in its first two weeks of launch. If you like crafting, surviving and delving into the Norse fantasy, this is shaping up to be the game for you.
A New World
Valheim is supposedly the tenth Norse realm and was created by Odin as a sort of proving ground for recently deceased warriors to earn a place in his gilded halls. Proving yourself won’t be easy though, as you’ll need to foremost prove your strength as a warrior to leave Valheim. What better way to do that than to slay terrifying bosses. These bosses range from an overly large deer with lightning, to a literal ice dragon. So it goes without saying you must come prepared. Very prepared.
Thankfully, you’ll receive a little help from a raven that pops up now and then to deliver the odd tutorial. It’s handy but doesn’t always pop when you may need him. In fact, he has a habit of appearing when you figure out game mechanics for yourself such as building a house or a workbench. So while the game does try to hold your hand, it’s often too late.
You can’t of course venture out into the unknown without first making your own Viking warrior. The game’s character creator isn’t too expansive, nor does it need to be. It’s as simple as selecting your sex, hair and of course, your choice of a fine Viking beard. If the game wasn’t Viking enough already, the game even features a “blondness” shader for your character, allowing you to adjust how golden your locks truly are.
You then get to select to start your own server or join another one. What I like here is that the game allows you to create a second character if you choose to play with other players without risking the progress and items you accumulated in your solo game.
What a Wonderful World
The game graphically feels like a very polished PS1 title. The character models look low poly giving everything a low texture detail. But what the developers have achieved with this art style is quite incredible. The world you explore feels very alive. Animals roam the forests, you can see the wind blowing through the forests and then there are those beautiful lighting effects over its open valleys. When cutting down trees, you’ll even notice that the logs will topple over, often causing a domino effect of falling trees and giving you a prime opportunity to yell “TIMBER!”.
The world of Valheim is immense. Every world you play in will always be different thanks to the way every world is procedurally generated. This provides a substantial amount of replayability, allowing you to explore and discover a completely new Valheim every playthrough.
Valheim is host to several distinct biomes, each with its own materials to gather, enemies to fight, and unique aesthetic. No matter what, you’ll always start in the meadows biome, which is by default the easiest, and most beautiful biome in the game.
This doesn’t mean the game’s other biomes don’t also merit your appreciation. The Black Forest, dangerous as it may be, is vast and littered with old ruins scattered among towering trees. Even the mountain biome has its beauty, with vertical terrain blanketed in sheets of the whitest snow.
Valheim shows itself to be a fantastic example of a game that despite its graphical limitations, creates a unique art style full of charm and beauty you won’t soon forget.
Dangers All Around
Don’t let the pretty scenery fool you though, Valheim isn’t a cakewalk. While abundant in Asgardian beauty, it’s a living hellscape. I can’t remember the last time I was able to peacefully work without being swarmed by groups of Greydwarfs. These gangly creeps are the easiest enemies you’ll find in Valheim, however, they are without a doubt the most irritating. Where in other survival games you have a little reprieve during the day, Valheim chooses to always keep you on your toes, as Greydwarfs can emerge from the forest and hills at any moment.
As you explore more of the world, you’ll encounter even greater foes lurking in the dark. Giant trolls, various forms of the undead, and even sea serpents are only some of the creatures you’ll face on your journey through Valheim’s challenging sandbox.
While we all love a good challenge, I can’t help but feel it’s a challenge forced upon you without consideration for how you wish to play. It will often be very intense and demanding in terms of how it throws a lot of hostile elements at you. So while you might prefer to have a chill and relaxing experience, unless you build on a lonely island in the sea, you’ll never truly be safe.
The toughest foes you’ll face will always be the game’s bosses. This is down to the fact they are your ticket out of Valheim and are a key marker of progress through your playthrough. The death of a boss will net you a new reward that will often unlock new things to craft, as well as unique abilities. But while the creatures of Valheim are your primary concern, they needn’t be your only concern.
Like most other games in its genre, Valheim features the all too familiar cycle of gathering materials and crafting. Whereat first you’ll start off punching bushes for wood, and picking up stones by the seaside, soon you’ll be mining large ore deposits in the pursuit of better tools and armour.
What I found odd is how you go about learning new crafting recipes. You start the game not knowing how to craft anything. The way you learn to craft things in Valheim is by literally finding a new crafting resource, like the aforementioned wood and stone. I wouldn’t expect to get far with getting new and exciting materials though. While you might want to simply craft and pursue the next big upgrade, you cannot do so without first dealing with the game’s bosses. For example, you can’t make a pickaxe without killing the first boss. That’s right, a pickaxe. It’s something that isn’t too considerate of players looking to dive into the game’s relatively varied crafting system, rather than it’s combat.
It can be quite the grind to get things going especially with the limited carrying capacity you have. If you carry too much weight your character will become sluggish. Boars were quite hard to come by and mostly dropped one scrap of leather at a time. And the grind doesn’t stop there. The further you progress in the game the more resources you need to collect, often resorting to storing stuff in chests back at your house. Gradually you will be able to craft tools, weapons and armour which can all be upgraded and repaired. Most play sessions are likely to take hours, so strap in.
Home Sweet Home
Additionally, if you want to build anything, you’ll need to be in the designated vicinity of a workbench. This can be heavily restricting if you’re looking to build a large base or grand Viking longhouse. It’s easily solved by placing another workbench to expand the buildable area but ultimately feels really annoying to have to do.
Aside from this, I was extremely impressed by the number of building options available. There’s a wide variety of roofs, walls, as well as the ability to use beams and poles to add a bit more structural integrity to your new home. It opens up the potential for some truly breathtaking builds and home designs and is one of the many features that sets Valheim apart from its contemporaries.
Valheim’s survival elements are present but manageable. You have the usual troupes where your character can get cold or wet. The main meter to focus on, however, is your hunger. You are able to eat three items at a time and these combine together to replenish your health and increase your stamina bar temporarily. Varying your diet also appears to deliver better results than sticking to a single food type. Being stocked up on food is key to survival in Valheim’s harsh world and certainly a good strategy before taking on a boss fight.
Fight Like a Viking
The combat system is fairly straightforward. You can block, dodge and attack enemies (or possibly players) with a variety of weapons you can craft. These can range from clubs, knives, bows and spears. At later stages, you’ll even be able to craft yourself the signature Viking battle axe. Despite its various mechanic’s, dodging feels unnecessary. I found myself just moving around the enemy to find an opening and attack. The bow and arrow also takes a bit of getting used to. While the bows are fun to use, taking your shot can feel like a dice roll in terms of whether the arrow will hit or not.
If you die you lose all your items in your pouch as well as some experience. A gravestone is dropped at the place you fell, and like the famous Souls games, you have one chance to get to the stone to reclaim all your items. But die again and all those weapons and tools you spent hours making are gone for good.
Everything you do in the game runs off a stamina bar, so you’ll need to make sure every swing, block and parry is used wisely. If you don’t you might find yourself defenceless. Additionally, the game does feature the ability to sneak, however, don’t expect to be a world-class assassin. It only ever feels useful when hunting, and even then if you are within a target’s line of sight stealth goes out of the window. Sneaking also drains your stamina bar making it feel even less of a viable option.
Overall, combat definitely feels like an area that could do with a bit of refining. Like much of Valheim’s gameplay mechanics, the basics are in place, but the devs still need to put some meat on its bones before it lives up to its fullest potential.
Ultimately the opportunities with Valheim are endless. Want to build your dream Nordic village? Go ahead. You want to take up a simple life of farming and tending to animals? You can do that too. Believe it or not, you can even take up beekeeping. It is a game where you can play however you want. In some of my play sessions, I just spent hours chopping trees down to build my house up and hunting boars and deer to feed and clothe myself. It can be quite a Zen experience. But there often will be points where combat is inevitable.
There does seem to be a little more bias towards those more combat inclined, with dungeon crawling and boss fights playing a big role in progression. Valheim is setting itself up to be the premier Viking sandbox experience, no matter what Viking you choose to be.
Should you want to face the dangers of Valheim with your buddies, you can easily do so. We were fortunate enough to test out the Valheim online together, which allows for up to 10 players in one server. During online sessions, I encountered very little performance issues. There were times where I was far away from co-op partners and the game was still performing fine. When you play online the game gives you the option to enable PVP combat as well as show player locations on the map. While PVP is an option, the game feels heavily in favour of a friendly PVE experience. The game for me feels more enjoyable as a co-op experience. Taking down the big Norse bosses and having more than one player hunt for materials makes things significantly easier and is way more fun.
After sinking significant time into Valheim I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it. There are games released in their full version 1.0 that don’t play as good as this. In its infancy, Valheim has already demonstrated its potential to become the premier Viking sandbox experience. Already its stunning worlds leave us speechless, and its plethora of gameplay systems open up so many opportunities for players of all preferences.
Outside the game, I love how the developers have regularly updated the community with bug fixes as well as offering advice on how to play the game. With already astronomical success it looks like there is plenty to come from the developers and I for one am excited to see what the future holds.
You can find and read our reviews on OpenCritic.