I planned to write up this review of Valheim a couple weeks earlier… but I was too busy playing valheim.
Valheim describes itself as “A brutal exploration and survival game”, and while this is true I feel like it might give you the wrong impression. Let me start with how I discovered the game. Anyone who knows me knows that I love Viking stuff, so whenever I see a game pop up on steam with a Viking theme that doesn’t fall into the usual tropes (hornet helmets etc.) I’ll wishlist it and give it a look when it releases. Most of these games don’t amount to much, and I didn’t really expect anything from Valheim either, until I checked it out on its Early Access release day and saw “overwhelmingly positive” reviews.
So I bought the game and downloaded it, which wasn’t a big deal considering it was only £15 and a 1 GB install. I’m used to games these days costing upwards of £50 and hogging 40+ GB of my dwindling SSD space.
As soon as I got in I was surprised by the graphics, which I hadn’t quite noticed in screenshots before. The textures in the game are very low res, very much reminded me of early Playstation games such as Metal Gear Solid. This is part of why the game has such a small file size, and is so easy to run! This might not sound great, but as you can see from my screenshots the game still manages to be beautiful, mostly thanks to lighting and design choices. I generally get very tired of a lot of indie games these days going for a retro style, but this game hasn’t done that, it’s used this style choice in a very unique way, and has been very efficient with a low amount of detail, they managed to pull off something remarkable. The aesthetic in this game overall is very satisfying to a fan of Norse mythology and history, as they’ve very clearly taken inspiration from real elements such as in creatures, building styles and weapons and armour, but it’s by no means tied down by trying to stick to realism. There’s a lot of original design here that doesn’t fall into tropes and is just very fun to discover. A lot of the look and feel of the game is enhanced by sound design too, with great music for every different location, making places such as the already foreboding black forest, with its tall trees and lack of sunlight, feel even more immersive. The distant sounds of deer in the meadows, seagulls when sailing at sea, or a troll thumping towards you and felling trees with his club are all very much part of the atmosphere.
So I started playing much the same way you do with any survival game, albeit while pausing plenty of times just to admire the scenery. What’s the first thing you do in games like this? You punch trees. From this moment I could see that Valheim was actually making an effort here where so many others feel a bit lazy. I couldn’t just go and punch any tree, I could only break down smaller saplings, or find branches on the ground. Sure, makes sense. Then I picked up a few stones and made a simple stone axe. This is the moment something clicked for me. Felling trees in this game is somehow really enjoyable! And why shouldn’t it be? It’s a task you end up doing for hours throughout every game in this genre, and yet most treat it as an afterthought. So in Valheim instead of simply hitting a tree model until it vanishes and leaves wood in your inventory, you actually have to chop the tree down, watch it fall, break it up into separate logs, chop those up and then pick up the wood. None of this is done in some complex mechanical way though, you simply keep hitting, and thankfully this game auto picks up items unless you dropped them yourself. What makes this semi-realistic yet streamlined process fun is the physics. The trees fall in such a satisfying way, with great sound and visual effects as mentioned before. The trees seem weighty, avoiding any of the floaty physics you still see in games today. But the most important part; the trees collide with each other, knock other trees over, roll down hills smashing into anything in the way until the tree or the obstacle breaks, and do damage to enemies and you alike. It may not sound like a huge deal but it’s honestly so satisfying, you have to try it. It’s not necessarily as chaotic as I make it sound, for the most part you’ll be peacefully going about some light deforestation while keeping subconsciously keeping track of where you’re standing and anticipating where the tree will fall. You’ll just incidentally get these little chain reactions of trees falling and hitting other things that it really just keeps you engaged with something that is normally such a mundane task in games like this. Sometimes it will get out of hand though, and you’ll end up with a log upside ya head. If you want to be smart about, you can line up trees perfectly spaced apart and get them to fall like dominoes. You could even get a friendly local troll to help you out by dodging his swings and having him smash down half the forest. Anyway, I think I’ve talked about trees enough for now, but I think it says something that I’m now over 100 hours into this game and still appreciate this basic element of the game.
Once I’d gathered my resources I set about building a simple house. Building in the game is also quite simple, but I find it very satisfying. It doesn’t do anything groundbreaking here, it’s just very intuitive and allows for some fun designs in a very authentic Norse aesthetic. The main mechanic here you’ll notice is that everything needs good support. This way you’ll end up with long beams distributed around your larger buildings to support the roof, which looks nice and realistic! The way this works is that you can only build a certain number of pieces away from a piece that is in contact with the ground. Once you get the hang of this you’ll start building proper foundations with floorboards placed on top, rather than just placing walls on the dirt directly. The distance you can build can be extended with better materials later on.
Once you get into building and crafting in general, you’ll find another important aspect of the game; it’s pretty forgiving. You can break built items without worrying about losing the resources, this way you can try things out without being punished. This extends into all aspects of the game, such as with death. When you die your items are left in a little grave marker for you to come and collect. They’ll stay there forever even if you die again, or you die in the middle of the ocean. You still don’t necessarily want to die a lot, as you do get a bit of skill drain, but this is very minimal early on.
Another player friendly thing about this game is the survival mechanics. It’s definitely still a survival game, but it doesn’t become too annoying. For example with food. In some games it feels like you can barely focus on anything else because you’re constantly struggling to not starve to death. In Valheim it’s done in a more positive way, where eating food increases your maximum health, stamina and the regeneration speed of both. Different foods are better at improving one or the other, and more complex recipes that take three ingredients and need cooking can boost your health and stamina bars a huge amount. So you can not eat anything for a while if you like, that way you’re not wasting your best food on the days you just plan to stay at home and do some building or farming. But if you’re heading out on an adventure you should have yourself a hearty feast, and don’t forget to bring some sausages with you on the road! You’re also encouraged to eat a variety of foods, up to three at a time until you’re full up for a little while (some keep you full for longer), so this stops you from just relying on one item for the whole game. This really adds purpose to the hunting, fishing, foraging and farming that you can do in order to get greater variety and find the best combination of meals. This is a wonderful example of the approach this game takes, where it’s not terribly harsh, yet gives you a couple of limitations to keep things interesting and let you figure out how to do things best.
The other important element to survive in the world of Valheim is shelter. Of course you’re going to want to build a house of some kind, and something simple will suffice at first. You’ll quickly realize that you need a fire fairly close to your bed in order to sleep, and you definitely want to be near a fire at night, as it does get cold. being cold gives you a debuff to your health and stamina regeneration, which I think is an elegant way of encouraging you to keep a proper sleep schedule, besides the night being a little spooky too! You’ll especially want to watch out on those stormy nights, as the rain makes you wet, which makes it harder to keep warm and puts your fires out. The weather effects are pretty impressive and atmospheric too. So once you have a fire in your first hut and go to sleep, you may run into another hazard. Fire makes smoke, and no matter how tough of a viking you are, you can’t breathe in a smoke filled room. The smoke effects in this game were another one of those little surprises that made me laugh and had me hooked to see what else the game had in store for me. To solve your smoke problem, make a hole in your roof. Oh wait, the rain put the fire out, I guess you need some sort of chimney. Time to look up real viking houses and see how they managed this in real life!
Soon you’ll want to upgrade your house, maybe make a bigger one as you unlock more crafting upgrades that you need to place around your workbench and forge. Then you’ll discover the usefulness of the rested buff. It’s another small mechanic that encourages you to sleep in a positive way rather than just punishing you for being tired. It also gets applied when you simply sit for a couple of minutes in your house in the warm glow of the hearth. The buff is improved to last longer when you have a more cosy house, so start building some chairs, a nicer bed, throw some animal pelts on the floor and some hunting trophies on the walls. There’s more I could say about a lot of the survival mechanics in this game, but these few examples are what you’ll notice most early on, and I really enjoy how they work. It’s a big part of what makes Valheim the best survival game.
All these different systems fit together so nicely, they encourage you to be thorough and thoughtful in the way you play, and they feel very immersive. I’m usually someone that tends to go for more realistic or sim games, mainly because I’m not a fan of how very ‘gamey’ mechanics that are too abstract or detached from reality pull me out of the experience. The way valheim somehow manages to be very casual and accessible in many ways without sacrificing the thing I love about the more hardcore realistic games, the immersion, is nothing short of outstanding. It’s very well balanced between being a fun game, but also being authentic and immersive, just as it’s so well balanced between being a fun challenge but not too hard, and balanced between looking beautiful but not too demanding to run.
I could probably go on about every little detail that I love about the game, such as the way you’ll go on epic journeys across the world to discover different lands and find new resources. How combat is deep enough to sink your teeth into, with different weapons and enemies that behave in varying ways. Or the different bosses you’ll fight to gain access to new abilities and special powers. THE SAILING. But I should cut it short here, as a big part of this game will be discovering all these wonders for yourself, or with friends. I really do recommend playing with friends. I started alone and then after a few friends watched me stream my first few hours in game four of them jumped on with me, so it shouldn’t take much convincing to get your friends to join you too. There’s a reason this game had 1 million sales within a week, and has kept adding another million to that number every week since. In some ways the most amazing part is that this is still an early access game, perhaps the only one that I’ve managed to spend over 100 hours in so quickly, because it’s so well polished and feature complete! There’s a roadmap showing what they plan to add, and it all sounds great, but even if the game was fully released in the current state, it’s still well worth your money and time.