Seeing a survival game hit the Steam store in “Early Access” is often a sign from the heavens that your best bet is to stay far away. While it is without a doubt that some of these games are born from nothing but passion to be the game that changes this perception, the majority of them somehow find their way to the coveted spring of everlasting water in Tuck Everlasting and live eternally as mediocre products. Valheim, on the other hand, has defied all expectations and seems to be “that game” that makes you want to believe. Valheim is not routine, and this comes as a surprise seeing as it is Iron Gate Studio’s first project.
Valheim is a 1-10 player survival game taking place in a Nordic setting. With nothing at your disposal when starting your journey, your goal is to please the great Odin and ascend to Valhalla. Though Valheim offers a destination — the ascension to Valhalla — it is very much a sandbox game that provides little direction. You are the storyteller of your tale. Want to mess around in the age of wood and stone tools? Do you want to speed through the ages and be an armoured Viking? There is required grinding to progress, of course, but your progression is only tied to how slow or fast you wish to go.
There are currently five different land biomes in Valheim: Meadows, Black Forest, Swamp, Plains, and Mountains — progressing in that order. There are more to come, but in each biome, you will face different obstacles with each being gated by a unique boss that requires preparation to beat. To summon these bosses, you will need to defeat the creatures of that biome and use their specific loot as an offering to summon the boss. These bosses all have unique attacks that are punishing if not played around. Plan well, get acquainted with the biome and its unique properties, and gear accordingly.
The world of Valheim is procedurally generated and this means that the way the world is designed is randomly generated once you begin. Combine Valheim’s massive world scale with the unique replayability that procedurally generated worlds provide, and you have a recipe for many unique adventures by yourself or with friends. Much like Minecraft, each world you explore will be a mystery. If you aren’t happy with your world initially, then creating a new one will shake it up entirely. Or, if you see a layout online that you like, you can ask for the seed and start your journey on land you may be more familiar with.
The abundance of opportunity offered by the enormous world would be for naught if not for the various paths presented to the players. In Valheim, the player has many unique choices when it comes to how they wish to approach the game. Like I mentioned above, the pace is entirely up to you to decide. You can be a warlord that sets out to slaughter everything in its path and increase your combat skills, you could be an architect that designs villages fit for a ruler and their people, or you could even be a humble farmer that specializes in gathering materials for the village through your uniquely high gathering skill level. Or, believe it or not, you could just be the jack of all trades and, in this case, master of all. With no looming disaster brought about by time or griefing players, you’re able to survive in the way you see fit. Death, however, does punish your progress.
The game offers a skill system comparable to Runescape. Each swing of your axe against a tree increases your woodcutting skill. Each swing of your sword against the world’s various inhabitants increases your sword skill. Each level increases your proficiency, but each death lowers your levels across the board. At the moment, one of the weakest parts of Valheim is its skill system, however. It is exciting at first, but once you realize that raising your level with swords only increases the damage you deal with them by a minimal amount per level, a bit of the excitement towards grinding levels fades. It is a system that has the opportunity to provide fun and meaningful depth, but it fails to do so at the moment. Should further improvements be made to the skilling system, it will further the longevity of the game. However, due to its current lacking iteration, it trickles down and makes death not as meaningful or impactful as it should be.
It’s hard to talk about death in survival games and not have questions of starvation and dehydration sitting in the back of your mind. If food management to survive is something you enjoy, you won’t find that here. There is food, but it doesn’t satiate you in the way we’ve grown to expect. In Valheim your health and stamina values are determined by the food you’ve consumed. Higher quality food — typically crafted food — will offer a much higher gain than the berries you find around the world or the meat from the boar you cooked. The food you consume is not permanent and does require upkeep.
While the idea of death coming knocking when you’re hungry has been abandoned, you will need to prepare and carry food if you wish to traverse the world more quickly and come out of battles the victor. Stamina is consumed when sprinting, jumping, attacking, or blocking. The increase to stamina from food should not be underrated due to how much of it is consumed. Ignore it and you may find a troll’s mace connecting with you as he hits a home run. The increase to health is also vital as your armour can only block so much of the incoming damage. As you fight tougher enemies, the amount of damage negated by your armour value shrinks. Make sure to top up on your favourites to stay healthy and to protect the levels you’ve accrued.
Though food is necessary to survive in a different way in Valheim, so too is the upkeep of your equipment. Crafting is just as essential in this game as it is in any other survival game. As you progress through the biomes and gain access to new materials, your options at your crafting tables will also expand. You will gain access to armour that provides higher defensive values and weapons that pack a bigger punch than those that came in the tier before. Should you also not get lazy with the upkeep of the tools around your home, you can also further upgrade the ranks of your pieces to increase said values. Better equipment doesn’t just come at the cost of crafting materials, however. With heavier equipment also comes a movement speed penalty. Heavier armour will slow you down when worn, but weapons will only impede your movement speed when unsheathed.
You start with rags and branch out into metal armour adorned by wolves. Progression with everything in the game is locked behind progression from one biome to another. You can stay in the starting area as long as you’d like, but the tools and crafting options available to you will remain limited.
Your progression through biomes doesn’t only mean you grow on the battlefield, however. The changing of biomes also brings new home and travel options; aesthetic and practical options open up as you gain access to more of the world. The world is shockingly large and can be quite time-consuming to travel, and one of the options that becomes available to you is a portal. By naming the portal the same as another placed anywhere in the world, you can travel between the two locations in seconds. One of the limitations of portals, however, is that metal crafting materials cannot be taken through portals. Their value is undeniable, but the decision to limit what the players can bring through them encourages exploration via the sea.
Did you enjoy Wind Waker? How about Sea of Thieves? Sailing is something you will be doing a lot of to make up for the fact that you can’t teleport vital metals. As you gain access to greater tools, so, too, do you gain access to better vessels. With better boats means faster travelling and more transportation storage. How you choose to settle in the world is for you to decide, but open water transportation is something you will need to consider if you choose to settle in just one location. And maybe the things that reside in the water.
How and where you decide to build is important. Thanks to the game’s constructable (and deconstructable) biomes, you can terraform the world to fit any size of settlement you wish. In survival games, you typically search for the ideal piece of land before building your house. Here, you can pick any place, take out your hoe — destroyer and creator of worlds — and shape the land to fit your desired image. Travel time, however, can add up quickly if you decide to settle in just one location from start to finish. Having a settlement treated as the main base is recommended as you create smaller settlements in the new biomes to serve as a place of operations while you’re there. This is where portals really start to shine, but getting metals from one place to another is still a necessary task eventually.
The incentivizing of building multiple locations to operate from is a positive in my eyes, however. Sailing can be fun and relaxing, but it can sometimes be a drag if what you want to be doing is on land. But the creation of multiple bases of operation is something I grew to enjoy as I realized how many options there are when it comes to building.
Building in survival games is often one of the features that makes or breaks the longevity of the game. The crafting/building system in Valheim still shocks me, honestly. While it doesn’t necessarily have the ridiculous abundance of options that, say, Minecraft does (yet), it offers more than enough for you to freely explore your Nordic desires. When crafting your perfect building, you will notice that some of the pieces will be highlighted in different colours when you aim over them. This is because they are all supported differently and have differing levels of structural integrity. You can make a house as big as you want, but you will need to properly support its pieces so that it doesn’t crumble.
Creating a settlement above land is not your only option. With the ability to terraform, you can also set up base in the stone of the earth. You can create tunnels, sculpt rooms, and place all your necessary belongings and tools inside. It doesn’t stop there, though, as you can then even use the building materials that are normally used outside in the cave system you terraformed. Your settlement is in your hands with many options that are only going to be expanded upon in the future.
You’ll experience things that remind you it is an early access, but you’ll discover even more things that want to make you believe it isn’t. It is a game that delivers upfront and promises even more than one would expect. It is an early access game that has a foundation so solid that one would consider it an anomaly. Development of a game is a marathon and not a sprint; the challenge they face now is making the game better than it already is. Early access is a time for experimentation, but what we’ve seen is that Valheim is already good. It just needs to be enhanced. What it doesn’t need is overhauls and reimagining (except to the skill system), but pillars to support further elevation upon its foundation. Should they nail that, this game has the possibility to be a darkhorse in discussions surrounding best games of the year.
Craft settlements of your desire, roleplay in your longhouse with the mates as you slam back some mead, or conquer the world that resides under the looming titanic Yggdrasil. Hell, do it all. The world of Valheim is one that extends its hand and lets you decide the direction.