Emerging from the mists to take the survival crafting genre by storm, much like the Viking warriors it draws inspiration from, Valheim manages to spin a formula we’ve all seen plenty of times into something more like uncharted territory – even in Early Access. Whether I’m sailing the shimmering seas on my sturdy ship or delving deep into dim dungeons in search of treasure, the challenging combat, endearing art style, and moody soundtrack create a delightful and thrilling world to inhabit. It’s guilty of becoming a bit grindy, especially later on, but the rewarding exploration and memorable encounters with its various dangers help give all that busywork meaning.
Since even before Minecraft, we’ve done this opening routine countless times: by yourself or with up to nine friends, you cut down trees. You kill some animals. You make new tools so you can cut down trees and kill animals better. This makes it tricky, at first, to tease out why Valheim works so well and stands out so much from the dozens of other games like it. It’s a lot of little, subtle things… and a few not so subtle.
Valheim PC Gameplay Screenshots
The art and world design are definitely near the top of that list. It has a deliberately lo-fi look with pixelated textures and not a lot of polygons to go around. But even so, it’s truly a beautiful game. Every creature, sunbeam, and forested hillside is filled with a sort of fairy tale ambience that made me want to get lost in its procedurally-generated regions. And there’s a lot to get lost in, from peaceful meadows to spooky, monster-infested woods to snowy mountains. Every time I generated a new map it impressed me with its scale and how it looked like it could’ve been hand-made. Because of the naturalistic, Northern European feel, it comes across as very cohesive and authentic.
The first time Valheim really made me go “Wow!” was when, after about 15 hours of preparing, I set sail on my own hand-built ship. Like a proper Viking, your main method of long-distance travel will be taking to the seas and riverways. The controls for steering are kind of clunky, and I love them for that very reason. Mastering the art of making tight turns, plotting a course through dangerous rapids, and managing my speed was oh so satisfying, even if it included some trial and error that did a number on my hull. By the time I had mastered the muscle memory to approach the shoreline at full speed and basically drift to a complete stop, parallel to the beach, right where I wanted to be, I felt like a true master of the briny deep.
Realistic waves can bounce you up and down, and a sudden storm can even damage your vessel and force you to make for a safe harbor. The ever-changing direction of the wind is a constant consideration that may encourage you to go out of your way and discover something new rather than simply sail in a straight line. Having a ship makes it feel like a whole new world is opening up – and then it tries to eat you. Sometimes literally, as the deeper waters are full of danger.
Dungeons and Dragons
Valheim’s larger monsters are very well designed in their simplicity. My first time encountering a troll was a memorable and terrifying experience. Some of my most exciting adventures arose simply from trying to figure out how to get from A to B without being smashed into jam. To reach the second boss arena, because of the way my world was generated, I had to sail up an extremely narrow river that ran between two frigid mountain biomes, which caused me to take constant damage from frostbite. Unfortunately, at the very coldest part of the canyon, I discovered the waterway actually became too narrow for my ship. I leapt out, the winter air chipping at my health bar, and frantically whacked away at the voxel rocks of the riverbed trying to make a canal wide enough to let me pass.
And then, from the steep canyon walls above, a troll showed up and smashed my boat to flinders. I had to flee in terror, shivering in my soggy boots, return to my camp on foot (which involved spending a danger-filled night in the wilderness since it was so far away), build a new ship, come back, deal with the troll, finish my canal, and get on my way before I froze solid. None of that was scripted, but Valheim’s simple but brilliant world generation made it one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in any survival game in a long while – and it’s far from the only tale I have like it! This is an ecosystem that consistently generates campfire-worthy stories with a small number of ingredients. There are finished games that feel less fleshed-out and well balanced. If you hadn’t told me it was early access, I probably never would have suspected anything.
Some of those ingredients are better than others, of course. The nearly-ubiquitous Greydwarves of the Black Forest are an unchallenging annoyance, like flies you have to constantly swat away. I would have liked to snap my fingers and see maybe half of them deleted from existence. Unfortunately, I haven’t found any magic space rocks for my gauntlet just yet.
On the other end of that spectrum are the satisfying, hectic, dramatic boss fights that drive Valheim’s progression. These really demonstrate the strengths of its combat: There are five in this early access version, out of a planned nine, and I’ve taken on four of them in the 40-plus hours I’ve played so far. Not only do they serve as a climactic capstone to each area and tier of technology, they’re really enjoyable and rewardingly difficult to defeat. Each is a major step up in challenge from the last, and the third and fourth bosses feel almost absurd to take on solo. Definitely plan to bring some backup and you’ll have a much better time.
The randomized dungeons are also a treat, from bone-strewn Viking barrows that reminded me of Skyrim to foreboding crypts that bring to mind the undead areas of the original Dark Souls. You’ll need a torch to navigate them, and they’re full of monsters, treasure, and crafting materials that you can’t get in the overworld. Each one is a nice little break from the sometimes tedious tasks you’d be doing above ground.
Back to the Grind
As with most survival crafting games, Valheim can get a bit grindy – sometimes extremely grindy, in fact. Harvesting enough ore or metal scraps to get a new set of gear can literally take real-world days. Some later areas require certain consumables, like poison or frost resistance mead, to even survive in them, meaning you have to do a lot of collecting and brewing every time you want to visit. This cuts both ways, because it serves to make them feel more thrilling and dangerous, but also adds a layer of ticking-clock anxiety and a lot of repetitive prep work to exploration as you watch your mead supply dwindle. Not being able to access a new area because I needed to get stronger to beat up a troll is cool. Not being able to access a new area because I’m waiting on my bees to make more honey? Not so much. Work faster, stupid bees!
I really like the way other consumables tie into progression, though. While you can skill up in different weapons and abilities, like running and swimming, your health and stamina meters are completely tied to what’s in your belly. This means that “leveling up” mostly involves finding new ingredients and learning new recipes to ensure you’re always as well fed as you can be. Valheim also wants you to eat a balanced diet. You can benefit from up to three types of food at any time, but stacking more than one of the same thing gives you no benefit.
This is really one of Valheim’s most clever little tricks for making your character feel more alive and connected to the world, and it sets itself apart from the rote, old-fashioned RPG progression routines where experience translates to levels, which translate into more hit points and energy. There’s something really satisfying and thematically appropriate about heading out to battle evil with a full stomach, a good night’s rest, and a flagon full of invigorating mead to quaff. And it also avoids one of the most annoying things about hunger systems in other games: being hungry will never actually kill you or prevent you from being able to hunt and gather. You just won’t want to go into battle with anything stronger than a skeleton on an empty stomach.
Building your own Viking village can be a decent way to while away the hours while you wait for those bees. While Valheim is voxel-based, it’s also much more limited in how much effect you can have on the terrain than something like Minecraft. You can raise and lower the terrain a certain amount, but it’s not very precise. The tool for leveling out an area for building was especially unsatisfying to use, as I never seemed to be able to get a nice, even grade no matter how much I fiddled with it. That means all of my buildings were either floating partly above the ground, or the dirt below would clip through the floorboards in some places.
Other than that, the structures you can build are cozy and appropriately Norse. They’re assembled from a collection of pre-made pieces that limit your stylistic freedom somewhat, but also make sure the things you build really look like they belong in this world. When you move on to bigger projects, you even have to start thinking about support beams and load-bearing walls, which was a welcome little touch of immersion.