There’s one genre in the world of video games that always comes up. Early Access multiplayer survival sandbox. Don’t forget that juicy procedural content in an ‘massive open world!’
How many times have we seen that in the industry? There was a time where it completely saturated the market. Even now, it’s still a popular thing with thousands of versions out there.
I could list the number of games in the survival genre for hours and still not cover them all. Minecraft is the definitive one, but it’s certainly been a controversial genre. It’s really hard to get it right, and for every success, there are dozens of failures. Even the ones that make it are often divisive. Giants like Rust and DayZ are plagued with problems. Others, like Ark Survival Evolved, Space Engineers and No Man’s Sky have all had troubled development cycles that trouble it to this day, often because of poor developer decisions. Other common problems include poor optimization, server overload, mountains of glitches that ruin a player’s experience and multiplayer griefing.
It’s a behemoth challenge. How do you make a game where you can do anything exciting, while making it fair for everyone? It’s an age-old question. So far, only Minecraft has gotten things mostly right. Well, I’m happy to say that this month, another challenger has come to the market that’s looking pretty good. That’s what they all say, right? Well, put it this way. I never play multiplayer, but this game makes me want to.
I’m talking of course, about Valheim. Releasing early February, it’s taken the scene by storm, with overwhelmingly positive reviews and hitting the top sellers on Steam. Developed by unknown developer Iron Gate AB, it was picked up by Coffee Stain Publishing. These guys have a flair for eying solid titles, including the excellent Satisfactory and Deep Rock Galactic. So far, it seems they have struck gold again. As I write this, Valheim has broken the 300,000 concurrent player mark, and shows no signs of stopping.
What makes Valheim special? On the surface, it doesn’t do much new. This is the synopsis of the game’s story thanks to the description on the Steam page:
A battle-slain warrior, the Valkyries have ferried your soul to Valheim, the tenth Norse world. Besieged by creatures of chaos and ancient enemies of the gods, you are the newest custodian of the primordial purgatory, tasked with slaying Odin’s ancient rivals and bringing order to Valheim. Your trials begin at the disarmingly peaceful centre of Valheim, but the gods reward the brave and glory awaits. Venture forth through imposing forests and snow-capped mountains, explore and harvest more valuable materials to craft deadlier weapons, sturdier armor, viking strongholds and outposts. Build a mighty longship and sail the great oceans in search of exotic lands … but be wary of sailing too far…
It’s a different premise to its competitors, and Valheim packs a punch in its launch state. Let’s jump right into the different aspects of the game. Remember, I review and judge early access titles based on what is already in the game, not what is promised. Judge on current content, not promises. Judge the smoke before you see the flames. Fortunately, Valheim is a meaty, enjoyable experience from the beginning.
While the models are low-poly, at best PS2 level of quality, the developers have chosen to focus their attention on other key areas, such as lighting and environments, and holy, does it work. Sure, it’s not the prettiest you’ll see on the market, but it blends surprisingly well. I would have liked to see better character models, and the enemies could use some work, but the bosses look good.
If you’re someone who loves graphics, you may not enjoy this. Personally, I think they picked their priorities effectively. The game has some wonderful physics regarding destruction and chopping wood, to boot. The visual design is much better than you might think going in, and the excellent lighting does wonders for immersion. You don’t believe me? Look at some of the screenshots:
In my current playtime I’ve barely come across any bugs. Maybe a couple of minor glitches here and there? I have to nitpick to find issues in this regard. Despite single player running rather well, multiplayer has some problems with performance, and I do hope it gets looked at. Optimization here needs work, and once you have a pretty big town built up, I found frequent frame drops. Again, it’s not awful, and the performance at launch was much better than I expected, but it is something to mention. I hope future patches improve this, but it’s got a foundation to build on. To sum it up, single player feels fine, but multiplayer will struggle once you’ve got a town built up. There’s also quite a lot of pop-in with textures as things load, but for a procedurally generated world I’m not going to lean too much on this as a criticism.
The dedicated servers could use some improvements as well, and I found a lot of inconsistent performance in trying to log on. Despite these problems getting into the servers, we haven’t had a single desync or crash in either of the multiplayer servers I’ve played in. If we put aside these flaws, the game runs surprisingly well, and I think it can do well even on mid-range systems. Valheim also requires very little disk space, less than a single gigabyte. Overall, it’s decent, though there is a nasty world deleting bug that seems to be rare and random. I hope that gets fixed.
The controls feel a little clunky at times, but overall it feels good. You have many ways of movement, and the combat system gives me Gothic and Dark Souls vibes. It’s tough, but not overly punishing. You have a bunch of weapons with the tools to make them work, and I’m quite fond of the combat. It takes time to use the bow, but once you’ve tried it a bit, you’ll get used to it. There’s plenty of enemy types, and the boss battles are a ton of fun. The death mechanic also works great. Once your character dies, his tombstone is available where you died. Go interact with it, and you’ll regain all your items. This is infinite, so there’s no worry about your tombstone decaying.
Environment is also an enemy. You’ll get rogue storm events, tsunamis and more. The gods really want to punish you!
The open world is already massive, with even more content to come (50% content complete at launch). It’s procedurally generated, but unlike most games like it, it doesn’t feel like one. The game has plenty of diversity in its biomes already, with more planned down the line. Exploration is fantastic so far, either playing solo or with friends. There’s also a persistent way of progression: you can go into any world, with any character, which makes for a ton of replayability and some new game plus options. For example, you can build up a base in one world while exploring and hunting other areas. No two worlds are the same, which gives for a ton of ways to play the game. There’s no sandbox mode next, but it is a possibility for the game’s roadmap.
In order to set a spawn point, you need to craft a bed. To make a bed, you’ll need a place to put it. This is where the game’s building mechanics come in, and even in its early state, the building is in a great state. You can craft a ton of stuff, from new weapons and armour, to buildings of all shapes and sizes. The snapping mechanic is fairly smooth, though building a refined house for yourself will take some practice. There’s really a lot to work with and it’s impressive how much you can do. We have longhouses, moats, roads and a mall fleet of ships. You can farm plants, brew mead and beer, cook, fish and tame animals as well.
The leveling system is simple, a bit like Skyrim. The more you perform an action, the better you become at it. It works nicely enough, especially for a game like this. Survival works a bit differently in Valheim. While you can and will die of cold exposure, you won’t starve to death. However, it’s beneficial to, because every bite will increase your health. I prefer this to others because it’s a difficult thing to balance, but it’s not a chore.
Overall, the mechanics are fantastic for an early release. While parts of the game are certainly difficult, it’s forgiving in other areas. Repairing buildings and items for instance is completely free, and dismantling structures refunds you the entire cost.
Sound, Music and Voice
While I can’t say anything for the game’s voice acting (because there is none), the music and sound effects are overall solid. The Viking themes really set the scene, and it becomes a metal rave during the boss battles. The sound effects feel meaty for the game’s tiny footprint, and overall I cannot think of any negatives. I would like to see more music tracks as the game continues its development.
Lore, Worldbuilding and World Design
While there isn’t that much to discuss in terms of world design (this isn’t a handcrafted experience), there’s still a good amount of lore and worldbuilding in the world. You come across a lot of dungeons and abandoned villages, and the visual design does quite a good job at explaining what happened to these places. One time I came across a wonderful little hamlet in my solo playthrough, but nobody in sight…only to then get attacked by a troll and several skeletons. That may explain things a bit. It’s subtle, but pretty good, especially for a procedural game like this.
Value for Money and Overall Enjoyment
I won’t discuss quest design in my review this time, because there isn’t really anything in the way of dedicated quests besides boss fights. I’ve seriously enjoyed playing this game. It’s a mark of the fun where I struggle to physically write the review, because I’m playing the game in the first place!
When this game launched, I know there was a lot of talk wondering how much the game would be. To my surprise and delight, Valheim costs very little, at £15.49/20$. With more content and polish than most fully released titles out there, and even more to come, I’ve rarely come across a launch title where I feel like I’m ripping the developers off. I’m not saying they should charge more, but it’s guaranteed worth its asking price.
|Value for Money||9|
|Lore and World Design||8|
|Sound, Music and Voice||7|
Valheim is a breath of fresh air and almost feels like a reward for everyone having such a terrible 2020. I wasn’t expecting it to be as enjoyable as it has, and it takes a lot for me to play anything multiplayer. It’s refreshing Viking vibes, excellent exploration, fun combat and strong early impression makes for a great experience, at least early on. It’s taken someone like me to want to play with other people, which is high praise. It’s like a strange smoothie of Minecraft, Terraria and Skyrim, with a tiny bit of Gothic. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
Is the game perfect? Of course not, because no game is. The performance needs work especially for co-op, so that could do with improvements. While I have no problem with the graphics, I know they will turn some people away. I hope they don’t, because this game deserves a real chance.
2021 has already seen some solid early access releases, including Everspace 2 and Dyson Sphere Program, but Valheim feels great already. This could be a potential GOTY in the future. I was having so much difficulty pulling away from the game long enough to play my other games, or even to write this review. That should tell you something.
- A strong example of how early access should be done
- Visuals work well
- Great exploration that improves the longer you play it
- Fantastic value for the price
- Strong combat system that's suprisingly deep
- Optimization needs work, especially for the bigger servers
- Some bugs and glitches
- Rough character models and graphic design may turn some people off