The extremely popular survival games like Rust, Ark: Survival Evolved, and 7 Days To Die have been dominant on Steam since the addition of Early Access on the platform. Early Access is occasionally controversial, with some developers taking far longer than expected to leave the Early Access state, and some games even being abandoned whilst in the state, with players being left without refunds - The Stomping Land is most notable for this.
Valheim is yet another early access survival game that has seen success, basking in explosive popularity typical of titles in its genre - in its first week of Steam Early Access, it sold one million copies. The title is currently PC only, with the developers having no plans to release on other platforms. It is also in a very, very playable state, with content comparable to many similar titles that were in Early Access for years before release.
In Valheim you play as a battle-slain Viking whose soul has been taken to the tenth Norse world, tasked with surviving in this huge procedurally-generated world whilst fighting primordial bosses from myth and legend. The world has an excellent variety of environments, including the grassy Meadows you start in, the foreboding Black Forest, and the snowy Mountains, as well as the self-explanatory Ocean, and more. These environments are presented with fairly low-resolution textures, meant to mimic games from the PS1 era, but also using modern lighting and particle effects, creating an overall unique visual style. The soundtrack also shifts depending on which area you are in, and reminds me most of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
Valheim doesn't hold your hand much, with your only in-game guide being the crow Mugin, who appears occasionally to explain how to use the workbench or hint where to go next, as well as stone tablets scattered across the world, which offer cryptic advice. As such, the early-game of Valheim can lack direction. You're told to seek out the altar to Eikthyr so you can fight him and progress, but are mostly on your own, unless you bring some friends.
It's worth noting that Valheim is meant to be multiplayer, with 2-10 players, similar to many other survival games, although it can be played single player. I played it with a friend, which definitely enhanced the experience: fighting the game's bosses became a lot easier, as did hunting and gathering resources with two Vikings rather than one. And, you know, it's fun playing with your friends.
The classic mechanics present in other survival games are present here, refined to avoid the mistakes made years ago. Crafting is straightforward and uses a menu, and various workbenches have to be crafted to allow you to create new weapons and armour. Eating isn't technically necessary, as you won't die if you don't eat, instead gaining buffs to your stamina and health if you do - you'll have a much harder time if you don't, basically. On top of this, it gets cold and dark, and more enemies spawn during the night, so it's recommended for you to take shelter and sleep, as the cold results in debuffs to your stamina, making it more dangerous to explore.
One of the more unique mechanics in Valheim is its skill system, similar to Runescape and (oddly) Final Fantasy II. Skills improve as you use them - cutting down trees improves your woodcutting, jumping improves your jumping, shooting things with your bow improves your archery, and so on. Progress is faster early on, as you'd expect, and creates a real sense of progression as your character's skills improve.
Combat is fairly basic at first, which makes sense given the weakness of early game enemies. You can block, parry, and dodge attacks from enemies, all of which uses stamina, as does attacking them. Blocking in particular is quite strong and requires limited skill, on the other hand, parrying requires blocking at the right time to stagger the enemy. Staggering the enemy is particularly strong when you have a large group as they can then jump on the staggered enemy, beating them quite easily.
Building in Valheim is a little awkward, as is usual for these sorts of survival games. You have to craft a hammer to build, which you then use to choose the walls or objects you want to build, rotating them with the mouse wheel when controlling with mouse and keyboard. Building a roof is quite difficult. It took me a while to realise you couldn't use the wood flooring to create a flat roof, and had to use thatch. Figuring out a decent ventilation system, which stops your character from suffocating due to smoke build-up, whilst not letting rain fall on important things is a challenge, made worse by the claustrophobic feeling of the camera when inside. This claustrophobia is also present when exploring the underground Burial Grounds, which is appropriate for the circumstances yet still frustrating.
Early game is a little boring as well, although this criticism is true for many similar games. You spend most of the early game gathering wood, unless you skip the step of making a proper shelter and go straight to fighting the first boss. The second boss is quite a difficulty spike and requires a lot more preparation than the first, which could be seen as a fault in the game's pacing, although the stronger enemies you encounter in the Black Forest should make it clear to the player that upgrades to their equipment are needed.
The sense of wonder created when exploring Valheim is unique when compared to similar games in the survival genre, and fully evokes the feeling of a fantasy world. As the game updates we can only expect further improvements on what is already a game rich with content, making it well worth an Early Access exploration.
Loading next content