Valheim (Early Access) Review
Reviewed on PC
I have what you might call a checkered past with survival games. On the one hand, games like Subnautica have provided some of my most memorable gaming experiences. On the other, the genre has been tainted by janky abominations lacking in creativity or fun, which has left me feeling pretty unenthusiastic when I see the worlds "survival" and "early-access" together. So when I first heard about Valheim, it didn't seem like anything special. After putting 30 hours into it in my first week, it’s now clear this might actually be the cream of the crop, and all my worries have been quickly erased.
In Valheim you play as a deceased Viking dropped into a fantasy world by a giant bird, and you’re tasked with surviving by any means necessary. That means collecting materials, fighting foes and building a settlement. What sets this game apart is its sense of adventure and discovery. Every new encounter is exciting, and exploring the world is both thrilling and terrifying.
Valheim describes itself as a “brutal exploration and survival game”, which is definitely an accurate statement. Monsters of all shapes and sizes are out for your blood, and the unprepared will suffer quick deaths at the hands of some of these beasts. Even the trees are out to get you - having your head crushed by a falling log after chopping one down is like a rite of passage here. Some areas require certain items before you can proceed, and even when you think you're ready, you'll be chased down by wolves or goblins.
Valheim has a genius progression system though, rewarding players for exploring outside of their comfort zone and locking certain tools behind increasingly-difficult boss battles. These feel like meaningful milestones, and preparing for them is a dangerously addictive task. Every new addition to your arsenal is significant, and as you discover new items, environments or enemy types, you’re advancing the depth of your resource pool to help you proceed. There’s so much to see and do that it’s very easy to lose hours at a time without realising. In fact, I planned to write this article about 6 hours ago, but I ended up playing more Valheim instead, such is the danger of a game this good.
I would feel bad about spoiling some of the amazing discoveries I stumbled across on my adventures, so I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum. This game is full of great moments though, whether it’s the first time you saw a certain large enemy in the forest, the dangers at sea or the discovery of a new land. Valheim is full of tales waiting to be told and memories waiting to be made.
There’s a plethora of unique enemies to kill and a ton of stuff to collect, but you'll have to plan your journeys to ferry valuable items like ores across the sea. You can build fast-travel portals, but you can’t use them if you have certain things in your inventory, so you always have to weigh up which paths to take to recover these rare goods. This is a great way to encourage exploration, which makes the whole experience more immersive and engaging. The procedurally-generated world is both natural and expansive, stretching out far beyond the limited scope of your starting island, and it's full of hidden wonders to uncover.
More creative players will be pleased to know that one of the game’s greatest strengths is its base-building and crafting mechanics. You start out with simple wood structures and basic tools, but despite the limited array of them it’s incredibly easy to build a house or settlement, and it’s quite easy to make them look good too. The pieces themselves do most of the work, and it’s up to you to gather materials and slot structures together to form your own longhouse or Viking village. Over time you’ll unlock all kinds of new tools and materials to build more things, and every new addition adds something worthwhile to the experience. If you’re dedicated enough, you can make some seriously impressive creations like vast forts or towers, but anyone can put together a nice abode with relative ease.
Don’t be turned off by the visual style, either. The low-resolution retro textures help provide a unique charm to the world, but despite the general lack of detail in them, there are still incredible sights to behold. Sailing the seas during a storm is immersive and scary, and seeing the sun peek in through the trees is always beautiful. If you’re the kind of person that values gameplay over graphics, Valheim will definitely hit the mark. What the game does with such simple textures is very impressive, and the small download size is a refreshing change.
Valheim is a game that can easily be played at your own pace. It doesn’t rush you into anything too challenging, but if you travel off the beaten path and sail to distant lands on your early-game raft, you’re rewarded with harder areas to traverse and new enemies to brawl. It’s the kind of game that offers something for every type of player, whether it’s the builder, the adventurer, the fighter, the sailor - all bases are covered.
Playing with friends is an absolute joy (even if you might end up fighting over who’ll get the bronze weapons first). Adventuring as a team is super fun and certain to create all kinds of stories as I mentioned earlier, but playing solo is perfectly fine too, and you’ll still get to experience all the content the game has to offer.
Being an early-access title, Valheim obviously has a few things it needs to work on. Performance sometimes takes a hit, but it’s generally good, and I’ve never encountered any major glitches that hurt the experience. One thing to be wary of is a bug that can delete your world progress, but this can be avoided by making sure not to tab out of the game while logging in or out of your world and backing up saves. Hopefully, this will get fixed soon, because it’s probably the biggest issue the game currently has. The frame rate sometimes dips, particularly when there’s a lot of smoke from campfires concentrated in one area, but unless you have a friend hotboxing his longhouse, you should be ok.
There are areas in which this game is lacking, but there's plenty of time for additional content to be added before the game is finished. That said, character customisation is pretty weak, with a very limited number of options. Some tasks can feel a bit repetitive, like mining copper ore, and the difficulty spike in some areas is jarring. However, these are minor issues when the vast majority of the game is as good as it is.
Importantly, the game feels like a complete experience, even in an early-access state. I haven’t defeated every boss yet, but I’ve put more hours into this than I would countless big-budget major titles, and for a fraction of the price (with more content on the horizon). Valheim is absolutely worth playing in early-access, more so than any other early-access game I’ve played before.
I whole-heartedly recommend this game. It isn’t perfect, but it's one of the best adventures I’ve had in a video game in years, and it’s still far from over. It may not be finished yet, but it already stands tall alongside the best the genre has to offer. It feels like a timeless classic in the making, with all the best traits of many of my favourite video-games – the adventure, the discoveries, the stories, Valheim has it all.