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Valheim review – Sailing, killing, and building great halls

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Welcome weary traveler, the campfire is hot and I just skinned a troll. Take a seat and let’s talk about the newest survival-adventure game on the block: Valheim. And, why it might be better than Minecraft. I’ll take you through the reasons why Viking adventuring is making such a big splash right now, and the dangers that are lurking underneath the surface of its murky, procedurally generated water. Time for an in-depth Valheim review.

It all hearkens back to the all-father Odin.

Viking wonderland

Since the game was conceived and created by such a small studio (Iron Gate AB consists of a dev-team of just five individuals!); it becomes clear right out of the ancient wood gate why the game is considered to be in early access. Even so, it’s evident that Iron Gate has spent a considerable amount of time passionately and painstakingly developing a game that would FEEL just right to play.

The game is based on procedurally generated terrain; so every seed is unique and diverse. Yet all of them begin the peaceful meadows, with wondrous rolling green hills. Fresh forests, inland streams filled with fish, and powerful seas that turn into a generous wave pool come storm. The exploration in this regard is fun, though there is not a whole lot of diversity.

Some ancient rune stones that give you some tips about the game. Sometimes a downtrodden house. Even a grouping of shelters around a small farm. The same dungeon that only changes layout slightly. The game also has no voice acting at this time, and minimal music and sound design. The graphics are smooth and calming, but it’s definitely no triple A quality.

Character selector in Valheim
Especially here, we’re getting some Runescape vibes

Yet already 4 million vikings have joined the Nordic afterlife in just 22 days. What is it about Valheim that makes it such a big financial success? To understand the nature of this beast, let’s take a look at what Valheim nails perfectly.

Barbarian engineer

Make no mistake traveler, Valheim at its best is a game for builders. The building system is intuitive, responsive, and very snappy. Looking at the edges of a construction piece will get the next part to snap into place. And it’s definitely equally satisfying and easy to do. You’ll be able to build your own great hall to honor Odin and drink mead. Build an insurmountable fortress on a hill. Or just become the best renovator and home decorator since IKEA. Be mindful that the creatures of the forest while attack your base from time to time, so be prepared.

Base building does bring its own rewards. You’re not just building for the sake of it. Every upgrade or decoration you apply will push it higher in its comfort level. Higher comfort level homes mean you will get a ‘well rested’ bonus for a much longer duration. This means that your stamina comes back about twice as fast; so it’s necessary if you want to go back to strip-mining entire ecosystems. After all, those boars don’t really NEED all those woodlands do they?

Home sweet home: our little base
Our cute little homebase

To Nordic or not to Nordic

While you are restricted in your building styles (Nordic), this does fit the theme and backdrop of the game wonderfully. I also see some huge potential here for modding communities to add their own texture packs, much like in Minecraft. If you’ve ever played any survival/adventure game like Minecraft or 7 days to die; you will know that building a home base together with friends is some of the best fun out there. Valheim allows you to bring a total of 10 comrades. If you’re looking for more co-op ideas, check out our guide to co-op in lock-down here.

Everyone is clamoring to improve your great hall. With someone erecting support columns while making phallus jokes, a roof builder running out of wood, and the guy who’s trying to light it all on fire.
Truly, every group of friends needs their resident pyromaniac.

All roads lead to a viking infested Rome…

Once your home base is finished, it’s then time to start venturing into the more dangerous areas of the map. This in turn will mean more building, either in the form of fixing up destitute shelters you find, or by making a second base. You can even start building carts and portals. This helps to really speed up the gathering of exotic wood or freshly mined ores.

Unfortunately, it seems the developers were smart enough to make it impossible to teleport with ores or other heavy metals. Which is one of those small tweaks that really show they thought all of this through. After all, why would you invest precious bronze in nails to build a cart if you could just chuck it into a Doctor Strange sling-ring gate?

…and every Rome needs temples

This does lead to a reality where having a temple extension to your great hall is rather helpful. You can plonk down a bunch of teleportation gates to create a Valheim empire on which the sun never sets. Or just to become Valheim’s first express delivery service. The choice is yours; although you will require some role play and imagination to make it work.

Once you start hoisting your little Viking sails and start exploring your disc shaped world, this network of gates becomes vital. You are forced do so to be able to find the games bosses, find new resources, and just have plain old fun while singing sea shanties with friends.

Cosy internal of our Viking home
Pretty cosy if you take the time to get there!

Work work work

To be able to construct anything however, you will need to gather an abundance of resources (and so much damn wood). This could easily have turned into a real chore, but that is where RPG elements were cleverly blended in.

If you’ve ever played some classics like Runescape, then leveling your woodcutting skill is going to sound familiar. So too does the mechanic of needing to up your tools to better quality, so you can cut different types of trees. It’s a fun and rewarding progression system, tied into the games loot and resource gathering systems.

Overall, it comes together in a beautifully tweaked system that always has you moving forward. Manage to find flint? You have a better flint based axe. That in turn allows you to cut more trees faster, speeding up your woodcutting skill. As a result, you are now swimming in wood, and Odin will finally get his great hall.

In short, advancing in one area will give you access to new enemies you can kill. This in turn provides you with new resources, allowing you to strain skills faster. After some time, the beginning level enemies will get decimated by your bronze tipped spears, and it feels extremely satisfying.
Unfortunately, that’s also the only really satisfying part about the combat.

Rune stones in the game, giving tips and lore
One of the rune stones you can find, providing flavor and sometimes tips

Combat

It’s over troll, I have the high ground!

Evidently, if your game is a survival & adventure based game, you will want enemies to vanquish. This is unfortunately a part where Valheim falls short a lot. The mechanics to attack are quite clunky and are almost all based on close proximity. So far so good, but it can become quite annoying to be close enough to a Greydwarf to be able to lick the top of his head; yet miss every single attack.

This is because Valheim likes to play with elevation across all biomes. Either you have entire mountains, or just green grassland hills. Or even just a river with steep inclines.

In all cases, if you are above slightly above the enemy, your attacks will miss every single time. The only way to actually score some hits, is by making sure you’re on even elevation as your archenemy, the small lizard people. Stabbing five times over your enemy also means you are draining your stamina bar at an alarming rate. So you finally adjust your height so you are facing your enemy directly; only now your arm is too tired to keep thrusting righteous bronze into faithless skeletons.

Leading to this weird cat-and-mouse combat were you have to back off for a few meters so the enemy follows you; only for you to stab him in the face upon arrival. Rinse and repeat. It feels frustrating and sucks you out of the overall fun experience.

A wild troll in the forest!
Look at this colossus wielding a tree for a weapon

Cheese. Truly the best food strategy

This in turn does not get better with the rather uninspired bosses you can slay, of which there are five. I will say that they do look awesome, but you’ll have to discover their looks for yourself. While elevation is no longer an issue when your opponent is as tall as a house, it becomes painfully clear that you can cheese just about any troll or boss fight by making the A.I. freak out.

When fighting enemies that tower over you, the same rule applies as in most games: don’t get close. Instead, plant yourself on top of a hill between some trees and rocks. Proceed to pump out arrows as fast as your Viking strength allows you to. If the titan gets too close, their massive area of effect attacks can destroy trees and other obstacles in their way. So here’s the kicker, you just never get too close to be attacked, and instead just bob and weave between the trees. The A.I. path-finding starts to do that very familiar ‘left-right-left-right’ dance in an effort to find the quickest path to you. Keeping them there while firing arrows is easy to do, and you can start skinning trolls this way pretty much as soon as you can craft a bow.

Not to mention you can craft a truly awesome weapon with some terrifying splash damage after defeating the first boss. With this war hammer you can spam kill and clear entire dungeons.
Cheese galore.

Gorgeous vista of sky in Valheim
The game really has some gorgeous vistas

Technical aspects

In terms of bugs or glitches, Valheim blows me out of the water. In more than twenty hours of game play, I encountered literally nothing game breaking.

No crashes or connectivity issues, the fidelity of visual elements is always on point. Jumping in a friends game is always smooth and quick enough. I never had items becoming unusable or not doing what I was told they would do. Everything came together flawlessly in an enjoyable experience for me. Even running around with carts in thick forestation behave as you would expect it, it gets stuck on every shrub and larger rock. You have to think realistically about how you are going to move your ore caravan, but it can be rectified by just hacking your way through. The fact that all of this works without a hitch is really impressive, and details like these help immerse you more deeply.

So kudos to such a small development team in getting such a seamless experience out the door. Perhaps you can start teaching all the big studios on how to do it. Because it’s been a while since I had a game where everything just works out of the box.

Portal gate looking like something out of LOTR
The portals really look like Sauron is watching too

Conclusion

So it’s fun with friends, building is a blast, combat is exploitable but tolerable. In the end, the game is at it’s core a builders game. For now the exploration and survival parts are in fact just all in service to the builders guild of Valheim. Even the story is nothing more than a paper thin backdrop to set the mood. The only thing it explains, is why you gotta be building in Nordic style only.

And yet, when the game reaches its apex of fun, the veritable zenith of time-wasting amusement, it can draw you in for hours.I can recommend Valheim as a solely solo experience. But I’ve also experienced how enjoyable it is when going at it together. If you have a couple of friends to play with, Valheim can be a blast to play. It’s still a diamond in the rough at this time, loaded with potential. That said, for 17 euros, it’s a downright bargain. Given time, some mods and more developer love (Iron Gate AB is already expanding their team substantially in the coming months); it will become a classic like Minecraft. Even that game started out rather bare-knuckled, but with so many updates over the years there is a ton to do. Here’s hoping that Valheim can match or even exceed that support in time.

SparkiestKnife

Posts published: 9

I am Roy Huybrecht, though I am known by my battle mantra of SparkiestKnife. I've been an FPS zealot as soon as I could hold a mouse, blasting my way through classics like Duke Nukem and Wolfenstein. If I'm not off fragging somewhere, I'm probably busy devising the optimal empire in Grand Strategy games, reading soul-tickling books, or writing and editing about the geekiest of topics.