We are in 2023 and there’s no shortage of options when it comes to survival crafting games. Rust continues to be on a tear, and No Man’s Sky seems to get a content-loaded update every month or so.
With all of these options, you might have missed out on a particularly interesting title from February 2021. It’s called Valheim, and while it wears the trappings of a common survival crafting game, its overall experience is much greater than the sum of its parts. I got to spend a sizeable chunk of time with this functionally endless game, so let’s talk about what makes Valheim a wondrous adventure in this review.
Valheim’s core concept goes something like this. You take on the role of a player-customized Viking warrior who has been bested in battle. Before you can gain passage to of Valhalla, you’ll make a stop off in Valheim. This beautiful realm is full of danger, mystery, and endless possibilities, and you’ll need to bend the nature of this world to your will in order to survive.
As you might have guessed, that’s easier said than done.
"This beautiful realm is full of danger, mystery, and endless possibilities, and you’ll need to bend the nature of this world to your will in order to survive."
Valheim is developed by the Swedish indie game developer Iron Gate Games, and published by Coffee Stain Publishing, which you might recognize from their Goat Simulator series. This is Iron Gate’s first and only project for the moment, and judging by the amount of content that has been added since the game’s original release, Valheim is going to be in a very similar position to No Man’s Sky in a few years.
But before we get to the latest additional content, let’s talk about the core gameplay loop. When you land on your own personal procedurally generated Valheim world, you are completely defenseless. No clothes, no weapons. All you have are your fists and a limited pool of stamina to defend yourself from aggressive animals. Your first order of business is punching trees until they explode and gathering up some rocks so you have the bare essential resources, you’ll need to begin your crafting journey.
The process of gathering these resources is initially tedious, but once you craft a stone axe, these processes speed up, and your rollercoaster to progressing through the game begins. With the stone axe, you can chop down trees en masse and use those raw materials to build a shelter. Valheim’s building mechanic has just enough depth from what I’ve seen, with a host of different pieces that fit together Lego-style and can be arranged and placed however you see fit.
I found the base-building mechanic to be not just a fun creative exercise, but also critical to my progress and survival. In order to create a new spawn location, you need a bed, which needs a roof and a campfire burning in order to function properly. Without these things, you’ll just respawn at the beginning shrine, which can set you back quite a bit if you had traveled deep into the island and into another biome before you died.
"Valheim’s building mechanic has just enough depth from what I’ve seen, with a host of different pieces that fit together Lego-style and can be arranged and placed however you see fit."
At some point between getting that first axe, building a rudimentary shelter, and fighting the game’s first boss (the stag spirit known as Eikthyr) I was taken aback by how beautiful the game is.
The starter biome is called the Meadows, and it is comprised of thick, dense forests as well as open spaces with rolling green hills. Valheim’s art style is very specific, as everything including the player character takes on a low-poly, PlayStation One-style appearance, but with added shaders, bloom lighting, and depth of field effects that make the entire game look fantastic and much more advanced and modern than its character models might suggest. Light shafts form through the spaces between tree branches in forests, and moonlight glints off of rocks and wet wood during evening rainstorms.
But, as beautiful as Valheim is, it is also just as dangerous. Eikthyr didn’t pose much of a problem as long as a certain amount of distance is maintained, but once you mount the head of that creature at the shrine (which gives you a buff that corresponds to its nature), you then move on to the next biome: the Black Forest.
This is where most of my playtime up to this point has been spent. The increase in difficulty between the Meadows and the Black Forest is actually staggering. Just about all of the weapons and armor you crafted in the Meadows is all but useless against the expanded roster of enemies that includes things like skeleton warriors, new, more powerful varieties of the greydwarfs you fought in the first area, and even massive trolls that will crush you flat with a single smash.
If you consider the Meadows the tutorial biome, then the Black Forest is where Valheim really begins, and the brick wall most players will hit the first few times they try to explore burial crypts or mine for ores will likely put many players off. However, the sense of satisfaction Valheim delivers when you conquer a new challenge is difficult to beat. The game doesn’t go out of its way to tell you how everything works and what exactly you need to be doing, but learning how to take down trolls, developing tactics to deal with mobs, and building out your humble home base into a compound that has all of the smelting, forging, crafting, and storage functions you need is the best part of Valheim.
"The game doesn’t go out of its way to tell you how everything works and what exactly you need to be doing, but learning how to take down trolls, developing tactics to deal with mobs, and building out your humble home base into a compound that has all of the smelting, forging, crafting, and storage functions you need is the best part of Valheim."
At least, that’s what think the best part of Valheim is. Something that makes Valheim so special is that it has so many features and functions that each player will find something they like and latch onto it. I played the game as a solo experience, but it is actually designed to be played co-op with up to 10 players on a server. With a group that size, you could have players who stay back and build out villages, some who go and gather resources, and others who serve as warriors and fight mobs while others establish safe routes to transport goods. Many games claim to have this, but Valheim really does have something for everybody.
And that list of things gets a lot longer every time a major update is released. The most recent one, entitled The Mistlands, fills out an entirely new biome while also adding new monsters, resources, and equipment to craft. The Mistlands were far too dangerous for me to do anything other than sprint through due to my current progress in the game, but if you still have nightmares from the thought of the Silent Hill games, imagine if that terrifying place was not only covered with a thick layer of fog, but also overrun with massive insects and had an impossibly varied topography that could send you tumbling to your death from a single misplaced step. That’s what the Mistlands are, and they’re pretty awesome.
The Meadows, Black Forest, and Mistlands make up less than half of the seven biomes that are currently available in Valheim, and 2023 seems like it will bring at least one more at some point. Considering the game will only set you back $20 on Steam, the amount of challenge, fun, and content you get from Valheim makes it a fantastic deal. And, if you prefer to play on console, Valheim will be making its way to Xbox consoles in Spring 2023.
This game was reviewed on PC.
A beautifully rendered world with excellent procedural generation; Deep crafting, combat, and building systems; Varied biomes and enemies that require players to learn new tactics.
High level of difficulty when crossing into a new biome; Appears to be balanced for co-op; Tedious opening hours.