Reviewed on: PC
Reviewer: Maiyannah Bishop
Review Play-Time: 143h
Developer: Iron Gate AB
Publisher: Coffee Stain Games
Review Published: 2021-05-25
Review Updated: 2021-06-06
+ Atmospheric environment design
+ Good sound design
+ Strong building mechanics
- Weak musical score
- Lack of effective player training about several mechanics
- Drawn-out and grindy in spots
- Tedious resource collection
- Floaty, unimpactful combat
Valheim is a crafting survival game in Steam Early access developed by Iron Gate AB and Coffee Stain Games. I must confess, that line right there - "crafting survival game in early access" - is more than enough to turn some people off from the get-go, and to be honest, it usually is for me too. I've been far too burnt out on titles like ARK which never did get any less buggy, to get as enthusiastic as many do about new entries in the genre. Yet, knowing my propensity for the Scandanvian history that is a part of my family's lineage, a kind friend of me bought the game, so it would seem remiss of me not to take a look. It's a promising game that definitely scratched that itch - for a while - which is more than I can say of many of them, but the longer I got into the game, the more pain points started to appear: many mechanics are ill-explained, when they are at all, and the combat is floaty and janky. Is it worth playing? Probably, but you're not going to be missing out waiting for it to leave early access, assuming it ever does. On the fence? Well let's get into the details a bit more, then!
Valheim begins with a lengthy introduction of some harpy-looking creature I presume is supposed to be a valkyrie flying you to the titular area of Valheim, where you're deposited in a stone circle and given your first introduction to the game mechanics. That stone circle is a collection of the various "boss" creatures which you are bid to prove your worth to ascend to Valhalla by hunting and defeating. This is good - you're showing the player the end-game condition clear and unambiguously, and they can return to that location for reference if they lose their way.
The raven of predictable name whom greets you in this circle takes you through the basics, but only in a rudimentary text-box way. And that's kind of your lot. So a lot of the early period of play was a trial of experimentation for me. An example I ran into almost right away was trying to find stone to use to make tools - you're never told how to get it. You can try hitting rocks with your basic hatchet, but nothing will happen - you actually need a pickaxe that you won't get until a much later point in the game for that. Remembering my many, many hours in Ark: Survival Evolved, I guessed - correctly - I needed to start picking up rocks just lying around. There's not really any indication I can remember reading (and that's a pitfall of this kind of textbox tutorials - retention is a problem) - and if you weren't as familiar with the genre staples as I am, these smaller stones would just end up looking like part of the terrain; I could entirely understand it if people didn't even think to do this.
I want to be clear and fair to the game here: the player training it offers isn't bad per se, but rather mediocre or middling: I felt like I usually had a good grasp of the general concepts, and feel I would have even if I didnt understand the genre at large, I'd probably get the general gist of things (with one exception, which I'll circle back to a little later). The prompts are generally relevant - but something that became a frustration even when I was paying attention to my raven friend to my fullest - its that the game developed a particularly-egregious habit of giving you the explanation of a mechanic only after you actually did the thing - so if you were struggling to try to figure out how to do something, this tutorializing was not going to be doing you any favours.
Personally, I am an easy mark for some crafting games, but I also have things that drive my up the wall about them, and Valheim manages to hit both points of that in me very emphatically. I love to sit around and while away the hours making neat little buildings - and indeed at time of writing, I have what could only be described as a fortress-town going on in our community Conan Exiles server. Valheim definitely scratched that proverbial itch, with the building being rather intuitive and a breeze to do. Placement snaps well, the terrain can be manipulated to make things well, and the buildings when put together have enough complexity to be satisfying to make. There's temperature and smoke dynamics for fires in particular to be managed, a certain art to making chimneys for maximum efficiency. It's involved enough to remain engaging, while not being so complex or fussy as to be a blocker. However, where I trip up in general, and both here, is that resource collection can be tedious. There's ways to work around that - in the midgame leaning towards the endgame - but until then you're stuck grinding, and even as methods of mitigation and higher efficiency become available, the exponential increase as crafting recipes become more and more complex generally outstrips your efficiency increases. It can be tiring. It certainly was for me.
Nonetheless, at the start especially, it was fun enough, and happily I stumbled around the beach of what was a large lake making myself a little home, bootstrapping the usual crafting table shenanigans that are basically the bland white-bread-and-butter approach to the crafting game progression right now, until finally I got a bow, and could begin to actually progress. Progress in the game is basically going through the boss progression, getting to different crafting tiers is the means to the ends. Having a bow in hand finally, I could begin to hunt the deer, whom we are to use as offering to summon a deer boss - our first major fight in the game. This is where the combat really, really started to show its mediocrity - its floaty, and not particularly skillful. The deer boss is basically a bullfight boss whom you can kite without being much punished for doing so. So whenever it charges, you just run out of the way, plink some more, rinse, wash, and repeat - for probably a good five or ten minutes. I didn't time it, and perhaps I should have, but it felt like forever. It wasn't fun, and I didn't really feel I was using any skill greater than the ability to read the telegraphing for the attacks. That is a skill, but I didn't exactly have to perform rocket surgery to avoid the attack, and it just felt drawn out. Indeed, "drawn out" is a description I would apply to a lot of the game.
Once you hit the middle of the game, it really does start to feel like a drag: the swamps are both slow to traverse and slow to just progress in. The game stops being shy about throwing groups at you, and it is since you lose stamina when you're hit by certain attacks, it is very easy to end up stunlocked by groups, even of relatively inconsequential enemies like the skeletons, which by now are fodder enemies. That isn't the real drag though: the real drag are the Sunken Crypts. If this was a Civvie game, this is where the "ding" sewer count would come up - because that's basically what these are. The developers have made some effort to dress it up, but in reaching that point, we have basically reached the game's sewer sections - and you're going to have to do a few of them before we can leave.
In evoking the imagery of historical, mythological nordic culture, the thing I didn't think I'd be doing in is being a medieval sewer technican, but here I am doing exactly that: the Sunken Crypts are absolutely lousy with "Muddy scrap piles" that you will need to use a pickaxe to clear. This isn't really communicated to you, but by the time-tested method of hitting it with every tool at my disposal until it works, I found out that it was indeed the pickaxe that cleared them. And so began my industrious career of clearing out these blockages, fighting all the nasties in the room behind them, that I guess don't need to eat or breathe being undead draugr and animated slimes, which is good, otherwise I'd wonder how they survived down there, but ... that became the slog. Perhaps I was simply unlucky with the procedural generation of the world, or I was missing some sort of tell as to which one was the "right one", but I had to do many of these before I went on. It didn't help that several of them were large enough I built little outposts outside so I would be able to fix my pickaxe without a commute through the dangerous terrain.
This is the kind of mechanic that can be really divisive, because some gamers like this kind of prolongation as it makes the experience more "hardcore" and realistic to them. I tend to find that more often than not, however, mechanics like this when they don't really require skill, just time, only serve to stifle the games natural flow. And indeed, where prior to the swamps there was a constant if sometimes slow progress while I figured things out, the swamps felt very "stop and go" and as a result were lurching and ultimately unpleasant an experience to slog through. I would hedge that criticism by saying it was never bad enough I stopped playing - but it definitely wasn't the high point of playing through the game for me, that is for sure.
Atmosphere is something the game does well, but like most other things, it seems to come as "its pretty good, but has its downfall" - which it seems is pretty much the thesis of how I could describe the game right now at the time of this early access review. The art style, while not to my tastes personally, is used expertly to create a real sort of otherworldly ambiance, and at points, it lends itself to some downright beautiful views. Sound production is similarly good, with realistic but not over-done sounds of wind blowing through the trees, or the gentle-pitter patter of rain in a storm. Where it kind of loses the plot is in the music when it does come up - it's very sort of bog-standard generic for the genre, and utterly forgettable. I improved my experience tremendously by muting it, and letting the game's soundscape just be the ambient noise. When I did want music, it fared much better with Wardruna, Danheim, or Ruumisto in the background than it did with the game's music.
I feel most of everything else I would say here would call back to what is becoming a repeated refrain: the game's promising, and good fun in the building aspects, but the other drags it down, and nothing is without its "its good but..." sort of comment. This is a game that has promise, and I will definitely watch for if and when it leaves early access.