Valheim Early Access Review: A Well-Executed Viking Survival Experience

Valheim is a massive and engaging world where danger and adventure are only a breath away. It may only be in Early Access, but it's well worth your time.

I had spent days in Valheim preparing for this fight. No longer was I clothed in rags and armed with only a meager wooden club. I was protected in tough leather armor crafted from the many deer and boar I had hunted in the sun-drenched meadows that I called home. The club was replaced with a primitive but deadly flint axe. A hearty meal of roasted meats and mushrooms bolstered my health and stamina bar as I placed the sacrifice upon the altar. 

The sky darkened as Eikthyr made his way into my world from the void. His antlers, branches of iron that lashed out at me. His hooves, the sound of thunder as he charged. His voice, a howling gale of fury as my arrows found purchase in his flesh.

Eventually, the mighty beast lay broken before me, and I relished in my triumph, giving praise and glory to Odin in the form of the mighty stag’s head, a trophy to the All-father from which I received its boon. 

This was my first three hours in Valheim, the wildly popular Viking survival game currently in Steam Early Access. Here, in this wonderful but deadly world, you take on the role of a fallen Viking warrior battling for the right to feast and fight in the glorious halls of Valhalla. The path there is a perilous one, however, and this battle against the mighty Eikthyr was merely a taste of the challenges still to come.

Since then, I’ve battled hordes of greydwarves skulking in the dark of the black forest. I've slain trolls larger than the humble hall I call home. I’ve set sail across the vast ocean in my Karve only to find myself beset upon by a fearsome sea serpent. And I've landed not on a shore but the back of a mighty leviathan.

Valheim is an experience. It's a blend of well-thought design, adventure, and survival. It is full of beautifully wonderous moments, all wrapped in great RPG elements and mechanics. 

Valheim Early Access Review:  A Well-Executed Viking Survival Experience

The way Valheim handles its health and stamina mechanics is one of the first things that stood out to me. Food isn’t yet another meter to manage, giving the game an inflated measure of difficulty; unlike other genre titles, you’re not going to starve to death without eating.

You will, however, be weak and have virtually no stamina. Food is the key to survival and variety is the spice of life. It's also the deciding factor in the size of your HP and stamina pools. 

Whether it's roasted meat harvested from the hunt or foraged berries and mushrooms, each food item in Valheim carries with it varying stats that add to your maximum hit points and stamina. Simple foraged foods like berries provide modest buffs for short timeframes, while roasted meats or the more involved mid-to-late game recipes from farming provide much more for longer periods.

You’ll find many different foods during your travels, and travel you will. The map is vast.

Much like the Vikings of history, you’ll be doing a lot of exploration in Valheim as you seek to slay the various bosses and earn your spot in the honored halls. There are numerous biomes — meadows, black forest, swamp, plains, and mountain — each with its own challenges and inherent difficulty spikes. 

Before fighting the first boss, Eikthyr, I decided to explore a bit of the vast area around me. Valheim starts you off in the “tutorial" biome of the meadows — an area with relatively weak enemies — but given the procedural generation of the map, danger could be right next door.

In my case, exploration found me with my pathetic wooden club and rag tunic wandering around the black forest biome, totally unaware of the danger I was in until I saw something large and blue: a troll. The encounter was over before it began, as the troll hurled a boulder, killing me instantly.

Death is the name of the game in Valheim, and while it can be a bit frustrating at times, it's also a welcome challenge, carrying with it a great sense of accomplishment when you get revenge on your adversaries.

Eventually, you’ll find your way to the ocean, in search of adventure and new lands that give way to new biomes, treasure, and enemies. The progression here feels substantial and natural as you explore biomes leading into each other; the meadows merges into the black forest, the black forest to the mountains and swamps, and then into the deadly plains.

Beyond those areas, more are yet to be discovered as the mistlands, ashlands, and deep north have yet to be fleshed out.

Together We are Strong

While Valheim can be played solo, playing with others is a rewarding and tribal experience. Boss battles are much easier as a group, resource gathering can be divvied up, and building up your small settlement into a leviathan stronghold gives the game a real feeling of community.

Things are even more fun when tackled with a roleplaying mindset; toiling in the field farming while others brew mead, smelting ores into ingots while others gather raw materials and scout biomes for an upcoming raid. 

It’s welcome relief to have a few others with you when attacked on the seas by serpents, or when spelunking in the sunken crypt full of powerful draugr. And let’s not forget the bit of solace when there’s someone else to draw the aggro of the deathsqutio when you make your first landing in the plains.

Atmosphere

Valheim has a unique look, melding together pixelated and 3D styles into something vaguely reminiscent of something from the Nintendo 64. That, though, isn't a knock but a testament to its great nostalgic sense of self, where it contrasts with very cinematic moments. Watching the sun crest over the ocean as the dark of night transitions into day, or gazing at the rays of light peeking through dense pines as you make your way into a clearing.

Each biome I’ve encountered in my more than 30 hours of play has the right feel. The meadows are bright and inviting. The black forest is dark and ominous. And the swamp is damp and rotting. Areas often come together in a showcase of real diversity, though, at times, the random generation does make for some strange mixtures bleeding into each other. 

The audio is also enjoyable, with the background music deserving special mention. It blends into the background not to be lost, but simply be, further creating a tapestry perfectly fitting of a Viking adventure.

Enemy audio cues fit well and the sounds emanating from the various crafting benches lend to an immersive feel. I particularly love the sound of the fire as it crackles inside of my modest home, all while the gale of a storm mixes with the patter of rain outside.

Valheim Early Access Review — The Bottom Line So Far

What I find most exciting about Valheim is that it isn’t finished yet. I’ve played my fair share of Early Access games. Some are great, others sit collecting virtual dust.

Early Access can be a real shot in the dark and games sometimes end up becoming something entirely different than what they started as, making them something I’m not entirely comfortable evangelizing to others. 

I don’t feel that way about Valheim.

While it's not a finished game, there’s a lot of meat on the bones right now, and with the absolutely massive four million copies sold since launch in early February, I don’t believe fans will have to worry about Iron Gate Studios second-guessing their development roadmap.

At the time of writing, Valheim is easily worth more than its $20USD asking price. If you’re looking for exploration, adventure, and rewarding combat with the option of solo or co-op play set in a fantasy Viking setting, then Valheim is that game.

And if that seems like a lot to experience, we have plenty of guide content to help you explore the vast expanse that is Valheim.  

Columnist

From Atari 2600 to TTRPG and beyond I game, therefore I am. Can generally be found DMing D&D on the weekend, homebrewing beer, or tripping over stuff in my house while playing VR. Hopeful for something *Ready Player One* meets *S.A.O Nerve Gear* before I kick the bucket.

Published Mar. 2nd 2021

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