When I first started Valheim, I was immediately greeted by one of the best/worst opening sequences imaginable. The dreaded wall of text. If done properly, the text wall can convey important and critical information about the story in a way that draws the player deeper and cements an emotional involvement. If done poorly, it can drag an already arduous process even further into a damning spiral of despair. Too Melodramatic? Probably, but you knew who I was when you clicked this review. Thankfully, Valheim keeps the text short, informative and interesting without feeling like an afterthought. Simultaneously precise and inelegant, it gives the player what they need and deposits them into the game.
This entire sequence comes forth after you spend the most minimal amount of time possible creating a character. I personally enjoy tooling with the different options present in most modern games that allow such behavior, but if I’m being totally honest, those games almost do too much and starting the game feels like it can take an eternity. Valheim suffers none of this nonsense and the All-Father demands you hurry the ef up so the game can start. Pick your viking and get your butt down to the proving grounds. I can appreciate the hurried approach.
Once we “create” a character and get our text wall, it’s on to Valheim via ravens claw. Seriously, the valkyries plucked you from the battlefield and now a Raven named Hugin is carrying you to Valheim. I spent a few moments thinking about how funny it would be to just be dropped from the sky into the starting area. Superhero landing and such. All in vain though, Hugin gently places you in next to several guiding stones and you’re ready to explore Valheim! After you have the basic gameplay explained to you, of course.
This is something that I think Valheim does very well. Hugin, the grabby raven we spoke of earlier, has more or less shrank down to normal size and swoops in periodically to relay important game tips on how your journey should progress. Instead of a fetch quest or railroad segment where your hand is held until you figure out the controls, you more or less have the freedom to do as you please from the onset. Hugin is present, but in order to see what he has to say, you need to approach and talk to him. This system allows veteran players and even just careless ones to immediately set off in whatever direction they choose to be torn apart by Valheim’s many enemies.
This seems a good segway (cue falling sound) to introduce the combat mechanics of Valheim. It’s fairly simple with enough nuance to make it fun. Look where you want to swing and swing. The lack of a lock on mechanic makes combat feel awkward sometimes, but its absence doesn’t detract from a relatively fluid system. You equip the item you feel like dropping a hammer swing with and click away! An endurance meter keeps you honest by restricting the number of swings you can utilize depending on your skill level, and is also affected by item weight and type, with two handed weapons such as spears being more exhausting to wield. You can also block with the weapon you’re holding, your bare hands or craft a shield if you want to soak the bigger hits later on. It lends itself to ease pretty well and I rarely found myself in a position where I was fully impaired by exhaustion as the meter refills at a pretty forgiving pace.
The enemies are pretty basic early on, as you will be mostly hunting local wildlife for skins, leather and meat to assist you in your crafting needs. The variety begins to expand once you reach the 2nd boss but I’m not here to spoil anything. There are a few exceptions to this and the greylings are incredibly annoying in the beginning, with their random spawns seemingly only showing up when you’re in build mode, trying to get a piece exactly where you want it, so a negative there, but overall pretty solid.
This brings me to what I imagine most people will reflect on as being the mechanic that kept them playing or drove them into Loki’s madness. The building mode. I admit to some frustration early on as I was told to craft a workbench. Here’s a PG snippet of how that went down…
“Okay, done. What do you mean it needs a roof? How do I… ok, so building the structure that requires a roof unlocks the ability to build the roof….That seems counterproductive… You know what? Fine. Here’s a roof…. Why can’t I build this…. (expletive deleted)”
Once I stopped trying to make sense of the build mode and just let myself explore it, it became more intuitive. Initially trying to get pieces to line up properly and snap together in some semblance of sensible structure was maddening and I could hear the snickering of Hugin the Pompous Raven as I routinely placed a wall in the middle of my floor. Eventually the building mechanics began to make more sense and I found myself beginning to enjoy slapping new walls up, or throwing down a quick shelter from the rain. It became more fun the more I played with it, and that’s what a game should do. Without being frustrating, they also have done well in removing the floating floor and walls so prevalent in other survival/ creation games. (i.e. Fallout, Minecraft, 7 Days) The building mechanics of those games might be better, but Valheim stands just fine on its own, not out too far though or it falls apart….
The controls aren’t anything revolutionary and that’s ok. Sometimes trying to improve on something considered great is a terrible move and thankfully Indie developer Iron Gate Studio chose not to tinker with a classic, established design. The controls are responsive and intuitive for PC gamers, leaving little room to blame mechanical error on a misstep or errant jump. It happens, I found myself looking in the wrong direction for what felt like no reason and sliding down a cliff face when I tried to turn around. Occurrences like these were very rare in my playthrough and for the most part, I moved exactly where I was trying to and swung near enough to what I was aiming at.
Sound design was excellent. From the opening score to each boss battle, every note seemed intentioned to draw you deeper into the moment. It appropriately fell and rose as the scene demanded. It accomplishes this with relatively little fanfare though, nothing about the soundtrack felt out of place or forced, just seemingly natural to the environment. Moving across the ground draws out the thudding and plodding footsteps, rain trickling through the trees during a storm, each sound in accordance with the next, and they all transition exceptionally and you would be hard pressed to find a sound that didn’t match the action or moment.
The graphics initially weren’t noteworthy in any way except the absolutely breathtaking skybox. As I played I found myself committing the most egregious of sins, most common among infantry, in not looking above me. I figured the sky to look much the same as the landscape or characters. I was so incredibly wrong and as I stared in the skies above my character’s head I was awestruck at the way they managed to portray so many Norse references with a single picture. It was incredible. This moment caused me to actually take in the landscape a second time and I noticed something, the renderings from a distance look great, not breathtaking, but really pleasing to the eye. The trees are proportioned correctly with several different sizes and types across Valheim, the water physics are crisp and well done, and it occurred to me that the only thing that’s generic are the characters themselves. (Graphically, as each one has its own personality and characteristics) Even with the models being less than spectacular, the Bosses defiantly stand against this notion by being (literally) larger than life. It’s quite the spectacle and were they not so intent on killing me, I would appreciate it more. Overall, not blown away by them, but they still stand out when necessary.
As I draw down the end of this review I find myself increasingly wanting to play again and that’s what makes Valheim stand out to me more than anything. It’s just so damn fun to play. I enjoy having to start from nothing and build myself into the character I want to play. Offering players a skill system that allows us to take our own approach to completing the game while recognizing that certain skills are more valuable than others and some are more common as well. The replay value is here as you’re also able to team up with several people and experience Valheim together! The multiple ways to enjoy Valheim as well as each piece put together thoughtfully to enrich every experience makes Valheim a worthwhile and entertaining game from start to finish. It’s not perfect and likely never will be, but it gets really close to hitting masterpiece status and they’re still improving the game with each new patch, as good game developers should. You know what, I’m headed back to play right now. You should join me.