Valheim let players carve out a sense of place in a menacing, beautiful wilderness.
Best-of-breed survival/crafting artistry and mechanics

I started playing this game in the spring of 2021. I associate certain seasons with games. I’m not sure if this is because I started playing the game in that season, or whether the game features that season as a setting, or what. The Witcher III and Skyrim are definitely fall games, and I have no clue what time of the year it was when I played them. Likely, it spanned multiple times of year, or in the case of Skyrim, multiple years. Anyway, Valheim reminds me of spring, and being largely trapped at home without much to do except log on and play. Fortunately, it is one of those games that conveys a sense of vastness, and adventure. It is similar to Minecraft in that regard. It will also surely remind older players of Skyrim, because well, Vikings.

I recommend Valheim to anyone except people who actively dislike survival/crafting games.

Sunrise, behind the World Tree.

First, the game looks amazing. The best way to explain it is that it is “low poly” but with an incredibly sophisticated approach to lighting. It has gotten a lot of praise for the look and feel, and it runs well, even when you build pretty large settlements. The graphics give Valheim an impressionist flair, which helps to establish the game’s distinct tones. There is stillness and peacefulness much of the time. Most of the time you are free to linger in gazing at its familiar but distinctly alien sunsets, sunrises, mists and light reflecting on the water.

What really makes the game work though is how it establishes menace.

The swamp: not light, and not dry.

The Dark Forest and the Swamp biomes are probably the best example - and specifically how crossing the boundary into those biomes feels to the player. I like when a risky design choice pays off: the developers deliberately sacrificed realism for the purpose of conveying a change in how the player should feel as they enter the Swamp, for instance. It gets very dark, and very wet, very fast. Looking into the swamp, it doesn’t seem like it should look the way it does when the player is inside. Yet setting realism aside allows the transition to have significance and feeling.

Dark forest vibes

Speaking of menace, Valheim is a hard game. You will probably get very frustrated with it at least once. Commonly this happens when you wander into a zone, or too close to a zone, with enemies that you are not equipped to fight yet. Players learn to fear the unknown. There are some amusing incongruities, like how the Fulings, which are silly little goblin creatures, can defeat forest trolls four times their size, just because they inhabit the highest level biome.

I thought the combat in Valheim was great. It feels remarkably hefty and tactile - bodies have physics and weapons swing in a satisfying and predictable way. Fighting trees is the best though - fighting them, and taking their sweet, sweet lumber. Seriously though, Iron Gate nailed it with the tree chopping mechanics. Players will feel idle satisfaction as they chop.

Gonna chop and never stop.

And why do we chop trees, Master Wayne? So that we can build. Build for hours, and days, and realize that Trolls can raid your base, and destroy it, and we can get our revenge and post their heads on a stake in front of our new walls made out of rock. Building things in Valheim is incredibly satisfying: the joy of creating order, and beauty within a natural world where you truly can’t make much of a dent. Mechanically, the building system balances flexibility with simplicity. There is a learning curve, but even at the beginning you can make things that look great. My favorite part is how you have to construct chimneys that let out smoke, or your house will fill with smoke, which is bad for Vikings. As a builder, you have to discover the technique of putting a roof piece on little posts so that the smoke has somewhere to go.

Smoke needs a place to go.

The best way to play Valheim is with a friend, or a group of friends. I am sure this is another thing that makes me think of this game fondly. Valheim makes it easy to host a game and have friends join. The only problem is that one player will always “own” the world - you will still need to rent a server (similar to the way you would for Minecraft) if you want to make a world that anyone can join at any time. Having a friend to play with is nice for those frustrating moments, like when a serpent destroys your boat really really far from your base, or you discover that Deathsquitos can chase your boat out into the ocean. (Don’t mess around on the water in Valheim.) At least it makes a good story.

Iron Gate has released one major update and a series of minor ones. There has been some frustration in the player community about the pace (as of when I’m writing this in May 2022, people are griping about the Mistlands update not being done), but overall the new content has kept me exploring and wanting to try out the new building materials.

Valheim’s distance-rendering algorithm is one of the game’s few weak points. Landscapes look sort of busted until you are right in them. It’s mainly noticeable when you are sailing and looking at the shore. The only other part of the game I would draw attention to is that certain stretches of gameplay can be a bit “grindey.” Gathering iron from crypts in the swamp is this way. The thing is though, you can always focus on building for a while if you get bored.

My character is going soft in his plush mansion.

By the way, you should check out my Valheim builds!

In the end, I think most people enjoy Valheim for the building, the exploration and the memories that accompany playing the game with a friend. And like the other good survival-crafting games such as Raft and Minecraft, Valheim lets you create a “home”. You’ll spend hours at your base, getting it to look just right and have the functional spaces and stations that you need. You’ll learn, exploit and cultivate the surrounding terrain. And when trolls come to break your stuff, by Odin’s .. whatever, you’ll meet them outside your walls and go toe-to-toe, or kite them around taking potshots with fire arrows, or whatever is needed to protect your keep!

Valheim is just fun like that.

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