Valheim Early Access Preview – A survival game with a sense of purpose

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Survival games are a dime a dozen these days. The initial boom of success through games like Minecraft, Ark and Rust have seen thousands of developers take interest, and a quick glance at pretty much any digital storefront will see a number of these games spread across the new releases and best sellers lists. While many will tread familiar, formulaic ground, every now and again something interesting pops up that stands out from the crowd.

Embarking on its voyage through Steam Early Access, Valheim, developed by Iron Gate AB, is norse-inspired survival game which drops players in a procedurally-generated representation of limbo. Using the world around you, players must not only survive but also build their skills and arsenal in order to take down numerous god-like foes. Think Shadow of the Colossus meets Rust. It’s an interesting concept which remedies one of my biggest complaints with many survival games, the lack of direction or goal.

Starting as it means to go on, Valheim pretty much throws you into the world and expects you to get on with it. There’s some light guidance from a crow which pops up from time-to-time, but you are expected to figure out a lot of the game’s mechanics on your own. I’m fine with this in theory, but I found that activating certain elements or finding the specific controls for a move or action could be frustrating. The entire tutorial process could just do with a bit of streamlining to make things slightly more accessible – that will surely come as the game develops.

Moment to moment, Valheim plays like a typical survival game. You need to collect wood, stone, and other materials to build shelter. You hunt animals and collect fruit and vegetables for food. When it rains you end up wet, stay out too late at night and your character will feel cold. It’s fairly similar to the systems we’ve seen elsewhere and Valheim does them all to a good standard.

I actually didn’t mind the gathering and survival elements here, as I felt I was putting in the work towards a goal. Gearing myself up to take on a tough enemy was more than enough motivation to keep me invested in the initial sluggish grind of gathering wood and stone to make basic tools. Once you’re over the initial hump of gathering, Valheim opens up and you can begin exploring its procedurally generated world. With a mix of woods, mountains, plains and coastal areas, there’s plenty of hidden chests to find and animals and monsters to slay. When you’re feeling confident enough, it’s time to go after the legendary monsters.

Scattered throughout the world, these legendary monsters require a sacrifice before you can initiate a fight with them. The sacrifices can vary, but it typically requires something quite grindy. For example, the first boss requires you to hunt a bunch of deer for two trophies. When you’ve got the required sacrifice, everything kicks off as a giant monster appears and tries to take you down. It’s on you to learn its attack patterns and figure out the best way to bring it down. While it’s certainly no Dark Souls to handle, I still found myself having a lot of fun during these fights.

One element of Valheim which needs some serious improvement is building and terraforming. You need to use a hammer to be able to build certain elements, but you also need to have a crafting table, and it’s not always clear in the UI which tool offers what. There’s also a lot of issues with mesh detection when trying to build certain structures or build walls. It’s not unplayable, but I found these segments to be the least enjoyable in the game. I built a bog standard house and never felt the need to upgrade or increase it in size, simply because I didn’t want to tussle with the building systems.

You don’t have to suffer the building systems alone though, because Valheim offers play-hosted servers, meaning you can join up with friends as you venture through the world. Building and surviving together makes Valheim’s difficult world a bit more manageable, providing a slightly easier option. For those who fancy more of a challenge, there are dedicated servers and the option to turn PvP damage on, although the world is already brutal enough for my tastes.

Due to circumstances out of my control, I’m currently having to play with a gamepad when playing PC games. I was a little worried when I saw Valheim only had partial controller support, and unfortunately that’s a pretty accurate description. It’s mostly playable on a gamepad, but there are some actions you simply cannot do. I found myself over encumbered at one stage and spent five minutes trying to find the controls to drop items. I eventually figured out I could only do it using a mouse, but an in-game prompt explaining this would have been welcomed.

There’s a skill system for in-game actions, meaning your character improves over time. As you jump, run and fight your character will consume less stamina and generally just start to be more effective with each skill. I quite like this style of progression as it encourages you to build a character around your play style, imbuing a sense of roleplay to your adventure.

Valheim, while a bit rough around the edges, has a number of genuinely nice touches to its gameplay. When cooking food, you have to actually stand by it as it cooks and take it off when it’s ready – leave it on for too long and you’ll be left with a piece of coal – but stand by a fire in a cramped space and you’ll start to die due to smoke inhalation. For a game that’s just entered Early Access, Valheim already feels like a mostly complete game.

The future feels bright for Valheim. With a solid arrangement of survival systems already in place, an engaging array of boss battles and plenty of extra touches, I can’t wait to see how the community shapes and guides this survival sim’s future development. This is definitely one to watch out for.