First Impressions: Valheim

When I started my website, I intended to do more articles on video games, but rarely am I able to play anything new. However, a friend gifted me a copy of Valheim, and I’ve been diving in quite a lot.

Valheim is an open-world survival/crafting game with a Viking-inspired setting. Like most games in the genre, it has launched in early-access, something I normally avoid because of the risk of the game either not working properly or never being finished. That said, Valheim runs very well, is largely bug-free, and is remarkably packed with content at the onset. This is one of the most polished early-access games I’ve ever seen.

The Game

When you begin the game, you are plopped into the Tenth World, a branch of the world tree, Yggdrasil, that Odin broke off to exile his worst enemies. Those enemies have grown in power, so you, and other mortals, are being taken there to find and defeat these foes. Don’t ask how a mortal is supposed to do it if Odin couldn’t finish them off. It’s a game!

But what you really do is spend a lot of your time collecting resources and building a home. That’s what these games are really about, going back to Minecraft or its 2D cousin, Terraria.

Graphics

The graphics are intentionally retro with low-resolution textures and blocky models. I’m not a big fan of the blocky character models, but otherwise, I think the pixelated textures have a certain charm to them. In my opinion, certainly more-so than most of the 8-bit games and whatever you would call Minecraft’s look (a game I never played due to its extreme unattractiveness).

However, what this allows them to do is pack the land with tons of things. Everywhere are things. Rocks, trees, bushes, grass, a smattering of houses, each made with individual pieces. Easily some of the best forests in video games. And the weather effects are likewise a sight to behold. It’s a very pretty game with realistic and immersive environments. This is stuff that’s tough to pull off with modern HD textures and detailed modeling, and even then, only good PCs can enjoy that splendor without exploding. Here, it looks great and runs smooth.

The water is also well done, with natural waves that will actually rock your boat. The physics of the water is a rarity in games, even in this day and age, and the way your boat naturally rides the waves is impressive.

What the beach looks like…

What a medium swell looks like during a storm (same spot).

Gameplay

There are two core elements of this genre: combat and building. And both of those are intensely centered on gathering resources. A lot of resources. And then some more. This style of game embraces the grind, and for fans of the genre, it’s a relaxing grind.

The combat in Valheim is solid and has some welcomed nuances. It could have easily been a basic hack-and-slash system like others in the genre, but it has a parry system, dodging, damage types for resistances and weaknesses, a stagger mechanic, critical hits, a stealth system (that actually works!), and functioning ranged combat. It’s a lot more than what you’d typically expect from an EA survival/crafting game. And it all works really well. I’d rather dodging not be 2-button, but it’s nothing you can’t get used to. Thus far, I’ve only faced 2 of the 5 bosses, but I’m enjoying the variety of enemies and attacks. Though, maybe the greylings/greydwarfs are a bit too common. I think one more common enemy type would help reduce the monotony of killing your millionth greydwarf (in the first two biomes).

The building system is also really solid, and it needs to be because that’s the true selling point for most fans of the genre. Combat, fighting bosses, collecting stuff; it’s all extra. Some people never even bother with all that, they just want to build things. These are our grown-up Legos. The pieces are fairly versatile, and the locking works well once you learn how it works. I think the most interesting aspect is how the stability system works, where you can’t just build off of one piece for infinity. The piece touching the ground will be colored blue when in build mode, then things touching that will be green, but eventually, they become yellow and then red when building further and further from the grounded piece. Eventually, you hit a limit and pieces fall off; you need to build more support that touches the ground. It’s not entirely a realistic simulation, as other supports that don’t touch the ground are just aesthetics, they don’t actually add support to your structure.

The places I’ve called home.

My first house was an abandoned house that I patched up to use as a temporary base.

My first real home was a seaside house of simple construction. Just large enough to get the job done. Unfortunately, it ended up being way too far from the area I needed to go to.

Eventually, I picked a hilltop for my real home base. Took a lot of flattening and a LOT of wood.

Behind the main house is a workshop with the forge, smelter, and kiln, as well as my bees.

I extended the property with a garden. The wall was added after a stray dwarf destroyed my crops while I was AFK.

What I appreciate is that once you unlock the means of building (very early), you get a wealth of options to cover all of your basic needs. You don’t have to build a dinky hut for your first house (though it’s not a bad idea to learn some of the tricks). That said, as far as I am into the game (exploring the swamp), I feel like there could have been a few more additions somewhere along the way. I’ve unlocked a few furniture pieces and a couple of new building pieces, but nothing that will shake up what or how I build. I do know that stonework comes into play later, but I think a few more options along the way wouldn’t hurt.

Little Things I Appreciate

  • The cart. Not only is it a nice aesthetic parked outside the house, but for maybe the first time in history(?) a cart in a video game serves a purpose! I love being able to haul extra resources after a long gathering expedition.
  • No easy fast travel. In my opinion, easy-access fast travel really harms the immersion and sense of adventure in games. In Valheim, you have to make the fast travel yourself with some rare resources, enough for two portals. You set up one at home, then walk to where you want the other half to go. And I also appreciate that not everything can be hauled through a portal. Some resources should be an investment—and adventure in itself.
  • Sailing. It actually feels like simulated sailing instead of a watercar that drives like a car. It is incredibly satisfying getting the hang of the Karve (screw that stupid raft).

Suggestions

Here some suggestions based on where I’m at in the game and what I’ve heard is present. Some of these could already be in the game but I haven’t gotten to them nor heard of them yet. Others might already be a consideration or already axed for one reason or another, but I hope Iron Gate Studio finds something of value here. Pictures largely unrelated.

I stubbornly went to the mountains early and built a base.

Possible Improvements

  • Ground leveling. It’s a bit finicky, and not reliable. Sometimes it can’t flatten a spot, other times it lowers a spot too far. It works most of the time but could be more consistent.
  • More crops. I was surprised that planting trees is (thus far) most of what I can do with crops. I can’t plant raspberry or blueberry bushes, not even birch trees. Other than carrots (and now turnips), I’ve yet to find something else worth planting. Should more of these be plant-able crops?
  • Better snapping. When building, a lot of pieces only snap if you look at them at very specific angles. It makes certain structures (like bridges) very difficult to build.
  • More realistic fishing. Not that it needs to take a long time, but the rhythm-game aspect of needing to hook a fish just as it bites is weird. It’s like the lure doesn’t have a hook on it. And losing bait even when you reel in nothing seems arbitrary.
  • Straight-facing dragonhead. I like the inclusion of the dragonhead piece for building, but it’s only available at an angle (and it doesn’t line up very well). We need straight-facing too.
  • Hair with helmets. Turning the hair off when you have a helmet on doesn’t look very good. We either need hair models that swap in while wearing a helmet or if the clipping isn’t too drastic, just leave the hair on with the helmet.
My first sortie into the swamp had me running up a tree for safety. So I plopped a portal down and built a house around it.

Things to Add

  • Instruments! Let us play something. There are several instruments that historians know the Vikings had access to, and some we’ve seen in burials.
  • More harvest-ables. There are several things already in the environment I wish I could harvest and use to make items (reeds, lily pads). It seems like a lot of things could be utilized to add new crafting recipes. Along with new crops like flax or rye (more on that below).
  • More map markers. We could use a few more, maybe one for a warning sign, one specifically for marking resources.
  • More furniture/building options. Mentioned above, I’ve not really unlocked much else after first unlocking building. Other than stonework and iron-reinforced pillars, I don’t know if anything else is coming, but it feels like there could be a lot more. Not necessarily of different materials (though some of the wood feels underutilized) but just different shapes and designs.
  • More common enemies. Also mentioned above, the greydwarfs get a little tedious. It feels like one more common enemy would help break things up in early biomes.
  • Bed options. While Vikings did have beds (and they could be elaborate in make), they often slept on long benches built into the side of the house, using furs and the like as both mattress and blanket. It’d be nice to have more than one bed design. (update: Have discovered the large bed, but I was thinking something smaller and more modest).
My map (most of it, anyway). I like to keep good notes.

Historical Considerations

Below are some thoughts regarding things to add or change that are specific to the history of the Vikings. Obviously, Valheim is a more fantasy interpretation of the Vikings, so some things don’t need to be wholly accurate. But below are some things that I think would improve the game while letting it still be a fantasy game. These suggestions are based on my own knowledge after studying Vikings for some 15+ years as a hobby (with about 20 history books on the Vikings alone).

  • Cheese and bread (meals in general). These were staples of the Viking diet and it feels odd not having them (but maybe cheese is part of animal husbandry which I haven’t done yet?). A quick meal could be made of just cheese and bread, while porridge was also common. Bread was generally of barley or rye (wheat was rare in Scandinavia). Smoked, dried, or salted meats or fish could be added to pretty much any meal. On occasion, freshly cooked meat was also eaten, but usually around harvest after livestock was inventoried and animals they could spare were slaughtered before winter (since any animal they wanted to keep had to live inside the house during winter). (Update: Have seen some of this is in the game, but very late.)
  • The spear. It functions fine, but it would be nice to have an option to swap to underarm instead of overarm. Many reenactors and medieval weapon enthusiasts have experimented quite a lot (especially since no one can agree if overarm or underarm was historically preferred), and it seems overarm provides more punch at the cost of length and accuracy.
  • Goats/sheep. These were common animals the Vikings kept. Goats were the everyman’s animal, and the animal depicted leading Thor’s chariot. Sheep were more expensive, but their wool was very useful (add some textiles!). Both would also provide milk.
  • Roof tiles. The Vikings didn’t only use thatched roofs. They also had tiled roofs. See here. The Norse stave church design is another example of tiled roofs.
  • Ornamental carvings. The Vikings were accomplished woodworkers who had a distinct style of carving, which they took with them to their settlements in Scotland and Ireland (the ubiquitous knot design is of Viking origin). It would be nice to have some carving options to customize pillars and frames.
  • Hack silver. Vikings didn’t use gold as currency. Their coinage was largely silver and was of foreign mint for much of the Viking Age; they later began minting their own coins. They also used silver jewelry as a way of storing wealth or kept small chunks of silver instead of coins. Replacing the gold and treasure items with silver coins and jewelry would be a nice, simple way to better reflect historical Vikings.

Thank you to anyone who read this whole article. And thank you to Iron Gate Studio for making a fun and immersive experience. And of course, thank you to my friend for gifting me a copy.

Part 2
Part 3

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