Valheim Preview (PC) – Bring your Viking Boots

Coming from seemingly nowhere, is this Scandinavian craft-em-up worth the hype? The Finger Guns preview…

Like many of us over the last 12 months of surrealism that has been the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns, I have turned to the countless hours of entertainment to be found on the world’s biggest streaming site, Twitch, to help keep me sane. Around three months ago, the somewhat surprising big trending game amongst UK streamers was Rust – an online multiplayer-only survival game that garnered a pretty big following, partly in thanks to the nearly unlimited opportunities it presented for griefing. As such, I quickly found myself growing uncomfortably tense watching it and wishing for something a little more chill and co-operative. Little did I know that I’d find exactly what I was looking for in Valheim – developed by Iron Gate AB, published by Coffee Stain Publishing and currently doing absolute critical and commercial gangbusters on Steam.

And with good reason, as it’s one of the most refreshing gaming experiences I’ve had in recent years. The craziest thing about that statement is that – on the face of it – Valheim doesn’t do a lot different from other survival games. In fact, anyone who has played a Minecraft or a Rust or even a State of Decay will be able to quickly grasp the mechanics of this game within minutes. No, where Valheim truly shines is in its delicate balance between the simplicity of its mechanics and its intricate attention to detail.

I’ll touch upon the attention to detail first, which is what allows Valheim to build such an interesting environment, despite the fact that it’s entirely procedurally generated. A large contributing factor to this is the surprising graphical quality. What’s surprising about it is mainly down to the game’s incredible lighting and animation models. Without the lighting and the animation, Valheim has the look of a 3D adventure game from the late 90s and early 00s – heavily pixelated and, certainly in the early areas, fairly muted.

Add in Valheim’s lighting and animation, however, and everything suddenly comes alive. It’s touches like the God rays that peek through the trees and illuminate the grass that is gently swaying in the wind. Or it’s the way the water laps up onto the coastline, as the sunlight sparkles off its surface. It’s even just the way your campfire illuminates the thatched walls of your house at night-time.

All of these effects and touches combine to make Valheim feel like much more of a lived-in world than other games in the genre. It also serves to encourage exploration, as you’re never entirely sure what lies beyond that forest, hill or even stretch of water. I understand that it feels cliché to say at this point, but it really is hard to believe that this was made by such a small team.

With such intricacy on show, you might be concerned that the mechanics of the game would be similarly complex, but that’s not the case. Firstly, the crafting, which is the game’s main focus. As I alluded to earlier, this will be very familiar to anyone who has spent any real time in a survival game over the last 10 years. Menus do a great concise job of making clear what you can craft and what you need to craft it. Perhaps most importantly, everything you need to craft stuff is normally close by – no super-rare materials needed here. As such, you’ll find yourself building everything from useful weapons and tools to humble tent-like shelters to entire settlements, and all fairly quickly, especially if you team up with some mates.

Similarly simple are Valheim’s combat mechanics, although this isn’t always a positive. Against your common-or-garden enemies, there’s little issue here, especially with melee combat – you have a single attack button, a block button, a dodge button and the ability to sprint away, if you need to eat something or just recover some stamina. However, when faced with tougher enemies and bosses, it can feel a little clunky at times – not offputtingly so, but enough to cause some mild irritation. Speaking of combat, the game’s enemies are nice and varied, and the bosses are suitably impressive in scope, which removes some of the monotony that can threaten to kick in at times.

Of course, as I hinted at previously, part of my issue with survival games ultimately comes down to other people. Most survival games have a PvP element that means you’re always playing with one eye looking over your virtual shoulder to make sure no-one shanks you and steals your stuff. Valheim’s co-operative approach eliminates that feeling of paranoia for me.

By doing so, it doesn’t just foster the sense of camaraderie you can get from being part of a good group, but also contributes to what is a very chill time overall. I generally have a tendency to clock-watch, when I play games. No such issue here – I forgot about time completely with Valheim, entering something approaching a zen state as I settled into its very satisfying crafting and building loop. It’s difficult to quantify just how important that feeling can be as we continue to live through these adopts newscaster voice UNPRECEDENTED TIMES.

I’m not going to lie, Valheim surprised the hell out of me. However, having now experienced what it has to offer, from its chill vibe to its focus on co-operation to its ability to chew up time like it’s going out of fashion, it’s no surprise that it has been as successful as it is. If you have a PC that can run it (and, thankfully, the requirements aren’t outrageous), you owe it to yourself to give it a shot. Game of the year so far for me.

Valheim is avilable through Early Access on PC via Steam.

Developer: Iron Gate AB
Publisher: Coffee Stain Publishing

Disclaimer: In order to complete this preview, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.

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