As I wipe the sweat from my brow after a hard days’ work, I sit back and admire the results: the piney fragrance of freshly chopped wood, the subtle hissing of iron ingots slowly cooling; their reddish glow grows fainter along with the setting sun. An abundance of resources sits before me – tools of unlimited potential. But the work doesn’t stop there. I make my way underground and lift a thin, ghostly sheet off a corpse. Its skin is lukewarm to the touch but lifeless, nonetheless. Now, where’s my scalpel? This is Graveyard Keeper.
Graveyard Keeper feels like an intricate, and somewhat morbid, scavenger hunt. If you’ve ever played a game with heavily task-based quests, emphasizing crafting (think Stardew Valley) then you’ll be right at home. What I mean is you will be assigned a simple-sounding task, say, bringing wine to a friendly NPC. In order to acquire said wine, however, you will come to realize completing many pre-requisite tasks is necessary first. In fact, some of the very first tasks you are assigned are some of the last ones you are able to complete! But isn’t that just the way? The game Skyrim comes to mind when I think, “games that stack up tasks relentlessly with no signs of slowing.” Luckily, Graveyard Keeper gives you a somewhat manageable number of things to complete at any given time. When I say “manageable,” I mean in the ballpark of 10-25 tasks rather than the literal hundreds in The Elder Scrolls Series.
By completing these assigned quests, the story will start to progress; your journey home gets one step closer. Of course, in the beginning, progress starts in a full-on sprint as all tasks are very rudimentary and fundamental for playing the game. You can upgrade your crafting abilities fast and knock out a good amount of goals in a short period of time. It’s satisfying in the way your character’s development and game advancement are noticeable. Because of this, there’s an instant sense of accomplishment. But after a few hours in, things start to slow to a crawl, ‘the grind’ sets in, and every step feels like the finish line is being pushed back. In an effort to keep one’s sanity, the player is given many paths to pursue. Although a good majority of them end up crossing at specific points, it’s nice to at least have the illusion of options. If you get stuck in one quest line where progression is no longer possible, it typically means you need to progress in another quest line. On the surface, it’s at least refreshing to change up what you’re focusing on. If you don’t feel like chopping wood, mining ore, or crying at the list of tasks you have, you can always explore the fairly large world around you.
Another major element in Graveyard Keeper is its day and night cycle. Time progresses and there is a calendar-like system in place. Days are represented by different symbols in a rotating dial in the top left-hand side of the screen. As novel as this idea always seems, in reality all it does is make things more complicated. This is because you soon realize not only are you trying to check things off a list, but you are now only able to do so on certain days with a limited time frame. I doubt I’m the only one that gets anxious when I’m essentially racing against a clock.
Lastly, not only do you tend to a graveyard, but also become a pastor for the local church. That’s right – the guy who skins dead bodies and drains them of their blood before either burning them or casually tossing them into a flowing river is also the one preaching about forgiveness and grace. Of course, if you think a bit deeper on it, it almost makes sense that the person responsible for tending to the dead is also the person who helps to save your soul prior to its departure from its fleshy, physical vessel. Thus, Graveyard Keeper shows itself to be an item management, time management, quest management, morgue owner sim, faux ‘holier than thou’ journey, wrapped in 16 beautiful bits. Which brings me to…
Aesthetics and Narrative
Graveyard Keeper is presented from an angled, top-down perspective. I really enjoyed this look, as it’s not as common in my gaming experience. Graveyard Keeper does well to provide atmosphere through bright and dark colors when applicable and conveys emotion through warmer or cooler tones when appropriate. Combined with its classic 16-bit look, there’s no question in my mind that screenshots and still images will be timeless. The one minor issue is in the animations. I feel that, for all of the obvious, lovely details that go into it, Graveyard Keeper seems to skimp on the animations of certain actions. I’m not saying they are bad; this indie title does a serviceable job in representing what it sets out to. What I’m getting at is things such as swinging an axe, building a structure, or even just plain walking seems to feel . . . a bit off. It’s as if a couple of frames were removed from a full animation. Now, this could be to keep frame rate or some other aspect of performance up, or even a stylistic choice, but with everything else so intricate and complex in the game, I’m a little disappointed it isn’t the same for the animations.
Graveyard Keeper makes light of a dark situation. The story itself is short and sweet . . . sort of like your character’s life! You end up inheriting the not so coveted position of Graveyard Keeper because you died. The way the narrative is presented through dialogue and situational irony is hopeful, humorous, and satirical.
For instance, among a whole town full of NPC’s, you are associates with a talking Donkey. This mule pulls a squeaky-wheeled carriage to bring you fresh corpses every so often. And yes, I did say “associates.” You two are co-workers, and it’s made clear. This donkey doesn’t hold back – it fully expresses its views on what is, essentially, workplace inequality and the woes of capitalistic oppression. Or take the town bishop, who is smug, vain, and acts as if he is doing you a favor from God himself in letting you take over, clean up, and restore the run-down, abandoned church next to your graveyard. Not to mention it practically sits on top of a satanic-looking chamber venturing deep below the surface. I mean, you’re just trying to get back to your normal life, is that so hard to do? As you can see, all the conversations you have and interactions that occur add up to a quirky, and darkly charming story about redemption.
Impressions and Conclusion
Overall, Graveyard Keeper impressed me in its simple, yet elegant, presentation. There is so much going on at one time that it sneaks up on you. One minute, you’re casually strolling through a wheat field to the local tavern, the next thing you know, you’re buried six feet deep in quests before you even realize it. It’s a game that I hated to get addicted to. I know that each task I accumulated was, in reality, another five that would ultimately take me an at least an hour to do.
These tasks are made purposely with the illusion of simplicity, which we all know is a façade. Everything takes time once you’re invested. And by the time you’re that invested, hours upon hours, it’s pointless to turn back, right? If Graveyard Keeper had some kind of diamond system or paid mechanics to speed up wait times, I actually wouldn’t have been surprised at all. For the record, it doesn’t (well, paid DLC will be available at some point it seems). I say this because if you don’t have an item, or an ability to craft said item, there is usually an option to buy the item (with in-game currency). The only issue with this is everything is pretty expensive. Remember, you live on a graveyard budget, serving up sermons for pennies and pawning off human flesh as animal meat just to make a dollar. Be prepared for the grind – still better than paying real money though! So, even though I saw this coming, and I knew what I was getting into in starting Graveyard Keeper, I still let it drain close to 20 hours of my life. The question is, how much will it take from you?
Graveyard Keeper is an addictive game. If you’re inclined to crafting and questing, you will thoroughly enjoy it – either in light of or despite its mature content. It’s not so much bloody and gory as it is more satanic and ritualistic. There’s plenty of content to explore and, if you like the carrot dangled in front of you to keep you going, there is literally a crate-full. Even though I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it, I am also enjoying the idea of stopping playing it; after finishing one more quest, that is . . .