Twenty-one hours. That is the amount of time I spent with this game prior to writing a formal review. I say this because not only is it the most time I've spent with a game before reviewing it (second place goes to The Spiral Scouts at sixteen hours), but I didn't even finish the game! Graveyard Keeper is a massive undertaking that I did not expect at all to be such a relentlessly time-consuming process.
In this vein, the game is a lot like, well, real life. One is tasked with upholding their job title and raising their own reputation within a state of survival and self-improvement. Speaking with people, creating and studying and working, walking back and forth as the sun sets and the moon rises. If nothing else, this is a game that has brought me closest to an immersive second life than anything that came before. Whether that life is enjoyable to anyone else is a bit more of a complex series of questions and preferences.
Graveyard Keeper is available on Steam for your regional pricing.
If there's anything more tragic than being sent to another dimension and time after being hit by a car, I don't want to know it. Truth be told, there isn't really much going on in terms of an overall story with this game, despite the decent amount of dialogue that goes into it. The set-up scenario that brings the character into the world that Graveyard Keeper houses him in happens in a near-instant, with all the minor details like "How did this happen?" or "How is this even possible?" being left up in the air. The central character, who is unnamed, is hit by a car while walking home, wakes up to a barren place confronted by a cloaked figure—who tells him he's the new graveyard keeper—then is transported to a completely new world and no one seems to bat an eye at his sudden arrival. This final observation is a good perspective to take with the story here: it's not worth worrying about.
Though to some, this could ruin an entire helping of immersion through empathizing with the character and his situation, as well as the other characters with their own situation. This is definitely a bit of a lost opportunity as a large majority of this game's dialogue is dedicated to setting up tasks to complete, making sly jokes, and giving the player the runaround. In twenty-one hours playing, there's not a single character whose position I'm concerned with at all. Presentation has it so that they're all just semi-arrogant or semi-depressed people who are keys to the player's getting home, which is the main objective of the game as the central character. They don't feel all that real within the world outside of their daily movement (more on that later), and one can't even converse with them outside of repeated single lines that only a few of them have.
Speaking about dialogue encourages the discussion of the game's writing overall, which isn't quite as charming as it wants to be. Spiral Scouts this is not, especially with how dark its morally-ambiguous tone can be throughout. Its attempts at humor come in the form of random one-liners that don't really mean anything to the task at hand. The player could, say, give some wine to someone and they would say something like "Ah, that makes the dread of existing less prominent," only to have them proceed with a bunch of task-continuing jargon. This makes it feel like throwaway lines that are there just to be there, and while they could be funny on their own for those who like dark humor (like me), they don't really make anything about the game more memorable from a story standpoint; akin to having a small quirk about a normal body of storytelling.
The game's identity
As of roughly sixteen hours ago, popular youtuber Projared has started a let's play series of this game, sort of "marketing" it as a "grim Stardew Valley." Looking through the Steam reviews of this game, quite a few will mention the aforementioned game as a sort of inspiration or comparison piece. While I have never played Stardew Valley personally, from what I have seen of it, Graveyard Keeper absolutely seems like something that capitalizes on the game's massive success. What becomes tricky to do is avoiding generalizing the game as one of two things: a Stardew Valley clone or a simulation game with dark humor. With how popular Stardew Valley has become, it will certainly be difficult to see Graveyard Keeper as its own entity, wanting to burst out of the shadow of a bigger past title within the same genre.
Detailed pixel graphics, a town from yesteryear that uses resources such as axes, shovels, and hammers to farm and build; time-consuming activities that require much patience and material to complete, a collection of people to talk to and trade with, and even some minor combat activities are all things these two games share with one another. While this all seems pretty standard for simulation games (save the detailed pixel graphics), it's the certain time and place, especially considering Stardew Valley's popularity, that makes Graveyard Keeper seem like a work inspired by a perceived greatness. The 3D platformers that came upon the heels of Super Mario 64, though that isn't an indication of how great I think Stardew Valley is or how forgettable I think Graveyard Keeper is. The comparison is just one I think should be taken into consideration for those wanting to discredit the game for being too similar.
The game's immersive qualities
I've spent a lot of time up to this point talking about things other than the actual gameplay, so what does this game do particularly well when it comes to being a video game? Well, aside from holding me over for twenty-one hours with little break, it's kept me coming back with the prospect for something more, more that could be accomplished by my own hand through experminetation and patience. More than anything, I think this game succeeds in luring the player back with the encouragement of more to come, as there are always things to do in the game.
However, the way it gets to this point is a little worrisome, as starting out, the player will meet a number of different people with anywhere from one to three tasks for the player to complete—or perhaps more accurately, work towards. Many of the initial tasks cannot be completed without advancing through various methods of crafting and technologies that one has to unlock by doing various things in the outside world. This giant collection of things right at the beginning could certainly turn new players off. Even worse, some of these people cannot be seen again until a certain day of a six-day week that this game incorporates, and time doesn't go by too quickly if one waits for it to.
Even so, working my way up the chain of quests that were practically thrown at me was such a great experience. My experience with simulation games are fairly limited, but my experience with simulation games of this caliber is practically nonexistent (Does My Sims count?). And so despite the initial hesitance of overwhelming chores, I went ahead and figured things out bit by bit by experimenting and taking my time, as the game isn't really pushing for speedruns. I had great fun with finally being able to unlock material to progress through the game and appease my questgivers. Every time I found a possible route to whatever task was at hand, I zoned in and played that route unless it became a false lead. When the path was guaranteed, I was elated with myself and the work I put into getting there. I'm a simple man: I may struggle sometimes, but working hard on something to get some level of self-satisfaction by completing it always gets me. This game practically writes the book on creating long chains of steps that result in just enough payoff for one to want to do it seven-hundred more times.
As a quick aside, it is imperative that you play this game with a mouse with a scrolling wheel. I played this without one for about twelve hours until I got to the point where I had no way of scrolling through menus as my collection of things grew, and the scrolling wheel is the only way (I could find) to do so. You couldn't have implemented arrow buttons into your menus?
The game's everything else
The two things a player will do in this game more than anything else are move and build. Moving is pretty simple: AWSD or arrow key controls. Building is a little more complex with what one needs to collect and what-not, but how to build is also pretty simple: holding E or F. To those looking at this game with little experience with simulation games, does the prospect of moving and holding buttons in large quantities sound appealing? It's definitely something with niche value, especially considering how advanced this game (probably) is compared to the run-of-the-mill simulation titles (Did I mention My Sims?). I was able to hold my own in the end, though not without some difficulties with being somewhat unfamiliar with the genre. For those somewhat in my own position, it becomes hard to recommend this game due to how steadily it sticks to its one genre of gameplay: simulation. It is, by no doubt whatsoever, a simulation game and nothing else; almost a veteran's simulation game, if my observations aren't clouded by my own inexperience.
What adds to the level of difficulty is that there are very few safety nets with this game. All throughout, one is given tasks and occasionally are told hints as to where or how one can find the materials necessary to building, crafting, or creating quest items. If one happens to miss the hint within dialogue, many of the NPCs will not tell you it again. Bad memory? You're on your own. Thus, the player is required to use their own imagination or intelligence to assume what they have to do with the items they have and the stations they can build throughout the land. This doesn't really add to any accessibility this game may have had left after the tumultuously stacked beginning segments, though it isn't something I would necessarily call an inherently bad strategy. It's almost like the decision to make an old-fashioned game old-fashionedly hard. It's just part of the appeal to veterans. Or, they just didn't implement it and it's a fault. Hard to say here.
And it is a little hard to say because this game has some really nice polish when it comes to various aspects and some strange exclusions concerning other aspects. Graveyard Keeper has so many things going for it, like a day and night cycle that never malfunctions, non-accessible NPCs that move on their own dependent on the time of day, different sounds that play dependent on the area, time of day, or material being walked on, and all sorts of things to collect. It is brimming with detail and work and love that I can't help but think it more than an ordinary indie game. I could see this as a well-done AAA title. Yet there are little things that can be seen as chinks in the armor, such as code appearing within the game menus and a certain character appearing every night instead of on a single night when he's supposed to. A lot of these minor faults aren't much on their own, but they build up into this sort of stinger that always rear's itself at the most inopportune times.
Graphics & Audio
Much like the previous paragraph, Graveyard Keeper has a great surface paint when it comes to its graphical design. Everyone looks distinct and completely suited to their character, the lighting and spaces look great and are heavily detailed, and the imagery present is fairly charming (like hopping talking skulls). Then there are these little hiccups that, on their own, aren't too much to gripe about, but sort of build up as the hours roll by. One can see random jagged lines in the grass as the main character's circle of light travels around him at night, the game is almost never consistently at 60 fps, and will even freeze for half a second in various instances (most of the time while walking through forests for me). It's like having a nice ripened banana with a big brown spot right at the top. Not perfect, but still perfectly eatable, only with the hesitation brought upon what that brown spot may due for the stomach.
I would say the soundtrack to this game is forgettable, but with how long the game expects you to play, the same three or four major tracks will play so often that they will be ingrained into your soul for at least three decades. Even so, the music, I feel, doesn't add too much to the experience. While playing, I thought of what other music could fit instead of the music playing, and I couldn't see anything outside of outright meme music being played that would hamper or emphasize my experience any better or worse. It's just kind of there. The actual sound effects, however, are great, though perhaps footsteps are a tad too loud in hindsight (I actually found myself wanting to walk on grass at one point because stone was too loud). Hitting the hammer against wood, sawing wood, smelting ore, chopping down trees, burying bodies, burning bodies; all these things were done so well sound-wise, and it's a little detail but it makes all the difference with immersive qualities. It does these minor things very well, indeed.
There is something to be said about the confidence of LazyBearGames for developing this upon the heels of Stardew Valley's success. While it may draw heavy comparisons, Graveyard Keeper stands on its own as an experience well worth playing, so long as one has a fancy for straight-shot simulation games. If not for the little details here and there that bring it down from being an ultimately worthwhile experience, it could conceivably reach, if not succeed, the quality of that in which it is heavily compared with.
|+ Heavily detailed in its presentation||– Writing/dialogue could be better|
|+ Great amount of player liberty||– Little chinks in the armor design-wise|
|+ Hard work rewards with adequate payoff||– Hardly accessible to newcomers|
|+ Immersion is beautifully incorporated|