At a first glance, you might be forgiven in thinking Graveyard Keeper is just another ‘me-too’ Stardew Valley clone with a macabre theme slapped on. I can tell you right now, it’s really not.
Graveyard Keeper is a quirky, isometric pixel-art ‘cemetery management’ game by Lazy Bear Games in which you play the role of the titular Graveyard Keeper as he sets about refurbishing a village graveyard and church. This premise is set up in an odd way, however, in that you were on your way home from work when a car knocks you down, and you wake up in what appears to be the medieval past, talking to a skull. Your ultimate goal? Find out what happened and get home!
Initially, Graveyard Keeper takes you through a short tutorial of what to do when a body is delivered to the graveyard (by a talking donkey), then pretty much leaves you to your own devices. The daily chores of performing an autopsy, extracting various organs, digging graves, burying bodies and decorating graves with headstones and surrounds might seem dull, but this game quickly opens up with quests aplenty from pretty much every villager you talk to, all seemingly incapable of performing simple tasks themselves — ‘I need some paper and ink’, ‘Find me some carrots’ — that sort of thing. You can tackle each quest in one of two ways: either learn how to craft the item you need or buy it from someone else, the latter needing money, which you will have to earn first.
Upon completing a quest for a villager, your reputation with that villager increases, which unlocks new knowledge, areas or tradeable items, which in turn progresses the story line. On one hand this is a nice way to play through a game, with no main-quest/sub-quest hierarchy, but on the other hand it can sometimes be hard to work out what you are supposed to be doing and for who at any given point. This is further complicated by the day/night cycle in the game — different NPCs turn up at different times of week and you are normally juggling so many other things that you can easily miss the character you were waiting to talk to!
Progression can also seem a little slow — when I first started playing the game (pre release!), there were of course no wikis set up, so finding the right place to dig for sand or clay, or which ingredients I needed for a specific recipe, was quite a long-winded slog of trial and error… mainly error. Thankfully, there are now plenty of online resources available, which makes the game much, much more fun and enjoyable.
Some reviewers have accused Graveyard Keeper of being very grindy — but to be honest I haven’t felt like that during my more recent time with the game. Yes, there are many things to learn, many things to unlock, many things to build, and all of that requires a lot of wood, stone, sticks, clay etc., which you have to acquire. Thankfully I have recently (within the last six-or-so hours of gameplay) unlocked zombies, which can be used to automate some of the grinding. I’m not a fan of the grind, but Graveyard Keeper is so diverse with all of the quest items needed for all of the NPCs (see above) that I don’t feel like I’m being overly repetitive with my actions.
What I’m trying to say is that I think that the balance feels about right. I expect it to be harder to create a stone wall to surround my entire graveyard than it is to make some nails, for example. Supporting this is a complex and elaborate tech tree, with different categories for all the areas you can develop skills within. Certain skills give you access to new blueprints for building new equipment; others give you a constant buff while you are working. There’s a constant feeling of moving forwards, and I personally quite enjoy planning out how to unlock specific items. After twenty-one hours of gameplay, I’m still not bored!
However, I do have a slight gripe with the energy system… I guess it kind of makes sense, but it’s very restrictive and breaks up the gameplay. Basically, every action in the game expends energy and you have a finite bar which regenerates when you sleep. You can only sleep in a bed, which initially only exists in your house. And when I say every action, I mean every action (apart from moving around, weirdly). Chopping trees and digging stumps are pretty obvious, but studying materials? You can craft consumables in your kitchen that regenerate part of your energy bar, but these obviously require ingredients and cooking also expends energy…
The long and short of it is that, no matter what you are doing or where you are doing it, at some point you have to stop and go and have a little lie down. This is irritating, as sometimes you can be doing something just outside your house, like breaking up stones, but constantly having to stop and go inside for a quick sleep. I created a few grave fences at one point and needed to sleep three or four times to just have enough energy to complete the task! Making it so that you don’t lose energy when within your house boundaries, or even adding a slow regeneration to the bar so that you can recuperate slightly while walking from one place to the next, would be a great quality-of-life improvement in my opinion!
I’d like to pause here in my mammoth discussion about gameplay to talk about the icing on the cake: graphics. Yes, I know that they are 2D pixel art, like many, many other games, but Graveyard Keeper manages to carve its own identity in this area, with delicate lighting effects and some great weather-based scenes. The time of day factors into this too, all combining into a truly lovely looking game. Then there are the sounds… I’ll be honest, I turned the music off for quite a while after just a few hours of it — I couldn’t concentrate on the task at hand with it repeating all the time. It’s certainly not bad, but you find that because you play for a long time it can become annoying. The sound effects are really nice though, especially when you enter the dungeon.
Ah yes, I had forgotten the dungeon. Underneath your crypt area, once you have earned enough reputation with one of the NPCs and completed a number of quests for him, you have access to a dungeon area. This plays similarly to the rest of the game in the way you move through it, but is obviously filled with nasty creatures all bent on doing you harm. Killing these creatures, however, gives you ingredients for recipes that you might not otherwise be able to acquire. The nicest thing about the dungeon though, is that it lets you jump to any floor you have already visited — removing hours of needless wandering. It is split into fifteen floors, which progress in difficulty the further down you go… of course, this means you probably want better weapons and armour, which you can craft once you have unlocked that skill from the tech tree… and so the cycle continues.
All in all I would say that, assuming you have some patience and are looking for a game to sink quite a few hours into, Graveyard Keeper is a great game to spend your time with. Yes, there are issues, but they are nothing more than a minor irritation and don’t taint the otherwise addictive nature of unlocking, crafting, building, questing and developing that the game champions with much aplomb.
Graveyard Keeper is available now on Xbox One, PC, Mac and Linux.