When did it become acceptable for a game to just not bother telling you anything? I blame Minecraft for this. It was acceptable for an early access game to require the use of a wiki with the understanding that by the time the game got a full release, the wiki wouldn’t be necessary. Of course, the full release of Minecraft has come and gone, and you still need a bloody encyclopedia to understand the sodding thing your first time playing it. Since then a whole slew of games that downright demanded wiki access has been released, and the trend still doesn’t seem to be slowing down any. On that note, we can introduce Graveyard Keeper, a.k.a. wiki page a-go-go.
Graveyard Keeper was developed by Lazy Bear Games, the team behind the boxing simulator Punch Club from 2016. It was also published by tinyBuild, an indie publisher so prolific that it’s probably quicker to list all of the recent indie games that they didn’t publish. Graveyard Keeper is billed as the most unrealistic medieval graveyard keeper simulator in the world, which isn’t hard to imagine, considering that most medieval graveyards probably didn’t have a talking skull in them.
Graveyard Keeper is a graveyard management sim that follows the adventure of the ‘keeper’, a normal man from modern times who falls through time (and possibly space, who knows?), ending up in a small medieval town. Before he can manage to find his way back home, he is drafted into the position of local graveyard keeper and spiritual leader. He meets a talking skull named Gerry who helps him to make it through his first few days as a keeper and promises to tell him all he can about how to get home.
Gameplay-wise, Graveyard Keeper plays very similarly to the Harvest Moon series and especially Stardew Valley. You have a decent amount of freedom to engage in a number of different pursuits from fishing to combat, and what you tackle and when is strictly up to you. The key difference is that in no point during Stardew Valley are you asked to fetch a bottle of wine for a talking skull, nor are you berated by a communist donkey who likes to crap on your path.
If it’s not clear, the main differences between Graveyard Keeper and the other games are tonal in nature, although there are some graphical and gameplay differences. Your core set of activities are pretty similar between both games, obviously excluding the dissecting and burying of people. However, there are a lot more jokes in Graveyard Keeper, mainly in a very sardonic style, and on top of that, your main character actually has a personality and goals, but beyond that, you impart personalities to the main character through the gameplay.
As in many farming/lifestyle/autopsy simulators, you split your time in Graveyard Keeper between a core set of different tasks. Socially, you have to perform favours for people to earn rewards and get them to like you; luckily, unlike in other games that have been mentioned too much already, you aren’t forced to wander around and introduce yourself to everyone and their cats before you’re able to progress the storyline. You also have a graveyard to look after, and that means much more than finding a hole to fling a rotting corpse into. You have to construct markers and decorations to keep your graveyard looking attractive, or else your local bishop will get very upset with you.
You’re also tasked with performing autopsies that gain you various inner parts of the corpses for your own benefit and enjoyment. For the most part, this includes illegally selling them or giving them to people to complete shady sounding quests. The worst example of this, or possibly the best if that’s what you’re into, is when you get the option to sell human meat to the local tavern as regular meat to earn extra cash. Just try to remember you’ve done this so you can avoid the local meat pies.
Other than that, you have the trifecta of farming, mining and combat to keep you occupied. Once you get access to the game’s 5 basic tools, you can basically wander the overworld fighting monsters, causing mass deforestation and rapidly running out of ore. You can then use these things to upgrade your home, morgue, graveyard and eventually your church once you manage to gain the approval of that bloody, fussy bishop. You then have to figure out which of the many options for buildings and upgrades you want to try and aim at. You can unlock the entire map by repairing bridges and unblocking pathways so that you have access to more resources and locations, you can try to get your underground tunnels cleared, you can get your church looking like a cathedral or you can turn your house into a workshop. The choice comes down to you.
There are a few limitations that manage to get in your way, however. Firstly, there is the fact that while the game vaguely shows you what to do, it never goes into any particular amount of detail. So as you’re playing, you’re going to need to keep a phone or tablet nearby so that you can Google things when you get stuck. It’s a real shame that games like this don’t feel the need to include an in-game encyclopedia that helps to explain some of the more mystifying concepts. Also, while you are technically free to focus on or avoid doing pretty much anything in the game, you do reach a few moments where you need to have advanced certain aspects far enough to be allowed to continue. Having said that, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, a game is supposed to have goals, after all.
Other than that, there are only a few annoyances that manage to sort of put a damper on the otherwise fun gameplay that Graveyard Keeper provides. Fishing is a big issue, partially because it is barefacedly ripped-off from Stardew Valley, and partially because it is both crushingly tedious and frustratingly difficult. There also isn’t much reason to do it beyond another source of food you can better get by farming. By far the worst issue with the game is the fact that it is one of the glitchiest experiences we’ve ever had, at least outside of the n-millionth release of Skyrim. Several character dialogues can play at the same time, the framerate can tank on a whim and once or twice a near game-breaking bug occurs where one of the vital characters you need to continue just stops showing up until they feel like it.
Almost worse than the glitches and the terrible fishing is the fact that there are several mechanics and areas hinted at that just flat out aren’t present in the game at all. Everyone keeps talking about this mysterious ‘town’ which you would imagine that you get to go to at some point. However, when you are told you’ll be heading to the town (spoilers, by the way), you find yourself instead being murdered in a cutscene and sent straight home, which is the gaming equivalent of someone holding out a sandwich and then turning around and beating you over the head with it. This wouldn’t be too much of an issue if the game didn’t keep going on and on about the bloody town. It is constantly being brought up like some sort of mythical Valhalla that you’ll eventually get to explore if you’re a good enough little corpse-lugging working bee, but in the end, it just turns out to be so much wasted anticipation.
Graveyard Keeper has a similar retro, pixel-bound aesthetic to the developer’s last game, Punch Club, and of course, to Stardew Valley (which we will eventually be able to stop mentioning). The graphics are all competently put together and give the world a slightly darker tone than most pixel graphics. Everything is relatively highly saturated, but the chosen colour palette has a lot of browns and dark greens in them, keeping things on the darker side, which really suits a game primarily about burying people.
The sound design in general is okay, the music being the strong point but, overall, relatively forgettable. The main issue is that the voices of some of the characters you interact with can be really grating and annoying; the astrologer in particular has a very annoying voice, turning every conversation into an exercise in ear abuse. Fortunately, the sound isn’t exactly essential, so you can pretty reliably turn it off and just find a decent podcast to listen to instead, preferably something creepy or odd.
At the end of the day, Graveyard Keeper is a solid entry in a genre that has seen something of a resurgence in recent years, thanks in no small part to the long thriving independent market. The game does have its problems, to be sure, but it is also scarily addictive, and the darker tone makes it a much more enjoyable experience for pretty much anyone who thought that Harvest Moon-style games were just too happy and twee. Think more Edgar Allan Poe on laughing gas than Enid Blyton on ecstasy.
Developer: Lazy Bear Games
Release Date: 15th August 2018
You can check out our review of Punch Club right here.
If you’re interested in Graveyard Keeper, you can visit the official site.