Graveyard Keeper – Review
Graveyard Keeper is a game about managing a medieval graveyard. Does it rise from the grave, or is it best left six feet under? Here’s what we think.
Graveyard Keeper’s cocktail of one part absurdity and two parts morbidity hits you early in the game’s tutorial. After receiving your first corpse from a talking donkey, you place it on the autopsy table. Your first goal, as dictated by an animated skull, is to extract meat from the body and sell it at the local tavern.
Dark humour like this abounds in Lazy Bear Games’ Graveyard Keeper, but what amuses me the most is how easily you get used to it. Before long, extracting meat (and other body parts) from corpses became second nature to me. Furthermore, I was helping out an inquisitor to organise witch burnings, and tossing bodies into the local river—the only source of water for the nearby town.
In Graveyard Keeper, you are spirited away from your modern-day existence by an untimely death. Upon awakening in a fantasy world, your new duty is to tend to a village graveyard. I know this sounds like the setup to a bad anime, but it’s nothing like that, believe me.
Managing the graveyard is far from the only thing you’ll do in the game, however. You will also need to keep the church in order, tend to the garden, satisfy the left-wing donkey, build all kinds of improvements (as well as tools to build those improvements), and much, much more.
Your overarching goal is to get back to the life that was stolen from you. A mysterious portal atop a hill seems to hold the key to this, but activating it requires jumping through a very large number of hoops.
Like its spiritual ancestors Stardew Valley and Harvest Moon, Graveyard Keeper is a game all about incremental advances and keeping up a steady routine.
The game’s flow is governed by your energy, which is refilled by sleeping or eating food. Almost every activity you do in the game requires energy, and mind you—there’s a lot of activities for you to do, from chopping down trees to making quality wine, from preaching sermons in the church to making paper out of human skin.
Doing activities also yields research points, which are coloured red, green, and blue and represent physical labour, knowledge of nature, and spiritual knowledge respectively. These points are then used to unlock technologies, which will provide you with blueprints for new constructions, as well as the knowledge of how to obtain and use certain items.
You meet a number of characters, none of whom are particularly interesting or worth mentioning. Most of them have their own fetch quest lines, which improves your standing with them and earns you various benefits. The problem is, producing the required quest items is often a complicated task, requiring numerous successive steps.
Take, for instance, the Inquisitor, who regularly burns witches on a hill next to your homestead. In order to spur public opinion in favour of witch burnings, he requires you to bring him flyers promoting him.
Now, to create flyers, you require two items: clean paper, and pen-and-ink. You also require a desk to make the flyers at, which you have to construct yourself.
To make paper, you need pigskin paper. To make pigskin paper, you require human skin, pig skin, or bat wings (as well as access to the church cellar, which is where you’ll find the necessary church workbench). Of these, you can obtain human skin out of corpses, and bat wings by slaying bats. Pig skin, according to the official wiki, is not even obtainable in the game, which makes me wonder why it’s there at all in the final release.
To make pen-and-ink, you require three pens, and one bottle of ink. The pens have to be purchased from an astrologer who appears once every six days. The ink can be purchased from him as well, but given how scarce money can be in the game, you might also consider creating it.
To create ink, you require black paint, conical flasks, and water. Water can be obtained from a well, so that’s fairly easy. For black paint, however, you will have to use one of three recipes, using a variety of ingredients, as well as access to an alchemical workbench. Then, for the conical flasks, you will require glass, a furnace, and fuel for the furnace (such as firewood, wooden sticks, or coal). Glass, in turn, requires a furnace, fuel, river sand, and water.
Also, let’s not forget that you need the requisite technologies for the appropriate constructions and items. Oh, and that desk, furnace and alchemical workbench I mentioned? You need to acquire parts to create those as well.
I haven’t even touched upon the insane malarkey required to sell meat at the tavern, which has already been broken down by Heather Alexandra at Kotaku.
I’m of the opinion, however, that this massive pyramid of crafting tasks is still fine. It’s the nature of the game, and there is never any pressure on you with regards to time. The real problem is keeping track of everything that you have done, and that you need to do.
Apart from a technology tree and a handy list of NPCs and their quests, the game offers you no planning help whatsoever. It’s not quite a ‘wiki’ game, mind you—it’s mostly quite easy to figure out what you need to. But without a relationship chart for items, you are forced to take manual notes regarding what your goal is, and which item will be used for what.
And yet, the game kept me coming back for more. Not unlike Civilization’s one-more-turn attraction, Graveyard Keeper has a one-more-day attraction. The game only saves when you wake up from sleep, which also happens to be the perfect time to get cracking on the candelabras you want installed in the church, or the iron ingots you need to collect from the furnace. Return home to save your game, and it only sets you up for more play. Clever girl.
As the game progressed, though, the number of steps kept on increasing, resulting in the unwieldy jumble that I outlined above. I finally gave up keeping track of everything that needed to be done, and quit playing.
“Too much to keep track of” sounds like an uncommon criticism for a video game, but that’s only because this genre is so rare to begin with. Few developers have taken a solid crack at it even after Stardew Valley’s runaway success, and Graveyard Keeper manages to knock the ball very far indeed.
The game also earns a special mention for its graphics and sound. As Lazy Bear Games proved with Punch Club, the studio is adept at high-resolution pixel art as well as at conjuring a comfortable atmosphere for the game. Wheat sways in the wind, the axes chop chop chops against the tree, the shovel sinks into the earth, and the background music creates a soothing, relaxing feel.
If you’re an absolute sucker for life simulation games based on crafting and building, Graveyard Keeper will certainly be to your liking. Even if you’re a genre tourist like myself, you’ll find it hard to deny the game’s ability to make you keep coming back for more. Whether you’ll stick with it or not depends on how much you’re able to tolerate busywork and planning without much of a narrative return.
Of course, if you’re in it just to extract intestines from a corpse, well, there you go, there probably aren’t many other games that will let you fulfil that fantasy.
Graveyard Keeper is available now for PC, Mac, and Linux. This review is based on a review copy provided by the publisher. The game retails at $20, which is a fair price if you really enjoy games like Stardew Valley. Otherwise, wait for a sale.
For more information on Graveyard Keeper, as well as tips and tricks, do check out our coverage of the game.