Review: Graveyard Keeper – a disturbingly delightful game of macabre routines
I can dig it.
The first time I sat down with Graveyard Keeper (developed by Lazy Bear Games and published by tinyBuild), two hours just plain disappeared. It’s a game that starts off with you dying, only to wake up and find that you’re the newly appointed keeper of the graveyard in a medieval-era town that may or may not actually be purgatory.
Tasked with maintaining the grounds, handling the dead bodies, leading sermons in the church, and more, all you’re really trying to do is get back to your wife from before the car accident. It’s a strangely lovely, oddly beautiful game, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time with it, and here’s how that went.
Graveyard Keeper is devilishly designed and it’s one of those games where tugging at one mechanic leads to two more. The game opens with a brief cinematic where you profess your enjoyment for a modest, simple life shared with someone you love, only to get hit by a car while you’re texting. Don’t cross streets and text, kids.
Side note: If this game actually just ended right there and was a $19.99 PSA about not texting while crossing the street, holy shit that would be some incredible avant-garde ART. I digress.
The obvious comparison here is Stardew Valley, with which this game shares a lot of design DNA, but that motivator makes things fundamentally different
Sure, both games are about leaving the life you know behind to live a new life elsewhere, which is the metagame of what you the player are doing when you get into the routine here.
That said, in Graveyard Keeper, your character does not want to leave that life behind and the whole game centers around getting back somehow – if that’s even possible. It’s a major emotional difference from other games like it because the point of those other games is that you do want to leave your old life behind.
I’m torn about how I feel about that underlying motivator, because the game clearly wants you to get absorbed in its mechanics and systems, but at the same time you’re supposed to be rallying against them. How can you care all that much about decorating your graveyard and improving its quality if you don’t want to be there in the first place? Still, the feeling is different and that’s good news for players who’ve played hundreds of hours of other games like this and need a change of pace.
Anyway, you’re taught so many things in rapid succession, it’s a systems whirlwind that’s hard not to get completely absorbed, whatever the motivation. Let me walk you through an example.
- You’re initially tasked with digging up a skull. This teaches you about waypoints, then teaches you that you can interact with things using the Y button.
- The skull is actually a talking skull named Gerry and tells you about a donkey you need to meet.
- You meet the donkey, who drops off a corpse. Alright, cool, the donkey drops off corpses and they need to be dealt with.
- You bring the corpse into the morgue and Gerry tells you about the autopsy process, during which you can add and remove body parts. Wait, what? Gerry tells you to remove a chunk of flesh, because it’s valuable and the bartender in town might want it.
- He also requests a beer from town, which tells you that you can have quests and different levels of friendliness with NPCs, all of which is tracked in a sub-menu.
- You bring the corpse to the graveyard and the Bishop meets you there, telling you that your graveyard is a mess and a bunch of decorations need repairs. You have a few repair materials in your graveyard chest.
- You start making repairs but learn that you need more materials to fix them. In order to get materials you have to learn technologies from a skill tree.
- Wait, in order to make repair kits you need a carpentry table, so now you have to build those.
- In order to build that table, you have to make planks, which requires…
The game just explodes with things to do, each of which unveils tons of other stuff you can do. There is so much to chew on here, it’s unbelievable
It’s not all great, however. The game wants to be explored and played with, all at your own pace, but I think it’s too obtuse about it. Like the above screenshot, I’m carrying a log into town.
If you’ve played much of this game, you’ll know that that’s very dumb, because the log stockpile is right next to your house and logs placed there automatically show up as available materials at crafting stations in your yard. I didn’t know that, however, and the game never told me that, so I had chopped down a tree and I was like, “Well, I don’t want to lose this log, so I guess I’m gonna carry it around until I figure out what I’m supposed to do with it.”
Reader, I carried that log around for a long time.
I even carried it into a horrifying cut-scene meeting the Inquisitor, who took me on a tour to show me a witch-burning. It really disarms that emotional moment when you accidentally have a giant log hoisted over your head for it.
Still, for every misstep in Graveyard Keeper, I found something else to love
I learned that I had made some awful construction mistakes in my graveyard before having to learn about corpses in like six different wiki tabs and found that wildly frustrating, but then got completely sucked into the tech trees, wanting to craft all the things and expand my home. I would remember that the game ostensibly wants me to leave this place, but then pulled back in when I started unlocking new areas and new people to talk to. There’s just so much here and it’s all so meticulously crafted.
Seriously, just look at this game. Graveyard Keeper is hauntingly beautiful and works dark magic on pixels in ways I’ve never really seen before. There’s an excellent Gamasutra article by one of the developers on some of the technical aspects of that process and if you’re even mildly interested in that sort of thing, I’d highly recommend checking it out.
Plus the soundtrack in Graveyard Keeper is fantastic. It’s quiet, soothing, and fits right into the medieval village theme of the game. I found myself leaving the game on sometimes, just letting the music run (which is also something I did with Timespinner, in recent memory).
On the whole, I really just wish Graveyard Keeper explained itself better
I can deal with the emotional dissonance because I think that’s actually a meaningful choice and it somewhat harkens back to how I felt playing Firewatch, but mechanically I really needed more help here than I got. These systems are great! Tell me how they work!
Oh, and just because there are some parts of this game that really need motion to do them justice, here’s a gif from that Gamasutra article showing off the day/night cycle and lighting systems.
I would recommend Graveyard Keeper to everyone who likes games that sell you on a fictional routine with lots to do, but for those looking for a change of pace or something darker than usual. Just have the wiki handy, because you’re definitely going to need it.
Jake reviewed Graveyard Keeper with a code from the game’s publisher, of which he knows several current and former employees and event staff. He reviewed it on the Nintendo Switch and the game is now available on Windows, Mac, XBOX One, PS4, and Nintendo Switch.
Also, is Stardew Valley actually a cult? I mean, there’s a witch, a wizard, goblins, tons of occult references, powerful artifacts, and enchanted structures, space and time magic, aaaaand oh look we’re out of time for this review!
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