Graveyard Keeper Review

Thanks to the mega-hit Stardew Valley - itself a loving homage to the Harvest Moon franchise - top-down, pixel art management slash farming sims are in something of a vogue. The relaxing rhythms of their core mechanics and comforting familiarity to real life tasks give them wide appeal and their low system demands make them accessible to just about every gamer's machine or device. The genre wouldn't seem especially complex, but balancing repetition with novelty and reward is harder than it appears. Case in point: Graveyard Keeper, a great-looking and often charming management/farming sim that just misses the mark in a couple significant ways.

ss_383dc835e64a990f803063fd7c8fc1413feb8697.jpg

With only the sparest of preambles, Graveyard Keeper drops the player into the role of a newly dead and unexpectedly employed citizen of the afterlife, tasked with - at first - harvesting the dead of their crafting-worthy bits and pieces, burying their remains, and then tidying up the graveyard so that the village church can be opened, which is the prerequisite for a number of other actions. If it sounds pretty morbid and a bit off-putting, Graveyard Keeper leavens the dark subject matter with a lot of surprisingly charming characters and dialogue that is full of dry wit. I mean, your character is still selling the meaty chunks of cadavers for fun and profit, but there is enough quirkiness that it mostly seems benign, in a Sweeney Todd meets Stardew Valley sort of way.

A couple patience-trying issues pop up almost immediately, and how you feel about them will determine your level of commitment to the game, long term. First of all, nearly every assigned task - and the vast majority of them are either fetch or item crafting jobs - leads to a long string of related sub-tasks, often to the point where you forget what the original quest or task was to begin with. Nothing is just simple. To complete task A you need to craft part B which means learning a recipe to make tool C and that means completing a quest for character D. To be fair, this kind of loop is at the core of many classic games in the genre. Crafting, farming, gardening, fishing and to some extent, relationship building, are all there as expected but very little is streamlined or immediately rewarding, and there is a general lack of freedom which never allows the player to just kick back and smell the rotting roses.

ss_51e4800b8fc0434e73e3cca18855ff1e34eadeb2.jpg

Second, while some of the game's simpler mechanics are explained, there are a great many systems-level concepts and quite a few less complex items and tasks that are pretty opaque. Graveyard Keeper's map is sprawling and quests are not always well marked. While there is a fast-travel/teleportation stone back to home (the only place to save a game), there is still a lot of lengthy and fairly dull travel to do. In general, the world looks great - crisp and vibrant pixel art and distinctively drawn characters, albeit with a grim aesthetic - but it has stretches of filler, too, with little of interest along the path. There are some effective weather and lighting effects and the musical score is quite stylistically diverse, though inevitably repetitive simply due to the protracted nature of the game.

The third biggest hurdle to fully embrace the Graveyard Keeper experience is that the feeling of autonomy, personality and emergent gameplay that seemed to characterize Stardew Valley is absent. Without the ability to craft and develop a unique player character, and with most NPC interactions coming down to a pragmatic "go here and do this to win my favor,"  it's hard to become invested in emotionally. One playthrough will in large measure be similar to others.

ss_7616d4343808620c0853a9ee5f1e21597a20b042.jpg

Gamers who love Stardew Valley primarily as the opportunity to live a vicarious alternative life might be disappointed by Graveyard Keeper, but those who are attracted to the slow and steady rhythm of building, crafting, and management will enjoy the many systems at play. The game is rarely punishing but maybe not always rewarding in the same measure some would prefer. Its humor is dry and witty without being too obvious and its presentation and polish are only marred by some infrequent bugs. Graveyard Keeper can't help its comparison to Harvest Moon and others in the genre but its approach and tone are definitely unique.