With a single look, you’re going to think Graveyard Keeper is Stardew Valley with a cemetery instead of a farm. While the visuals will remind you of that highly popular game, you won’t find the same depth. Visually the game is charming and treats the grim subject matter with a delightful nonchalance needed if it expects somebody to spend time playing a game where they’re constantly burying bodies. There’s much to do, in both good and bad ways, but fortunately you’re never on a hard time limit and can go at your own pace. For everything it does right, however, Graveyard Keeper has some serious problems and commits a cardinal sin of video games.
Graveyard Keeper opens with a cutscene. Suddenly struck by a car, you wake up in a small house. The next thing you know, a talking skull informs you of your new position as the custodian of the graveyard. Your goal is to work your way back to your love, escaping what appears to be some sort of purgatory. To do so, you’ll need to complete fetch quests on fetch quests on fetch quests. While I haven’t completed the game (in nearly 40 hours!), it looks like the story will complete after I finish every last mission given by the Villagers.
Performing autopsies to improve bodies before you bury them and then decorate the gravesites is the main gameplay loop and how you manage your graveyard. This earns you some income in the way of burial certificates. Eventually you can give sermons in the church, and receive donations based on the current condition of the graveyard and church building. Fishing and farming play smaller roles, but they aren’t very lucrative outside of their uses in fetch quests.
The game places arbitrary roadblocks on your regular tasks for no reason other than to force you to grind for resources. The donkey that brings you new bodies eventually demands compensation in the form of carrots, in advance, before bringing any more bodies. From this point forward, you need to either buy them from the farmer or start growing carrots yourself. Later, if you research embalming technology to further improve bodies, the game essentially punishes you by only delivering lower quality bodies that require the new tech you just picked up. Without all the resource grinding I probably could have advanced the story to the same point in less than half the time.
One of my biggest hangups with Graveyard Keeper is the lack of tutorials. You’re frequently told what your next box you need to check off is, but rarely have the information at your disposal to accomplish said task. I found myself playing the game with a browser tab open to the Graveyard Keeper wiki to help me figure out exactly how I can make Acid for the Astrologer. For that I need Toxic Powder, made from an onion or red flower, Chaos Solution, made from a moth or bat wing, and Toxic Extract, made from an onion or orange jelly. This is a requirement to complete the story, but the only way in-game to find out how to make these things is to build an Alchemy Mill, a level three Alchemy workbench, a Hand Mixer, and a Distillation Cube. Then you would need to use a desk to study items randomly until you stumble upon the things you can use to make the other things that you need to give to the Astrologer, presumably so he can tell you another get him a new thing that will start the same search all over again. It’s needlessly tedious and Graveyard Keeper desperately needs some sort of built-in encyclopedia to reference.
One particular quest line has you labor your way towards earning a Town Pass. All of the major NPC villagers you encounter are from “The Town” and every time anybody mentions The Town, the text is a different color for emphasis. It is made clear from the beginning that it’s an important place, and always sounds like endgame content. Working specifically towards the Town Pass, which you must present to a guard to get past a checkpoint, takes a few hours on its own. When you use the Town Pass, you are immediately killed. If you try to enter again, same thing. You cannot enter The Town, the buildup is a lie and all time spent towards obtaining the pass is a waste. Maybe this is cut content as a result of a publisher pressuring for a release date, maybe it is their idea of a high concept “joke,” either way it doesn’t feel like the game always respects my time as a player and that’s unforgivable.
This is not the only example of the game wasting my time that I can give; other quests are simply traps. You’re tasked to upgrade the church, your most reliable source of income in the game via sermons. If you do it, you are no longer allowed to preach sermons until you buy a different item, with money you can no longer earn from the best place to earn money. None of this information is presented until after you’ve committed time and resources to objective. This is a consistent source of frustration throughout the game, which feels like it’s still in Early Access. Patches are releasing almost daily, and some of them introduce substantial changes, like increasing the length of days by 50% and making a finite source of materials infinite.
While the map itself is far too large, consisting of mostly pointless open space in between locations you actually care about, everything about it looks fantastic. Going with a modern pixel style adds to the charm, and randomized weather like rain and fog makes the world feel more real. The team also pays attention to smaller details like shadows moving like they should and NPCs doing more than just sitting still, like playing dice in the bar as an idle animation. This combined with the lighthearted tone are the biggest appeals of the game, and what kept me coming back during the slogs.
When avoiding the grinding and deliberate dead ends, there is a lot to enjoy about Graveyard Keeper. Though I wish there was more documentation available in the game itself, some players may prefer slowly discovering everything via trial and error. This is a game that feels rushed out of Early Access with planned content cut abruptly from the full release. The updates are still coming regularly and they’re more than minor bug fixes. I imagine this is a game that will feel very different in three or six months time. Unless you’re itching for a new management sim game, I’d recommend you wait on this for now and check back on the progress the game has made before picking it up for yourself.
- Published by tinyBuild Games
- Developed by Lazy Bear Games
- Released on August 15, 2018
- Reviewed on PC using a review copy provided by the publisher