Day one – I’ve awoken somewhere that I don’t recognise and this time I haven’t had too many beers. The last I remember is going to the shops, then some blinding lights and now there’s a possessed skull talking to me. I don’t know how I got here or why but I need to get home. Apparently I’m the new Graveyard Keeper but I don’t even remember applying for the job!
And so starts your adventure in this new RPG/management sim from Lazy Bear Games. You play the titular Graveyard Keeper and it’s your job to deal with the constant stream of corpses and a multitude of quests which are provided by the locals. Think of it as a more morbid Stardew Valley and you’re on the right track.
I’ll start with the basics and expand as I go along because there’s actually quite a lot to manage on top of the graveyard itself.
Your first task is to speak to the skull and get to grips with with your first corpse. You’ll need to carry out an “autopsy” which boils down to sticking them on a table and deciding whether or not you want to carve bits off them for your own financial gain. These bodies will be brought to you by a cantankerous old talking donkey. Just do what he asks or your source of income will dry up quickly.
Then it’s off to the Graveyard where you’ll need to select a plot, dig the grave and bury the body. From here you’ll meet the deacon. He tells you that the place is a disgrace and it needs tidying up. It’s going to need a lot of work to repair the knackered old gravestones and plots so you better get to work.
Like Stardew Valley there’s a town with a pub where you can sell your burial certificates and your “quality meat products” amongst other things. There’s also a farm, a blacksmith, woodcutter, stone cutter, bee keeper… Okay, there’s a lot of people to meet and they will all provide you with something be it a quest or materials. You can also get access to other parts of the map by repairing bridges and collapsed cliffsides, and these will lead you to even more people.
Quests are of the usual go here, find that variety. However, there are multi-step quests that aren’t clearly explained the majority of the time and tons of the stuff you need is locked behind the technology system that underpins your progress.
The technology system borrows some of the ideas on display in Ark, but it’s a bit more involved. For a start, there are three coloured gems to collect – red, green and blue. Different actions like digging, chopping trees, researching and fighting provide the varying colours and these are then invested into new technologies. The trees themselves are expansive and cover woodwork, stonework, graveyard keeping, corpse management, reading and writing and farming. It all starts to look quite complex when you take a step back and this is probably the place where most will be put off.
It’s definitely a balancing act but the story insists on you requiring certain technologies to move forward or hope there’s someone in town who can give you the stuff you need. At one point I needed to retrieve or make oil to repair the wheel on Donkey’s cart. There was technology available but I didn’t have the prerequisite technology to unlock the thing I needed to make it. In fact I was several steps behind in that area because the story had made me focus on things across other skill trees.
The blue gems are hard to come by unless you game the system and make complex items like glass and bottles. However, you can also study items at a research table and many of these will spit out blue gems. I recommend you strip the corpses and study all the bits to get a massive boost at the start. After that you need a new consumable called science points to carry out further studies.
One big issue with stripping corpses of their parts is that it will deteriorate the quality of the body and this can lead to a downgrade in the quality of the graveyard itself. Not to worry, once you have the technology you can either embalm them or cremate the bodies. One improves the quality, the other just does away with it altogether. Either way you still get your burial certificates. If you really can’t be bothered with all of it, just dump them in the river and worry about it later.
On top of the regular graveyard work and corpse management there’s also farming and fishing. This allows you supplement your income or create foods that you can then eat to keep your energy up. The farming is simple enough – plant the crops, wait for them to grow and harvest them. The biggest issue I had here was that it isn’t very profitable so yes, you can boost your coffers, but it’s not going to have as big an impact as you’d maybe hope. I guess this has probably been done so the player focuses on the main event of graveyard keeping.
The fishing mini game is very similar to Stardew,in that there’s a bouncing bar that you need to keep the fish inside. Build the level at the side and you catch it. These can then be sold or again combined into other dishes that give you boosts for energy.
All of this uses your character’s energy so managing this with food and potions helps you to do as much as possible in the short days. One thing I did like though, is that you can just keep eating to keep your energy awake and you will be fine for days. Eventually you will become exhausted and need to sleep, but it doesn’t curtail your adventures at an arbitrary time every day.
The only timings you need to worry about are events linked to the various days. Certain chacharact turn up once per week and you have to conduct a sermon once per week for your flock. The sermon brings in additional cash so it’s worth making sure you always do this.
If all this isn’t quite enough to keep you occupied, you also get the option to do some lite dungeon. These are fixed rather than being randomly generated so it’s always the same layout whenever you enter. Once you clear all enemies you can go to the next floor. You’ll find some unique items in the dungeons but I’ve still to find a use for them outside some quests.
In fact there’s quite a lot of items that appear to have very little use but I haven’t finished the game yet so there’s a chance they’ll be needed later. There’s a lot of crops that can’t be sold and can only be put into recipes for example, and that seems a bit weird.
And all of this leads to one of my issues. Where Stardew Valley encouraged simplicity in its systems but had depth to the gameplay, Graveyard Keeper is obtuse and you’re left to decipher its many layers on your own. I usually prefer to be left to figure things out on my own but when I need to refer to a Wiki guide to figure out how to get water from a bucket, maybe it needs to be explained a little better.
I don’t expect them to streamline the process because there is fun to be had in engaging the grind and if you had all the tools immediately it would be very easy to blast through the story very quickly. But there can be a lot of grind depending on decisions you make. The game does expect you to take things easy and take your time getting to the end. Some may see this as an unnecessary roadblock but it reminds you that your character is new to this world and needs to learn. A better tutorial on the expanded world would really do wonders, but hey, we didn’t need one in Minecraft.
One of my major concerns, are the technical issues. Frame rates on the Xbox One suffer greatly and there’s quite a lot of apparent slowdown throughout the game. It doesn’t even seem to happen in really busy areas or even the same places. It’s really inconsistent.
I also had a game breaking save bug pre-patch. I went to bed in-game and it saved like normal, but the save screen didn’t go away and I was stuck. I turned the Xbox off, turned it back on and I was back at the start of the previous day. I went about my day again, same thing. Only by saving multiples times in a short window to get through a few days was I able to progress. Very frustrating!
Tool tips don’t always show up, items vanish, button prompts stop working. There are a few things wrong here and there, but I think they’ll all easily be fixed. It’s disappointing to come up against any bug in a game though.
One thing I haven’t mentioned is how it looks and feels to play. For a start it’s presented in a gorgeous pixel art style. The sprites are highly detailed whether it’s a character or environmental detail. Buildings are unique and again, highly detailed as is the world you will explore. Fields of corn sway in the wind, ripples appear in the water as you try to catch fish. Trees explode into logs exactly like real life. Each individual item has had care and attention lavished upon it to create an engaging medieval experience.
The music is also pretty good. Maybe I just played it too much, but I always had a wee Graveyard Keeper tune playing in my head when I was going about my regular day. Each area has a unique tune which is also a nice addition.
Every action you carry out sounds right. Grass, stone and wood all sound different when walked upon. The fishing lure makes a nice “plop” when it enters the water. Chopping, digging etc make satisfying “tink” and “thwack” noises. Only the speech bothered me, as everything is text based, but the noise that the characters make I can’t really describe. It’s just a jumble of sounds. I’d rather have had the text by itself but that’s just me.
So what do I think overall? Well, it’s an excellent idea, it’s well executed, it’s addictive and it looks really nice. Is it fun? Yes, but it gets grindy quickly and the save bug really put me off putting too much more time in. Would I recommend it? If you have Game Pass, you’ve got nothing to lose as it’s available on there. If not, take advantage of the current offer and try it for only a few quid. If you don’t, then it’s a yes and no. I’ve said it so many times in this review, but if you like Stardew Valley and the calm, easy going gameplay that it provides go for it. It doesn’t quite share the same charm but it’s definitely funnier. The script is sharply written and each character is well developed if you spend the time getting to know them and their motivations. I’d recommend it, for the experience alone. I had a lot of fun with it and will go back to it once I get through a few other games in my back log.
• Looks gorgeous
• Masses of content
• Interesting characters and world
• Embrace the grind