For those of you with a love of inventory, a passion for crafting, a yearning for gathering, and an enthusiasm for management simulators, your next fix may have just arrived. Graveyard Keeper has it all, along with a healthy body count…
Opening with some abrupt exposition, we witness our character seemingly involved in a traffic accident while viewing an incoming call from a loved one on his mobile phone. This leads to having a quick chat with death (or a version of), and then waking up in the medieval setting Graveyard Keeper will take place in. Now, I can’t stress enough how fast this occurs, it really is within the space of a minute that the game tries to emphasize this ‘man out of time’ narrative, which will set the focus of the game towards somehow escaping this world to return back to your own. Throughout play, your character will keep mentioning his world and wife to others he meets, yet I never really cared for his wife, or his other world, because it never came close to allowing for that connection. In Graveyard Keeper‘s defense this really isn’t pushed too hard, but narratively speaking it felt a bit of an afterthought.
But let’s step back a minute. We have just woken up in a cabin and are instructed to dig up a skull in what I believe to be the real beginning to the story and the game. Digging, like many of the actions you take, requires expending energy, usually a number per tick of the progress bar. Now, being the tutorial phase that it was, the game decided not to show me any UI, most likely in an effort to introduce everything bit by bit. As commendable as that is, seeing your actions expend energy, but not seeing an energy bar, felt really odd and led to every button being pressed and every menu being checked. It isn’t long until you get the full UI, but having half of a function show and not the other half didn’t make anything easier to understand, it just confused things.
With Gerry in tow (the skull is called Gerry, and he talks) we set off with our guide down to the morgue. It’s during this small walk that we start to see the makings of the game, the areas we have as our own, and the gorgeous art style of the world we now inhabit. It really is a game that’s pleasing to look at, and with the night and day cycles, as well as the changing of the weather, there is enough variety to stop it from becoming an afterthought. Foggy days really cement the traditional graveyard aesthetic, while rainy days can remind you that life dominated by outside manual labor must have been really grim in the winters.
The morgue is serviced by a talking donkey (because of course), who promptly drops off dead bodies at regular intervals. Here is where much of the initial graveyard mechanics begin to come into play. Bodies have a lifespan, so collecting them and getting them on the autopsy table was always a priority, however, the rate at which they degrade is suitably slow enough for those times you are away, and you are away a lot. On the autopsy table is where we unknowingly see the makings of an interesting design mechanic which offers risk and reward for those wanting to practice their surgery. As the Graveyard Keeper, how you prepare the bodies for burial is entirely up to you, with selectable options allowing you to remove different parts of the bodies for your own gain. As you develop your skills in the trade, the variety of removable parts becomes even greater, but at a cost. A botched removal of the brain will apply a negative penalty to the body, which will later impact the quality rating of the cemetery should it be buried there. Of course, a negative penalty can be outbalanced by three possible positive ones, but for those wanting the highest cemetery rating, it could be a mark against the body. Luckily there is a river nearby…
As mentioned, gambling with the quality of the bodies in Graveyard Keeper really does come with a cost, as the cemetery itself has a rating based on the state of those buried there, and the states of the graves themselves. Bodies will have a number of empty containers, and the various grave decorations will have icons assigned to them. Matching an empty container with an icon will improve the cemetery rating by one, while every negative container, such as those on a body missing half its brain, will negate one. As you might have guessed, improving your cemetery rating past certain values will move the plot along, so being mindful of who gets buried and how well they are taken care of is a real consideration. I loved this design, as it went beyond simply putting bodies in graves until you had X amount. It also allowed for the levels of tech to advance the quality of decorations, which aided both the tech side of things and also impacted the story.
From here, we meet a priest, who explains these working to us, along with the use of tech points, the currency used for the various skill trees available. Completing any task, such as chopping, digging, mining, and hammering will reward the player with tech points from a group of three different colors. These can then be spent in the tech trees to unlock more advanced equipment, which will then let you manufacture more advanced materials, so you can build even more advanced equipment. It’s within these tech trees that my frustrations began to surface. each step will generally unlock a blueprint (but not tell you what is required to make it), and some materials that are now unlocked and craftable (generally using the new blueprint equipment). This wouldn’t be a huge deal if more information was available within these menus, but we have to instead walk to a workstation and look it up there.
Workstations are present everywhere you can build, but will only display blueprints for what can be built there. The latter is a great design choice, as it cuts down on time spent searching for what you want, and also keeps the various areas tidy and compartmentalized. The graveyard workbench just builds things for the graveyard, the field workbench is just for plants, etc. The issue is if you are away from a workbench, and you unlock a blueprint, you can’t just begin the gathering right away, you have to go there and see what it requires in order to be made. This was an issue I constantly faced, as I would walk somewhere, take a look at the blueprints, or what was needed for some of the other actions that required materials, then have to remember it as I went out to gather. The number of times I would walk the distance to a vendor, open up a trade window, and forget what I needed to complete a workbench, or to clear some debris, was too high. I would have loved to have more information readily available, and the tech tree is the perfect place to put it.
This feeling of being dragged around, either through my oversights or not, was compounded by the opening of the church. Past a certain cemetery quality, you will have access to the church, which sits amongst the graves. The distance is nice and close, and opened up more options for customization depending on how you want to decorate it, but it added another ball into the air to be juggled. By now I was looking after the gathering of materials, looking after the bodies, looking after the cemetery, and looking after the church and all the responsibilities of my new priesthood. All of this was going on alongside the number of requests that the various characters of the world will ask of you, many of which will only appear on certain days. The routine appearance of characters sounds easily manageable, and you would be right if the player had more control over the passing of time. There is no bedtime for the player, and they can only sleep (and advance time while sleeping) if they have some empty energy bar to fill. You cannot just choose to sleep. This personally made things difficult to prioritize without feeling like some time between was being wasted. If you love management, and overseeing various areas and tasks at once, then this will be a dream for you.
I will say now that I have rarely if ever, found myself a fan of an energy system, and Graveyard Keeper is no exception. Foods can replenish energy, and should probably be pushed harder than they are, but I constantly found myself with an empty energy bar after only a handful of tasks. I understand the need for the energy if it is the only thing allowing the player to sleep, but deciding to get a bit of wood gathered for the day, and becoming unable to past the fourth tree without first having a nap, is questionable from an enjoyment perspective. It honestly feels arbitrary at best, and a cheap way to manage game-time at worst.
There is a combat element to Graveyard Keeper, but there really isn’t a lot to say about it. Enemies will come at you and inflict damage on contact, while a swing of your sword will damage and knock them back far enough to kite or swing again with ease. It isn’t bad, but it isn’t remarkable, and rightly so. Swinging the sword also costs energy, which just made me think ‘why bother’, and avoid enemies in favor of an extra swing of the mining pick. However, there are areas for the daring should you wish to find them.
The world itself, much like your list of tasks and responsibilities, kept unlocking past the point I thought it would, which was a nice surprise. The areas you have access to in the beginning honestly felt large enough for what you required within it, yet more areas became unlocked as I developed the right tools and materials and I’m sure there was more I never got around to. There is plenty to do and see here.
Overall Graveyard Keeper offers up a hell of a lot, yet seems to get in its own way from time to time. The energy system is going to be a point of contention among players, with some wishing the game would just let them play, while others will see it as the intended tool for moderation. There is more than enough gameplay, combined with interesting characters each with their own plot, to see hours being played here. For those looking for a crafting and management simulation in a vibrant world, Graveyard Keeper has catered for you. Just be mindful of the amount required of you as you take on every job under the sun.