Review: Graveyard Keeper

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Review copy provided by publisher

The magic of video games is that they allow us to be anything, go anywhere, and manage anything. Right now I could be the mayor of a city, CEO of an intergalactic conglomerate, or a humble farmer. I could also be the manager of a dark ages graveyard, it turns out, and I’ve discovered that I prefer that over most of my other options. It’s not really the tending of graves that turns me on, though, but rather the wealth of other activities and options surrounding it. And once I actually discover all the options that are still out there waiting for me, I could see Graveyard Keeper becoming one of my all-time favorites.

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Contrary to appearances, you start Graveyard Keeper as a regular joe in the mostly-not-dark-ages modern world. You’ve got a steady job, a nice apartment, and the love of a good woman, at least until a speeding truck changes all that. Somehow you are dumped in a grim, forested corner of the world where nothing has proper names and strange plagues haunt the land. It is here you are pressed into service as the local grave keeper, assisted only by a drunken talking skull and a Bolshevik donkey in establishing yourself. But there’s much more to the job than digging holes and filling them with corpses, mind you. If you are to find your way back to your world and your love, you’ll have to master trades and customs your macabre profession would seem ill-suited towards.

Once you’re situated in your new home, you’ll have a number of tasks that lead you around and introduce you to the key elements of your job. The most obvious is the graveyard, where you’ll dig, fill, decorate, and maintain graves. More important than that though is the workyard just outside your cottage, where you’ll build crafting tables and furnaces to process raw materials into the tools of your many trades. There is a garden nearby you can grow crops in, which can be sold or cooked in your home. Next to the graveyard is the morgue, where you can prepare and experiment on bodies. Once you get the graveyard in order you’ll also be charged with managing the church, giving sermons and studying the world around you, and of course decorating the place.

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But this is all just the tip of the moldering iceberg, and as you explore the full shape of this massive entity becomes clear. There’s a nearby village where you can trade and take on little odd jobs for citizens, and through these you’ll learn about more professions like fishing and blacksmithing. You’ll periodically run into small roadblocks with certain quests, and those tend to lead to yet more discoveries. I got stuck at one point on providing oil to a character, something I didn’t even know existed in the game. In searching for a source of oil I ended up learning about alchemy, bee-keeping, and glass-blowing, all without figuring out how to get the damn oil. I could be miffed at that, but any annoyance is wiped clean by the host of new options I have to explore.

That’s the heart of what Graveyard Keeper is, this journey of discovery into ever-expanding systems. Comparisons to Stardew Valley are unavoidable but this is by far the more complicated game, with an entire tech tree of milling and pottery and writing and embalming. There are three kinds of XP, earned from different kinds of activities, and all used to unlock new perks and abilities. To put a candelabra in your church you need to smelt iron, create iron parts, raise bees, gather their wax, harvest fat from a corpse, and put it all together for a candle on a stick. But it’s not tedious, partly because the game has loads of quality-of-life elements like stashes connected to nearby crafting stations and context-sensitive actions so you never have to equip the tools you use, and partly because it’s arranged like a giant puzzle box. Every time you run into one wall, you find five winding paths leading away from it to even wilder places.

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Despite this complexity, Graveyard Keeper is also honestly the more relaxing between it and Stardew Valley. Stardew was certainly never posed as a stressful game but it remains very time-intensive, with players having to rush home before passing out and checking the weather and noting birthdays and preparing for once-a-year festivals. Graveyard Keeper, in contrast, has an ever-rotating week of six days, with different NPCs active on each. That’s it. There’s also no drop-dead limit on sleep, either. You can sleep whenever you want, day or night, sleep for as long as you want, and work so long as you have the energy. You don’t even need to sleep at all honestly, if you get into the cooking system and keep stuffing your face with comestibles. As you open up new systems you’ll start getting new tasks like delivering a weekly sermon, but even that is a far cry from the seasons and holidays of Stardew.

There is a price, of course, and here it’s customization. I’m not just talking about the lack of paints and silly hats, either. Graveyard Keeper is a game about progression, about mastering systems in pursuit of a nebulous, distant goal. You could easily kick back in Stardew and farm forever, or fish forever, or spelunk forever. But not here. Graveyard Keeper is a focused experience, one that’s plenty open and inviting at first but eventually calls on you to bring all of its many options together to succeed. For someone like me that’s a huge plus, because I love having goals to work towards. For others who just wanted to get rich or make pretty farms though, this one might not scratch the same itch.

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I’m not going to say Graveyard Keeper is a better game than Stardew Valley, in part because they end up having very different aims and moods. But I will say that right now I prefer Graveyard Keeper for its complexity and depth. I burned out on Stardew in the middle of the second year because I had basically solved what puzzles there were and kinda ran out of goals to pursue. I’m certainly not as far into this as I was there, but I’m still uncovering puzzles I didn’t even know existed. Coupled with the absolutely lush pixel art and polished presentation, I have a hard time pulling myself away from this one. If you’re ready for a more focused and involved sim, one that can keep surprising you hour after hour with its complexity, then I think you have a future in the gravekeeping business.

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