STAFF REVIEW of Graveyard Keeper (Xbox One)

Wednesday, September 12, 2018.
by Royce Dean

Graveyard Keeper Box art Something I find peculiar about both our modern day and recently historical society is the insistence that the young must choose the course of their life both early and quickly. At no younger than 13, the foremost ages of high school, you’ll have figures of authority prodding at you in ernest about what path you plan to take towards your destiny. Somebody with the hormones of early adulthood swirling in their veins like many ants to a freshly dropped lolly pop shouldn't be handed the reins of any sort of reasonable decision making, let alone a choice that defines the rest of their life. But the choice is made none the less, and most of us end up spending exorbitant amounts on classes for a field we’ll never see the light of day in. However, there are always the exceptions.

Many people work their dream jobs and couldn't be happier. But still many more of use just let the wind sweep us into whatever worked and we stuck with it because, you know, gotta pay the bills right? If the career choices we made in our formative years held any sort of weight we'd live in a world filled to the brim with astronauts, ice cream men, and firefighters... though I suppose the world could use more of those anyways. One such job that is never uttered from the mouths of babes, and ultimately ends up being a job that many pick up undoubtedly as backup plans, is a graveyard keeper. I wouldn't know because I've never been one, but I imagine the life of a graveyard keeper is less grim than the title may suggest. Still, that vocation in life surrounds you with the bones of the dead, creepy stone angels (which if you've seen Doctor Who you'd know is concerning) and the nice bouquet of yellow tulips that keeps showing up mysteriously on the third plot of the tenth row. Luckily, for those of us that wanted to experience this particular slice of life, we now have a video game that helps us see life through the eyes of old man Jenkins, who would have gotten away with it too if it wasn't for you damned kids and and that damned dog too. Welcome to Graveyard Keeper.

Graveyard Keeper is the latest member in a genre of games pioneered by Natsume’s Harvest Moon, and then later successfully emulated by Rune Factory and the popular Stardew Valley. Only instead of a happy go lucky farmer that plants crops, raises livestock, gets married and hires garden gnomes... you get to bury dead people. Grim themes aside, Graveyard Keeper doesn't offer an overly drab experience. Instead, the game is filled with just as much quirk and humor as other games in it's family. Fun characters and interesting environments not only make the experience brighter, but a genuine joy to play as you trudge through the challenges involved with taking over the reigns as the local towns newest caretaker of the departed.

Like it's relatives, Graveyard Keeper is a role playing game at its core. It has all the hallmarks of one after all. Your character has an energy meter to indicate how much you can do before you need to replenish your strength by consuming food, potions or going to bed (sleeping also saves the game). You pick up all sorts of useful tools which can be upgraded as you play, using materials you gather in the world. The town's folks trust must be earned over the course of your play time, effort you make towards which is displayed by a progress meter. These same towns folk will assign you tasks to complete, earning you rewards like new recipes and their favor. You earn money, but also skill points that are used to further your own abilities that come in many forms of crafting, from cooking to smithing and, of course, there's a day and night cycle. The ultimate goal of your adventure is to uncover the mysterious nature by which you ended up in the shoes of a graveyard keeper, and figure out a way to get back home to your beloved who asked for that pint of mint chocolate chip like, hours ago.

Diving right into Graveyard Keeper is... an interesting affair. It harkens back to the old days of gaming where you’re asked to do things, but not necessarily told how to go about achieving said things. The quests you get, or tasks as they are referred to, come sailing in fast and hot, and typically never have an easy or quick resolution. More often than not getting a simple request turns into an absurd chain that goes from one person to another. You can't get X until you get Y, but you can't get Y until you get Z, but you can't get Z because you don't have the crafting skill for it... or something along those lines. Quest chains can fall into place once you get to the last person in the chain, but that is an undertaking that only hours of play can see you to climax of. Luckily these tasks that you'll be keeping in your pocket for lengthy periods are tracked in the characters page on your menu screen by the character that you got it from. Never will you forget where to turn in an objective.

Graveyard Keeper, as a game, is built in such a way that you'll get the most out of it if you play for an extended period of time, or commit yourself to it for several days, weeks or even months. If you're looking for a game that you can pick up and play for five minutes then walk away feeling like you've made progress, this isn't the game for you. The games objectives aren't limited to tasks you receive from the villagers, rather you have upkeep to mind and manage as well. Remember, you are a gravekeeper after all. You work at a cemetery, and there will be bodies. Each day your friendly neighborhood talking communist donkey will roll by with new grudges against the capitalist pigs and a fresh corpse for you to autopsy. Performing an autopsy let's you harvest goods from the dead body... like meat or bones. I said this game was in depth, not moral. When you're done with your questionable practices you can either bury the deceased in a plot of land near your ramshackle church, or dump it in the river. It's up to you. Should you choose to bury the body, you'll also have to adorn it with a tombstone or decorations because if your graveyard doesn't pass the weekly visual inspection by the nearby priest, he won't be promoting you. Being a cleric of the church is all the rage these days. Trust me.

A good bulk of the character progression in Graveyard Keeper is handled through the skill tree. Like many RPGs, Graveyard Keeper sees you grow and improve through traits, abilitie, and skills learned by spending points in a talent tree, or more specifically, several trees that make up the games various elements from smithing to woodworking. Each and every action you make that spends energy will earn you points to spend on new skills. These points are broken up into three categories that are further simplified and represented by the colors red, blue and green. How many of each you earn depends on the action taken. Feats of strength will earn you a much different point payout than acts of spirituality. With these points you'll learn how to make bigger and better tombstones, superior crafting and repair supplies, more satisfying food and patterns for additional workstations which in turn widen the breadth of items you can make.

Your axe cuts down a tree for wood, and your hammer will break up a rock for stone. But in their starting forms you'll be limited to smaller trees and tiny rocks. These material are valuable yes, but better quality and greater quantity of supplies can be earned by upgrading your tools; something that can be eventual achieved by earning favor with the locals. Completing tasks for the nearby village will improve your reputation and unlock further recipes for success. In addition to you increasing multitude of responsibilities, you'll be able to pick up a sword for fending off marauding monsters, a rod for hauling in delicious and nutritious fish and even open up a plot of land near your abode for gardening. Who knew a graveyard keeper could be a master of so many things? The truth of it is that in order to find resolution to your adventure in this mysterious town, you'll have to embrace everything in the world around you while managing your energy effectively, and choosing your own priorities. Graveyard Keeper offers the player a truly open ended game to play and tackle in any way they see fit.

Anyone familiar with previous written works of mine will no doubt know that a good pixel-art game with good sprite work ranks highly in my books. High quality artwork is a time consuming and laborious affair, but getting all of the details and emotion that you want to display in a characters appearance becomes much harder when you're working with a smaller canvas. This is the struggle of every pixel artist. In the 2-Dimensional world, silhouettes become very important for distinction between different characters, and the artists of Graveyard Keeper have done a good job of this. Of course technology has improved in leaps and bounds since the days of the 16-bit era, so newer environmental effects like fog and lighting are also in play. This blending of new and old give the game a simultaneously fresh and nostalgic feeling in one package, which is a hard mark to hit.

That said, the game isn't a graphical landmark by any stretch and suffers from frequent spikes of lag and performance issue which is surprising. It doesn't destroy the experience, but it is distracting. Almost too distracting. Load times are another sticking point; which seem to take far too long, or at least longer than one would expect. The music does what it needs to by helping bring you into the shoes of a graveyard keeper. It's atmospheric and plenty medieval, but lacks the punch it needs to keep you humming during the hours you'll be spending at work thinking of all the corpses you're going to throw into the river when you get home.

Overall, Graveyard Keeper is a fantastic game. While I would likely never recommend the title to somebody that's more casual in their approach to what they play, the RPG faithful out there that already have experience with roleplaying games of any kind, or more specifically, this subgenre, will absolutely fall in love with the macabre world of Graveyard Keeper. It has failings in its performance, and depending on how you look at it lack of initial guidance, but those simply aren't enough negative points to detract from an otherwise ghoulishly fun game. Graveyard Keeper takes a proven, but seldom used, format of game and gives it the fresh twist that needs to feel wholly unique while not straying too far from the blueprints that would make it compelling. Maybe, just maybe, if you aren't too attached to your yearly run through of Luigi's Mansion or Resident Evil 4 for Halloween you'll consider picking up Graveyard Keeper for something different. Or you could do it now... You should do it now.

Overall: 8.5 / 10
Gameplay: 9.0 / 10
Visuals: 9.0 / 10
Sound: 7.5 / 10


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