This review is based on the PC release of Graveyard Keeper.
Some play games to compete and win. I play games to relax. This does not mean that the games I play are particularly peaceful or gentle. They're an escape. They're a chance to explore other worlds, try out new things, and find my own way.
This is why I'm drawn to simulator games, especially simulators with RPG elements. Graveyard Keeper is just like the original Harvest Moon, if Harvest Moon involved tending to a Medieval graveyard, preaching to the masses, selling harvested organ meat, literal witch hunts, and attempts to reverse the bizarre circumstances that took you from modern times to being a Medieval graveyard keeper in the first place.
Graveyard Keeper is about the grind, time management, and discovery. It can be incredibly frustrating at times. This is not Stardew Valley, where everything you could ever want to do is clearly explained to you every step of the way. You literally have to explore through trial and error to discover how to do anything beyond preparing and burying bodies. Have a mission to kill green slimes in the town? Good luck. No one will tell you how to access the sword you were given to accomplish the task. Need to craft ceramic bowls to feed the homeless at the cathedral's soup kitchen? Enjoy finding the newly available natural resources, the proper workbench to build another workbench, and the right amount of base materials to throw the bowls by the end of the day or else you'll be waiting a week in game time to deliver the goods.
For some, this is frustrating. There are moments in this game where I genuinely did want to walk away. I was not advancing as fast as I wanted to. I did not have enough energy doing certain tasks to even make it past morning. I could not earn the certain kind of resource necessary to unlock major sections of the skill trees to advance the story and open up more gameplay. The grind was real and I eventually, in all these cases, had to go from point to point on the map, checking all the possible interactions to figure out how to advance at all.
I'm stubborn to a fault. If you set this kind of in-game challenge for me and I can physically do it, I'm going to do it. Graveyard Keeper's beautiful retro graphics mean my depth perception and light sensitivity issues don't physically stop me from reading certain maps in a game. The game can also largely be played with one hand, so it's not a bullet hell scenario that aggravates my Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. It's a matter of exploration, patience, and resource management.
The hardest thing to acquire in the game is money. This is where you have to be wise in your spending. You earn money from collecting on burial certificates at the local pub. You can also do side hustles to fill in the gaps: selling crops, selling food, selling meat carved off of corpses and authenticated with a counterfeit seal of approval. However you earn your money, you're largely going to need to invest in supplies from the blacksmith in your early hours of play as you just physically cannot gather and craft the base materials necessary to build higher quality gravestones or clear rubble to access more of the game. You'll eventually take in enough money and progress enough to not require the blacksmith, but he's the linchpin that holds the game together for the early grind.
If you thought it was hard to balance seasonal crops and finding love in the Harvest Moon games, you're really going to struggle with Graveyard Keeper. It's probably the most rpg-like simulator I've ever played. There are so many different elements you have to balance during the six day week to maintain your standing in the community and keep progressing. Once you get the graveyard up to the standards of the Cathedral, you are named the new Vicar of the Church. That unlocks weekly sermons that you have to provide, plus the necessity to research new technology to improve the quality of the church and sermons. Better sermons and a nicer church mean more money to spend on all the other things you need to do to please the town and work towards maybe finding your way back to modern times.
Some of the different threads of the game directly contradict each other. Ghosts will contact you to ask you to balance the graveyard for quality and personality, which means removing and disposing of bodies after they're buried. Needless to say, the living don't like the ideas of their water source filled with floating corpses or any evidence that you're desecrating bodies. But they will gladly buy the meat from the corpses without question if you can get the royal seal. But selling that meat can raise suspicions of where it's coming from. You also need to take certain body elements out during the autopsy for research purposes and to maintain the quality of the graveyard, but there's not much you can do with certain things once you acquire them. You'll have to use harder to get resources to build more trunks to store the viscera so you can carry everything you need to complete your many tasks throughout the day. You might one day be able to transform all these materials into other useful wares, but it takes a lot of time to unlock those new mechanisms.
The real struggle in the game is time. Graveyard Keeper really punishes you with scheduling and time management. The game is built on a six day calendar--symbols, not names, perhaps the only real struggle I had with the game's UI. Certain characters you need to interact with only appear on certain days of the week, like the Merchant or the Bishop. One only appears at night--Snake, the man with the counterfeit seal--and one only during the day--the Blacksmith. The donkey, the character responsible for bringing you new bodies to autopsy and inter, appears randomly and eventually requires payment to even show up at all. If you miss your window on a mission from any of these, you're going to have to wait. That's fine with the regular characters, but really inconvenient when you need to see a specific person for a mission that will unlock elements on all of your skill trees.
Graveyard Keeper does have a finite ending if you choose to take it. You also have the option of just continuing on with the game however long you like in what's essentially sandbox mode. The choice is yours. The game is very clear that if you pick a certain option, you get the ending, so it's up to you to decide when (if?) you're choosing to end your story.
If this all seems too much for you to take, Graveyard Keeper is probably not going to be a game you enjoy. It is a lot. It's overwhelming at times. I could play for hours at a time and then need to walk away for a day when hitting a roadblock I just couldn't wrap my head around.
However, for gamers who enjoy this kind of grind, Graveyard Keeper is very good. The sheer variety of things you can do will keep you occupied for a long time. The mechanics are great--once you learn how to do them--and all the different skill trees and, essentially, career paths add much needed variety to this style of game. Overcoming the more frustrating moments feels incredibly rewarding. You also can't really put yourself in a "game over" situation, so feel free to experiment with all the options as much as you like. Graveyard Keeper is that perfect blend between meditative simulation game and absurd RPG resource management minutia.
Graveyard Keeper is currently available on Steam and Xbox One.
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