“…a grim concept presented with a consistently witty tone…”
Graveyard Keeper is a medieval cemetery management simulator from Lazy Bear Games and tinyBuild. Best described at first glance as a dark comedy take on popular farm management game Stardew Valley, Graveyard Keeper sees you swap crops for corpses and bright happy colours for dull and muted tones. The deeper you delve into the game, however, the more the similarities between the two management sims seem to fade into relative obscurity. What seems like a clean comparison initially quickly becomes a fallacy beholden to a much deeper set of systems and mechanics than its inspiration might insinuate. In other words, this ain’t your “Casual Fridays” management sim…
Graveyard Keeper opens with a typically loose story cinematic for its genre; vaguely explaining the protagonist’s circumstances before releasing you into a flurry of NPC-led tutorials to help you learn the ropes. In short, your character has had an accident which has seen him unwittingly transported to a dull and unfamiliar world, somewhere back in time. A talking skull quickly informs you that you are now the new Graveyard Keeper (hence the game’s title) and must serve out your time in this role, however unpleasant, if you are to see any hope of finding your way back home. See the description “typically loose”.
Ploughing straight into game mechanics, your story begins in the church grounds of this dark and mysterious new world. You get a brief tour of the relevant locations for salvaging, preparing and burying bodies, meeting a few relevant characters to your role along the way. At this stage the similarities between this game and the vaguely similar Stardew Valley seem many; meeting strangers for quests, managing the land and attempting to collect basic resources. However, you soon get into some of the more technical elements of play, and this is where things get deep.
Not only does Graveyard Keeper push you hard into working with, or for, others in your character’s vicinity, developing quests and side quests in a very RPG-like manner, but it builds upon this foundation with a full skill tree and significant development of mechanics throughout. Take, for example, the collection of resources in the game. In order to access some technologies and means of harvesting, you must enhance your characters knowledge of said practices. In what makes for quite an intelligent game element, not every possibility is visible in your menus from the off; in many cases, a person has to tell you about a development before your character is strictly aware of it. This adds a good incentive for the player to communicate with NPCs in order to progress in the game.
When you aren’t out questing and gathering or foraging resources, Graveyard Keeper is quick to remind you of the game’s purpose; finding prosperity where others dare not look. The game insists from the off that you leave your morals at the door. Harvesting corpses for organs, blood and anything else worth selling on at a price is very much the name of the game when it comes to the pursuit of wealth in your line of work. The butcher will take good meat off your hands, whilst bodily fluids make for powerful potion crafting materials. It’s a grim concept presented with a consistently witty tone; not indistinguishable perhaps from some of the Bullfrog games of old. It is this nonchalant attitude towards everything that is happening that brings some level of thrill to the grindy proceedings of this game. The mechanics work you hard, but you are always rewarded with humour, progression, and advancement of the kind that every management sim player so dearly seeks.
One of the other real pleasures of Graveyard Keeper is that you are not solely grounded in your place of work and the repetition that could surround it. Indeed, the world is worth exploring, both to take in the aesthetic and to learn its secrets. This is significantly present when you come across the game’s dungeons, the challenges of which merit enticing rewards. You quickly learn that timing is everything in Graveyard Keeper, with some NPCs only appearing on certain days of the week. The exploration aspect, once you progress far enough to enjoy its extensiveness, is a constant that invites you to dive in at your relative pleasure. All the while, you, the player, can drink in the gloomy mood and visuals that construct this strangely exciting game world. This is perhaps one of the game’s greatest pleasures throughout.
No matter what you are doing in Graveyard Keeper, the themes of incentive and grind are most prominent. You are always doing something to get something to do something else. There is repetition, to be sure. If that isn’t your cup of tea, this game may not be for you. If you can stomach said grind, however, the world, attitude and mechanics of the game are rewarding for the RPG-come-management sim fan. The story, though loose, is enough to carry the mechanics from A to B, and the gameplay is easy-yet-deep enough to make it consistently worth your while. This is a game pointed towards a particular type of gamer, and if you are it then it is well worth your while. Others may find it a hard sell, which may feel as though it drags somewhat at times…