Management simulators are having a bit of a renaissance of late with the likes of Stardew Valley, Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing all seeing solid sales and good critical reception. tinyBuild however have decided the genre needs something a little fresh (well, rotten depending on how you look at it) – the result is Graveyard Keeper.
Taking on the role of a bearded gentleman who, after a series of unfortunate events finds himself trapped in a world that seems to rely very heavily on its grave keeper, you soon learn that the previous keeper is no longer around and that you have been tasked with the upkeep of the graveyard and it’s surroundings, while also desperately trying to find a way back home to your loved one. Clearly it has been a while since the last keeper had been about as you soon discover that the place is an absolute mess; this is going to take some work…..
Initially Graveyard Keeper presents itself very much in the vein of Harvest Moon, leaving you to clear out and restore old areas to working order, put in some resources and gather some money out of the result. It isn’t long before you meet Gerry the skull though, who guides you in the proper goal of Graveyard Keeper, namely maintaining the cemetery and filling up the graves. After a short tutorial you find yourself with enough basic tools and skills to begin this task, and after working on the few worn down graves and clearing out some of the debris, find yourself in need of cash in order to continue. Thankfully in the world of Graveyard Keeper meat is valuable and corpses arrive on your doorstep daily (see where this is going?). Yep that’s right, in order to carry on your grave tending quest, you will need to become an amateur butcher, taking a few choice cuts of each corpse for the good of the Graveyard. Unsuspecting traders will happily pay a pretty penny for any meat and this is a decent way to earn that initial income.
As the game progresses normal money making avenues begin to open up; crop farming, mining and even utilising your church can all become excellent ways to fatten your wallet. However, the game always likes to put an emphasis on the importance of the corpses and because of that you will always find yourself putting the most work into the graveyard and its many intricate systems. It’s these systems that give rise to Graveyard Keeper’s biggest problem. See, it only really gives you a very light tutorial lasting around 15 minutes and then leaves you to figure the rest out alone. This is troubling when there’s no journal to see what to do or where to go, and with some pretty complex systems centred around the graveyard it can be very easy for frustration to creep in. I found myself struggling to enjoy the experience because of this.
But let’s talk grave keeping and initially your graveyard needs some work. That’s because these graves are in a pretty messy state and require some tidying, whilst new graves will need to be dug to accommodate the daily delivery of corpses. Each corpse will arrive in a certain state of freshness that deteriorates the longer you leave it unburied, with its rating indicated by skulls that produce various effects. Needless to say that you can decrease the quality of a corpse further by butchering it poorly, and this will decrease the quality of your graveyard overall. With a big emphasis on graveyard quality it can be a real pain when you have a poor quality corpse to deal with, but thankfully for those with little to no guilty conscience there are “less ethical” ways to deal with these corpses, like the nearby river that handily carries away anything you throw in it. There are a whole host of ways to improve graveyard rating, from corpse quality to improving gravestones and clearing out unwanted shrubbery. Once you’ve done enough to improve the quality of your yard the church will open up too, allowing you to take donations and further improve your surroundings.
On top of all this graveyard keeping, the world has a large variety of NPCs that are all too happy to give you even more tasks to complete. Thankfully the dark humour works wonderfully here and brings a much more lighthearted tone to proceedings; some quests are simple fetch and deliver objectives while others will have you clearing out areas of monsters and the like. Each is a nice distraction from the daily grind of improving the graveyard and you soon find days flying by. Some of these NPCs are only available on certain days of the week though, but it doesn’t take too long for each day to pass and if you have enough food and drink you can avoid sleep as much as you like. However with the lack of a quest log and only the character interaction screen to go on for information, it can soon become an issue keeping track of quests, finding yourself piled high with too many things to do.
Once you have made a certain amount of progress with the dilapidated graveyard and if you explore enough you find the cellar in your house, it’s here that you will eventually gain access to the dungeon, a procedurally generated area full of difficult monsters to tackle. Each floor offers up a variety of challenges and rewards with lots of rare items on offer, it’s a simple system that forces you to clear a floor of monsters before progressing. There’s also an interesting story arc here for those willing to see it through, although this is entirely optional. You certainly need to come prepared though and having some decent armour and a good sword is key otherwise you will find yourself struggling to even clear a level.
There’s also an extensive skill tree to sink some time into that unlocks further skills and blueprints. Initially the tree seems incredibly complicated and overall it could really have done with being simplified a little more, but essentially you earn skill points of three different varieties depending on the action completed; crafting, nature and spiritual. These can then be spent on the corresponding skill tree.
The game has a great 16bit art style that really hits that nostalgia bone dead centre, delivering some brilliant little details throughout the world. It feels well crafted and grounded although sometimes it can be a bit of a slog getting around without a sprint button and it is relatively easy to get lost. Audio is a slightly different story, and with looping tracks that only change on a location basis it can become tiresome to listen to. Thankfully the sound effects themselves are top notch and do a good job of grounding the game world further.
In all I found Graveyard Keeper to be an enjoyable experience if a little frustrating. It certainly isn’t a game for everyone, but for those that love a good management sim and want something a little different from the norm then Graveyard Keeper is a game I certainly recommend. It does just enough to stand out on its own and can easily offer up a long experience for those that put the time in. There are a few issues however, most notably surrounding the lack of tutorials for more complex systems. One that really stood out to me is that it is far easier to make money from “less ethical” means with little to no consequence to the player, and that feels a little like cheating the system rather than partaking in something genuinely bad.