Written by Kaitlin Bellamy
Developer: Lazy Bear Games
I am no stranger to management simulations (more commonly referred to as "sims"). I grew up on Harvest Moon and the obvious but classic Tycoon series. So when Graveyard Keeper was presented to me as a pixelated journey into nostalgia, I was intrigued. And I was not disappointed. It may only be in Alpha testing now, but the game has already made quite an impact, and its future is incredibly promising.
Graveyard Keeper is marketed as “the most inaccurate medieval cemetery management sim of all time.” It is perfect in its simplicity, and takes the mechanics we all know and love and sprinkles them with a heavy dose of tongue-in-cheek, macabre wit. From the sassy talking donkey who brings you bodies for the morgue, to your alcoholic skull companion, Gerry, everything in Graveyard Keeper is delightfully dark. Lazy Bear Games has managed to charmingly blend humour and horror, and I, for one, am hooked.
Part of the joy of Graveyard Keeper is discovering its strange little world through the eyes of our protagonist. This nameless man appears to be from our modern time, but finds himself transported, without explanation, into a backwards medieval village. He is given a new job, and the title of “Keeper,” by a strange and mysterious figure who seems to have been waiting for him. Almost at once, strange tasks are thrust upon him. Quests to improve the graveyard and get the church open again, autopsies and harvesting fresh meat from the dead bodies, and, believe it or not, seeking out a Royal Stamp to make the dead body meat sellable. What is this world we’ve been stuck in?!
Think that’s twisted? Add in the fact that this poor man is just trying to get home! But can he? Is he, too, another dead soul, and this is his afterlife? Hints in the opening of the game suggest that it might be, but we just don’t know. In the meantime, our Keeper continues to pursue quests that might, eventually, help return him to the real world. But until he can, he’s got a job to do. And he’s going to do it well.
Everything from your income to your crafting skills are tied up in the graveyard itself. Imagine a farming sim, but instead of tomatoes and carrots... it’s corpses. As you can imagine, resource management takes a bit of a disconcerting turn when those resources are dead bodies, and their various flesh and fluids. Cheerful, no? Well don’t worry, there’s more to come. Vampires and ghosts and witch-burnings, oh my! Embracing the stereotypes of Medieval beliefs in the best way, Graveyard Keeper takes the “Dark” out of the “Dark Ages” and turns it into a creepy series of adventures you can use to your advantage.
Interactions with the local vendors add yet another unique mechanic to this simulation. As mentioned by the innkeeper, things have been rough in The Village. Stocks are running low, and many businesses are struggling. But if you can get the church back up and running again, pilgrims will come, and bring their coins to stimulate the economy. As a result, the vendors grow with you. As you continuously improve upon your graveyard’s status, levelling up throughout the game, the vendors can unlock new tiers of their own. This delightful bit of realism encourages a “save the village” mentality, as your church’s success can directly impact the usefulness of the NPCs around you.
From a technical perspective, it’s difficult to accurately gauge everything until the full release, so I’ll wait to pass official judgement until August. I’ve also been playing only on the PC, so I can’t speak for the console versions. However, based on what I’ve already seen, my biggest concern is accessibility. There is very little in the way of tutorials in the beginning, leaving the player with a certain amount of button-mashing and screen-clicking until they figure things out. This may not be a problem for some players, but I could see it being a major stumbling block for others. Never was I told how to save my game, or directed to an easy menu of any kind. However, the actual day-to-day life of the Keeper was spelled out well enough, with prompts appearing for simple commands like “talk,” “open,” and “work.” Movement is intuitive enough, with clearly-defined paths and fences to keep you in line. Graphically speaking, the game is simple but elegant. I, personally, prefer its style over Stardew Valley. Both are reminiscent of old 8-bit video games, but Graveyard Keeper has a far more realistic colour pallet, and their landscape doesn’t have the “cookie cutter” feel that always bothered me in Stardew Valley. Instead, the graveyard and its village are beautifully detailed, despite the simplicity.
This game is, quite frankly, perfect for today’s generation of adult gamers. We grew up with “American Dream” simulation games, giving us the hopes of running our own theme parks or zoos. And now, as jaded adults struggling to keep up, Graveyard Keeper takes that dream and twists it into a dark comedy that perfectly resonates with our blackened souls. The game is only in Alpha now, but if the full game is half as good as the test, you won’t want to miss out.
Bottom Line: The graphics are charmingly simple, and the game is delightfully dreary. I can’t wait to see what ghost stories we can unlock when the full version goes live, but even the Alpha is several hours’ worth of wickedly good fun. Check it out now at GraveyardKeeper.com, and keep an eye out for the official release on August 15th, 2018. I know I’ll be lining up with my 8-bit shovel at the ready.