The first thing I did when playing Graveyard Keeper was sell a pound of human flesh. Well, I tried to at least. Apparently, that sort of thing needs to be approved by the government first and I needed some kind of official stamp.

Not a problem, how hard could it be to get a stamp? Turns out, exceedingly difficult largely because of how sidetracked I kept getting. Clean out the graveyard, pretty up the church, cut down some trees for the furnace; a never ending cycle of chores and only a set amount of energy meant there was a great many things to worry about before I could even thinking about selling cannibalism to the tavern keeper. Oh, and the donkey that delivered fresh corpses for burying eventually went on strike and wanted 10 carrots per delivery.

Graveyard Keeper is that kind of game.

Just as the slice-of-life novels wish to capture you in the boots of another the “life simulator role-playing game” (as I think a fair title for the genre) seeks to immerse you in the boots of a character by having you walk around and complete chores. Done well, it can be a somewhat cathartic experience as players feel the satisfaction of scheduling tasks and ticking things off a to-do, the essence of escapism. Done poorly it can be an intense exercise in frustration which eventually collapses into itself as structure is replaced with chaos. Graveyard Keeper straddles that line and honestly, I still don’t know whether I enjoyed it or justpersisted through it. There are certainly elements of greatness in it’s design but it’s often spoiled some poor balancing and obtuse direction.

Graves

As the title would suggest, you’ll be taking on the role of a local graveyard keeper. There’s a light story that details how you got this position that I won’t spoil but I will say that it had far more complexity to its plot than I was expecting. Dumped into a strange medieval town, you’re tasked with looking after the local graveyard. Digging graves, burying bodies hosting sermons once a week, the typical 9-5.

It’s very much in line with experiences such as Stardew Valley. The core loop revolves around spending energy to gather resources, to craft something with those resources, and then eventually make some kind of profit with the goods you create. It’s not exactly ground-breaking but it’s still satisfying setting oneself a task for the day and sitting back at the end of it seeing the fruits of your labour unfold around. That’s how you know video games are make-believe.

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Graveyard Keeper does add a new element to this formula by adding tokens, which act as skill points that can be spent to advance technology trees for desired tasks. You’ll earn points by completing chores and tasks, the game throws two of the three kinds of tokens at you when you start. The third is a little trickier to get, and this is where my problems with Graveyard Keeper comes into play.

There are a lot of systems at work in this game as you try to balance NPC schedules, time of day, your energy, your income and your experiential growth. There are so many things going during any one day, which is fine, but Graveyard Keeper just doesn’t do a great job of explaining how many of these systems work and often hides crafting items behind a long list of arbitrary criteria. I took ages to find out how to get science points, spending in-game days wandering around trying to find a task that would reward them only to discover I first had to unlock the church. And then I needed to use the study desk. And then I need the study table. And then I needed to research blank paper. And so I got my blue, science tokens. Just a lot of loop holes to get to something that feels pretty important.

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My other problem is that the balancing feels kind ofoff? So the whole reason why Stardew Valley was so compelling was that you had limited hours in a day and a limited amount of energy to do chores. Those two restrictions placed a wonderful sense of structure on your daily activities as you quickly figured out a routine. Graveyard Keeper uses a similar system but fails to hit those same notes of satisfaction by having sleep not really matter. It’s possible to stay awake for days on end with zero repercussions, only sleeping to restore energy. The removal of timed days doesn’t quite work because sleeping whenever you run out of energy, which also happens very quickly, is the best way to restore yourself.

So days have no structure as you wake up, spend all your energy on making two gravestones, and go back to sleep. The inclusion of timed NPC quests and interactions also create this sense of never being in control, always having to drop a task just to slowly walk back to the town, and drop off five jars of honey.

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I’m aware that I’m harping on about this aspect but unfortunately this lack of control, the inability to properly form a schedule and work my way around it undermines Graveyard Keeper, at least for me. Is the game unplayable? No, definitely not. The pixel art is gorgeous to look at and the technology trees and crafting options are dense. There’s a lot to do, I was never running out of things to check up on upgrade. But it was never satisfying doing.

A life-simulator role-playing game should have one quickly take control over themselves, maximising their efficiency and making the most out of every day. In Graveyard Keeper there are echoes of that, almost like that was the original plan but everyone got distracted and kept throwing more things into the stew instead of waiting for it to warm up first.

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It’s a pity because as much as I can appreciate what Graveyard Keeper does well and how certain people will definitely get a lot of value out of it, it just wasn’t for me. And this is coming from someone who’s spent over 200 hours in Stardew Valley just growing peas. You might be able to look past these issues, but unfortunately, they just didn’t mesh with me.

Last Updated: July 4, 2019

Graveyard Keeper
Graveyard Keeper is an ambitious life simulator that boasts gorgeous art and some interesting mechanics but unfortunately fails to meet the standards of the genre due to some overly complicated tasks and poor balancing
6.0
Graveyard Keeper was reviewed on Nintendo Switch
66 / 100

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