Have you ever played Stardew Valley and thought it was missing a talking skull named Gerry; Witch burnings at the not-so-subtly-named Witch Hill; removal of skin, fats, bones, organs and more from human bodies; the ability to run a church and gather sweet, sweet donations; making paper out of the deceased’s’ skin? We’re going to guess the answer to your question is a resounding, “No, I was enthralled with the mundane-but-fun town life of Stardew. What’s this about skin paper?” Well, first you should sit down, Secondly, have you ever heard of Graveyard Keeper?
Developed by Lazy Bear Games and published by tinyBuild, Graveyard Keeper is technically a graveyard management simulator. The use of the word “technically” is an essential aspect of explaining exactly what we’re dealing with here. It’s advertised as a graveyard manager, yes. But most of your time will be spent doing anything from making Witch Burning advertisements to carving up cadavers.
The opening seconds of this tongue-in-cheek adventure see the playable character wiped out by a car whilst checking his phone – classic mistake. Awaking in a mysterious ‘ye olde’ village setting, you’re informed that you are now the titular Graveyard Keeper. There’s a brief tutorial stint that vaguely explains the basics of the Keeper’s role: every now and then a talking donkey comes to you with a corpse, you harvest the corpse’s previous organs and slice it into meat, you make a grave and bury the body, and then you sell that meat to be eaten in the village. If only it were that simple!
While this is the central loop of Keeper’s tenuously implemented simulation core, it takes its sweet time getting to that point. After the tutorial, you’re given a few tasks: Get a beer for a talking skull named Gerry; clean up the graveyard so you can open a church; acquire a royal stamp so you can sell your man-meat.
These “quests” don’t seem like they’d take hours-a-piece to finish, but Graveyard Keeper somehow finds a way to stretch somewhat menial tasks into feature-length fiascos – it revels in artificially lengthening every possible task at hand. For example, to sell your meat you’re going to have to find a royal stamp. You’re given two options: pay 50 silver coins after opening your church or get the stamp from an NPC named Snake after earning 30 friendship points with him.
These two branches have their own convoluted paths. Both require you to repair your graveyard to a respectable level so that you can open your church. After opening the church, you can purchase royal services such as the stamp, but during this point in the game, 50 silver coins feel like four bank loans away. You’ll probably want to befriend Snake then; he’s usually sneaking around in your house’s basement at night like any trustworthy person. Oh, blast! There’s a collapsed arch in the way, you’re going to have to grind a bit to figure out how to clear it! Oh, and you’ll also have to provide a few sermons at the church – limited to one per in-game week – to earn enough faith so that Snake will believe you’re the Graveyard Keeper. Then you can begin to earn friendship points.
No matter what you want to do, the pacing of individual quests is always stretched far too long to make it truly enjoyable. Learning new technologies to further your knowledge of autopsy, crafting, farming, smelting, cooking and more always asks you to grind for ages before you can unlock bare necessities for progressing through the story. It gets better later on, once the game allows you to settle into its core loop, but by then you’ve already experienced too much repetitious graft atop of the main game that it feels like a chore. There’s barely a single quest that doesn’t take multiple hours to finish.
It’s a weird fit for Switch, too. Whilst its contemporaries excel at providing a pick-up-and-play experience, jumping in for a quick burst here and there and it's likely to feel pointless. We’ve tried it, trust us: a quick burst here ends with nothing getting done but a smidgen of resource gathering. In fact, due to a remarkably useless quest-keeping journal, you’re likely to forget just what you need to do in order to progress anyways.
Above it all, at least there’s still a staggering degree of charm here. While character’s do audibly spout repetitious (and buggy) grunts and yelps whilst in-game text does the actual talking, the well-written dialogue always manages to shine through. You’ll find yourself adoring characters within the game’s world, you’ll just wish that furthering dialogue with them wasn’t tied to hours of menial grinding or walking back and forth through the same tilesets.
There’s no doubt that Graveyard Keeper is a fun game every now and again; there are bright nuggets of gold sporadically hidden within it. It’s the video game equivalent of Now, That’s What I Call Music: you get it for a few good hits and deal with the fluff in-between. However, if you’re looking for a strong competitor to Stardew Valley or Rune Factory, this doesn’t quite hit the mark.