Like Stardew Valley for goths.
A quick stop to the local grocery store is usually an everyday occurrence. You pick up a few bits and bobs, maybe even a Pot Noodle or two and make your way home. Except in Graveyard Keeper, you don’t make it home. Struggling through the pouring rain, you’re inexplicably struck by a speeding car. Accidents happen, right? But wait, things are about to get weirder. Instead of waking up in a hospital bed, you regain consciousness in an alternate realm where a shadowy figure tells you that you are now a grave keeper. Confused? Don’t worry, because you are then teleported to a shack – your home, by the way – and instructed by a talking skull that the shadowy dude was right: you’re the graveyard keeper now. Welcome to your new job.
Your origins may be mysterious, but you still have a job to do. Forget those past memories of your life and girlfriend; there are fresh bodies waiting for burial. Your new friend Gerry, the talking skull with amnesia, acts as your mentor in the game, introducing the various mechanics you’ll need to master in order to flourish in this strange land. Dark themes aside, it’s quite clear from the offset that this is a farming sim, with Gerry eagerly explaining how actions use energy and that energy is replenished by sleeping or eating. Learning to efficiently use that energy to perform your required tasks is now going to be your daily life.
Speaking of days, Graveyard Keeper is split up into six of them, each represented by an accompanying symbol. You’ll learn to religiously track the sun’s movement through the weekly calendar as certain actions and characters can only be accessed on their corresponding day. Miss them and you’ll have to wait five days to catch them again, which despite in game-time not being as frustrating as it sounds, still serves as a significant enough of an annoyance for you to avoid it at all costs.
Once the host of colourful characters, including your new friend Donkey – or should I say, the talking communist donkey – have impressed upon you the basics it’s time to start exploring. It’s easy to initially assume that this is a relatively light game, but don’t be deceived by its small-town quaintness. Graveyard Keeper presents an expansive world that slowly opens up further as you progress through the narrative, revealing new characters to interact with and fresh areas to explore at each milestone.
The game utilises a top-down viewpoint with classically-inspired pixelated graphics in a similar vein to recent successes in the genre – most notably Stardew Valley, albeit with a slightly darker tone that is befitting given the subject matter. Not to take away from the game’s colour palette – don’t expect all greys and blacks or anything – just to say that there’s a recurring motif of candles, cobwebs and skulls interwoven into the game’s aesthetic that symbolise its occult theme. This aesthetic carries over into the wonderfully written and diverse soundtrack as well, which admirably manages to continue to entertain even through the inherent repetition.
At its core, Graveyard Keeper is built on a simple premise. The goal is to unlock the next item and progress the next branch of dialogue to further unlock more items to access better resources and so on. The gameplay reflects the moreish, carrot-on-stick style of unlock system that can make hours fly by without any recollection of what you’ve actually accomplished. It balances these traits quite skillfully with few slip-ups, harnessing a style of gameplay that helped originally popularise the genre, beginning on platforms like Facebook with their willfully addictive Farmville series.
Further depth is added to the underlying work, sleep, rinse and repeat mentality with a variety of branching skill trees that allow you to focus on a particular element of the game you enjoy. This is similarly reflected in the ability to progress the narrative through several different paths; although, generally speaking, they all achieve the same results. Things get even more complicated towards the end game with complex alchemic combinations and the unravelling of the first and final goal to build a portal back home. There’s a hell of a lot to Graveyard Keeper; it’s no short game by any stretch of the imagination.
One thing that does frustrate, however, is the lack of detail in the map and the absence of any ability to effectively track quests. Characters only give you one full description of a task before it is transferred over to the NPC screen in a shortened form that just states the goal, not how to achieve it. There’s no way to set quest markers either, and the map details key areas including your current location quite poorly, which can lead to confusion. It’s far too easy to miss whole areas of the game and even important characters as you skipped a line of dialogue that will never be repeated and you don’t have access to an objective system that prioritises your goals. It’s not uncommon to spend days completing a task only to later realise it was a pointless side quest that had little bearing on what you’re trying to achieve on the whole.
This lack of direction is something you ultimately outgrow as time allows you to master your surroundings. You’ll stockpile resources to the point of abundance and discover fast track shortcuts to all the most important parts of the map, making life a hell of a lot easier. Most importantly you’ll hit a natural and satisfying rhythm where all your actions are optimised to use your energy in the most productive way. Here lies Graveyard Keeper’s greatest hook: the urge to perfectly balance the spinning plates that represent the game’s underlying management systems, finally giving you the currency and resources to expand your ventures.
It would be a lie to say this game doesn’t involve a significant amount of grinding. The day and night cycle can pass so fast that you barely have time to saw a couple of logs before you’re so tired you have to go to bed. The game does try to keep things fresh in quite an interesting way, however. Although you start off as the new town graveyard keeper you’ll soon find yourself presented with additional roles that offer up fresh gameplay mechanics. For instance, you soon take on the adjacent church and become a preacher, holding Mass for the town’s spiritually needy citizens. You also take on the moniker of dungeon crawler after finding out your presence in this reality is quite permanent making you suitable for some of the more dangerous kinds of adventuring, as one of the local town criminals recognises.
Even with all these highly engaging distractions, there remains one thing that keeps you jumping through the tedious hoops of progression and that is the mystery that brought you here in the first place. As the goal posts continually shift it is the desire for an answer that keeps you committed to assembling the device that can take you home. The only problem with this is that the game doesn’t feel designed to be finished in this way. Completion is not where the game’s pay-off lies.
Graveyard Keeper is an evolution of the mechanics that made the Tamagotchi so exceptionally popular. In the seemingly mundane refilling and use of resources to manage a digital creature’s life lies a never-ending cycle of gratification. You can’t beat a Tamagotchi; it doesn’t have an end. The enjoyment is found in the successful mastery of its hidden systems and the persistent effort to meet its goals. Graveyard Keeper is the same. If reaching the anti-climatic ending is all you want from this title then you’ll be sorely disappointed. Its brilliance shines in the everyday mastery and management of its systems, in a fleeting but fulfilling experience of a productive and successful existence.
Jon loves the experimental nature of indie games, and has written about them for the likes of Eurogamer, PCGamer and GameReactor. As editor of The Indie Game Website, Jon is responsible for the overall content direction of the website, and enjoys moving things around in our Google Calendar.