Graveyard Keeper takes a page from Stardew Valley’s book when it comes to being a farming/town management simulator, then doodles little skulls and creepy trees all over that page. The game begins by telling a very short story about a miscellaneous stocky built, red beard clad gentleman who simply wants to get home to the love of his life. Events occur, and the man finds himself awakening in a dilapidated cemetery in what resembles a medieval kingdom. Right away players meet Episcop, the village Bishop, who decides that since you’re there you might as well be the new Keeper for the cemetery. At this point, the game walks players through the tutorial phase, with a disembodied skull by the name of Gerry teaching you everything you could ever need to know about slicing a little bit of flesh off of a fresh body while it’s on the autopsy table. You see, meat is a rare delicacy for the people of the Kingdom, and it really would be awful to let it go to waste.
Flesh is not the only body part you’ll have the opportunity to strip from corpses, either, as later upgrades eventually allow you to remove important organs like the brain and heart, and eventually even bones and skulls. Keep in mind, however, that each corpse has a skull rating that is randomly generated and attached to it. Removing parts can affect this skull rating for the better or for the worse. Red skulls bring down the body’s value once it’s buried, affecting the rating of your graveyard over all. White skulls, too, affect your rating but can provide a boost. An inexperienced surgeon removing important body parts from a corpse can result in red skulls being added to the corpse’s score due to sloppy remnants being left behind. Both red and white skulls can be assigned to various parts of the corpses when they arrive, and thus removing parts has the risk of affecting the corpse’s value. Once you’re finished removing anything that may prove to be valuable, it’s time to bury the body. This is done by going to a blueprint stand and selecting to build a grave. The Keeper then must dig the grave, inter the corpse, and cover it up. If you’ve been pushed to bury a corpse that’s value is on the lower end, or even in the negative range, you can work a little magic on the grave by adding decorations like a headstone or fence to up the score just a bit.
Any tasks that are performed by the Keeper are assigned points that can be used to unlock additional skills, perks, tools, and craftables via the skill trees. Manual labor, such as crafting headstones or digging graves result in red points, whereas green points are most often rewarded for tasks that involve nature like planting crops or studying bugs in the church basement. Blue points are awarded for studying and learning, and this too can come from crafting certain objects or simply by mixing a little science (earned from studying blank paper) with a little faith (earned by preaching a sermon at the church) to study any potential alchemical properties of an item. There is absolutely no shortage of tasks to carry out to earn these points, and flesh out your skill tree, which leads to the first minor complaint. Gateway Keeper does a fantastic job at teaching players how to manage the autopsies and burials of corpses, but when it comes to every other task in the game it is entirely up to the player to figure it out on their own. There’s no guidance on where to find newly unlocked upgrades or craftables, and sometimes the most obvious answer is simply wrong and a craftable may be under a completely different tool section than one would anticipate.
This lack of guidance meant that there was a lot of time spent searching for a Graveyard Keeper wiki that could answer all of your burning questions about some of the most mundane beginner tasks like “how do I make nails?” and “where do I find moths?” It may seem like searching for a wiki is a little excessive for a pixel art style management sim, but the sheer volume of items and task opportunities available in Graveyard Keeper coupled with the total lack of tutorials or on screen tips means it’s absolutely vital to have a third party guide at the ready while playing. Thankfully, the game was available as an early access alpha and there is quite a bit of information on it available, but there are certainly changes with the full release on Xbox that causes external information to be outdated and faulty.
While Graveyard Keeper’s mechanics are similar to what we’ve seen in other games of this genre (see, Stardew Valley) there are some pretty noticeable differences, beyond just the addition of the macabre twist, that make Graveyard Keeper stand on its own. The fishing mechanic, for example, uses the familiar ‘tap A to keep a yellow bar behind a fish icon until the meter is full’ reeling system but changes up the casting and bait system by showing players a diorama of the water. This little cutaway allows players to see what types of fish are available in the body of water they’ve chosen to fish in, and the likelihood of catching said fish with your current setup. Cycling through available baits shows you the percent chance you have for catching the available fish and thus lets you eliminate some of the luck factor and focus more on using skill. While there is no length or weight stats for the fish you catch, they can receive one of three star ratings – bronze, silver, or gold – to indicate quality.
Fishing in Graveyard Keeper is, unfortunately, also the best example of negative changes to a familiar game mechanic. Rather than just being a one time hit to your energy stores, fishing can be wildly unpredictable. Every time a fish hits at the hook the player automatically loses 3 energy points, whether the player attempts to hook the fish or not. Should you successfully snag a fish, attempting to reel it in will cost another round of rapid fire energy hits for 1 point each. It’s incredibly easy to burn through the majority of your energy before you ever get close to hooking a fish, or even worse – being in the middle of reeling in something epic only to lose it because your energy bar becomes depleted. To add insult to injury the bar that displays your available energy is removed from the hud during the fishing sequence. There’s no way to know if you’ve got sufficient energy to continue fishing without actually exiting from the fishing screen and checking it first. It’s not possible to pause or consume food to help replenish energy while fishing, either.
Graveyard Keeper does feature a day and night cycle to indicate the passage of time, along with a week that consists of six themed days. Certain events, such as giving sermons at the church, can only occur during certain days of the week. If you miss an opportunity to meet with a specific NPC or participate in an event, you have no choice but to wait until their day cycles back around again. Given the pace at which the Keeper walks, and the sheer sprawling nature of game’s map, it is nearly impossible to get anywhere in a timeline manner unless you prepare yourself and set out walking a day in advance. There’s no way to speed the Keeper’s pace up, but there are means for faster travel that can be unblocked at later stages. Still, these ‘shortcuts’ can leave you taking a good 2-3 minutes just to walk down a long empty corridor. It’s fairly obvious that the long travel times between areas is used as a means to forgo the need for loading screens, but it can make the transfer of large amounts of materials from distant areas back to the workyard an absolute nightmare. It’s also incredibly easy to get lost, as the map available in the menus does not feature any kind of location indicator, leaving the player to wander around until they find a landmark they can identify.
On the Xbox One S, Graveyard Keeper does suffer from some optimization issues. When sitting down to play the game for a long stretch of time (which you won’t help but want to do) the game begins to suffer from microfreezes and screen tearing. These are inconsequential and nothing more than minor hiccups during most of the game, but if a player is in combat while dungeon crawling or contacting enemies at night this can be more problematic. The worst case of this happening, however, occurred following an extended play session where the game froze and eventually crashed during the auto save. Relaunching the game revealed that nearly two hours of gameplay (which translates to a few weeks of in game time) progress had been lost as a result of the crash.
While Graveyard Keeper could greatly benefit from an optimization patch to fix the screen tearing and occasional crash, none of these are gamebreakers that prevent fans of the genre from sitting down and having a genuinely good time. Things like a location indicator on the map, or a quicker walking pace are mere quality of life improvements that could (and, ideally should be) patched over time. Graveyard Keeper’s core foundation is ultimately a fantastic adventure into the fantastically morbid world of undertaking that provides players with a wide array of gameplay opportunities. Whether you’re looking to profit from selling your blood supply to the local vampire or build up a massive following of faithful churchgoers, there’s something absurd and macabre to keep everybody entertained.