Arcane busywork leaves little room for genuine pleasure in this fascinating and frustrating genre oddity.
Management simulations have been one of the most enduring video game genres. Whether you like to manage cities, zoos, hospitals or sports teams, there are plenty of riffs on the concept. With the current renaissance of the farming sim however, it's enough to loudly say "Stardew Valley" three times to summon interest - mine included. Graveyard Keeper, then, sounded like the kind of game I didn't know I wanted, something that combines the cute style of a game made in RPG Maker with a truly interesting management idea. It's graveyards. You manage graveyards.
The fun tone is presented as Graveyard Keeper's biggest draw. The game is neither sad nor drab, even though it has you handling dead bodies. Instead, it's likely going for that slightly tongue-in-cheek tone of a Tropico or Dungeon Keeper, asking you to suspend your disbelief and explore all the ways in which you can adapt familiar management mechanics to the theme. In Dungeon Keeper, you build S&M parlours to keep your populace happy, in Graveyard Keeper you...turn dead people into lunchmeat.
To get to that point however, a lot of other things need to happen first. The story is an afterthought: your character gets hit by a car one day and wakes in a different world to a sentient skull pronouncing him the keeper of the local graveyard. Your task is to find a way home, but also to mostly just roll with it. A talking donkey comes by and drops a corpse at your porch, the local bishop tells you to clean up the graveyard, and so you roll up your sleeves and get to it.
Or rather, you would, if only you knew how. Graveyard Keeper shows you how to dig around in a body, how to build a gravesite and where to sell burial certificates for money, and from then on, it stays completely shtum. It took me about five hours to understand its core mechanics, because the game told me what to do, but not how to get there.
Your first task is to raise the rating of the graveyard, in other words, to clean it up. The graveyard has a rating, influenced by the materials used to build graves (a gravestone rates higher than a wooden cross, for example) and what condition the buried body is in. You have to reach a certain rating to reopen the church next to the plot. Why you would do that? Because you were told to.
I will concede that normally you don't question why a management sim asks you to do certain things. However, I discovered that I was curiously squeamish about the execution of Graveyard Keeper's central idea. Draining humans of their blood for potions and chucking flailed bodies into the river to make space didn't sit right with me at all, especially due to the laissez faire approach to doing these things. Graveyard Keeper doesn't aspire to be the next A Mortician's Tale, but opening the church could have been used in context, as an example of moving from a questionable practice to the real thing. Instead, you get this strange duality between respecting the dead and turning them into quarter pounders and supplies for spare parts.
Speaking of spare parts: in order to gather almost any material, you will have to learn the corresponding technology, which is just another term for acquiring the necessary knowledge, if you will, and then build the appliance through which your item in question can be created. So far, so - yes - Stardew Valley. To be able to unlock technologies, you have to know about them first. Some of them appear in the technology menu from the beginning, others you'll only know about if someone tells you about them.
Technologies unlock using three different kinds of points. You gain red points for manual labour, green points from farming and blue points for fulfilling tasks that require intelligence, for example proper burial services.
Apart from the graveyard, you get to grow crops and cook food. You can either sell your creations, eat them yourself or hand them over to townsfolk in quests.
Graveyard Keeper's biggest problem is that very few things are intuitive. You meet people in town who ask different things of you, but they hardly explain how you can fulfil their requests. In the instances where they relay information, it can be a lot, but it will never be repeated anywhere.
The merchant, for example, asks to have some vegetables sent to him, but by the time I had gotten them, I had to exit the game and look up when he would return to town. I had forgotten, because an NPC told me this important tidbit about three quests earlier. In another instance, the answer to how to make paper amounts to "you can make it or buy it, I guess."
It's hard to tell if Graveyard Keeper's quest system is purposefully demanding or just a bit hapless. I'm guessing a little column A, a little column B. I'm not against a game with reduced handholding, but no player should feel the need to consult a wiki to learn basic gameplay functions. Once you get there, it can be a lot of fun, albeit for a very specific audience.
There's slight imbalance to the smaller systems, too. You will for example feel like the day is racing on while you're playing, with the day almost always over before your energy is depleted. That in itself isn't a big deal, since you can carry out your shady dealing at any time of day, but while most actions at appliances inform you about their energy cost in points, you don't know how many points your energy bar has. You end up vaguely guessing how much you're actually using.
The map is big and beautiful, but it would be just as effective at maybe half the size, since there's not that much to see. (A teleportation stone has since been patched in)
These points of criticism may sound like nitpicking, but small issues like that can really add up in the long run, especially when some of these design choices seem unnecessary.
Lastly, there's the issue with the quests themselves. I love a good sprawling sidequest, but I have yet to come across a quest in Graveyard Keeper that didn't take me at least three hours to complete it, and that's pushing it. Sometimes this is due to a quest-giver's awkward once-a-week availability, but mostly this happens because you need to grind for technologies and build a whole backyard full of appliances before you can get something done.
This would be interesting for one or two quests, if you had any sense of achievement in the meantime. Instead, it feels like you're always waiting for something.
Graveyard Keeper has been crafted with a loving eye for detail, that's why you get to use every discarded apple core and every feather in some way. It's also just staggeringly imbalanced - it took me almost ten hours to remember I had an actual graveyard to manage.
To compare Graveyard Keeper to Stardew Valley is to reveal where it comes up short. I missed the human warmth, the addictive structure to each day and most of all, being able to do whatever I wanted to. Graveyard Keeper never holds your hand, but it never lets go of it either, since everything you want to do is, at least for the 30 hours I've spent with it, linked to something you need to do first.