TBB- Graveyard Keeper Review

      Welcome Templars to first review of The Balanced Blade. I am proud to present this to you all, as all of our efforts have culminated into this very moment.
This is the first of many reviews we will be producing and it is the first landmark in our history here.

Our first review is courtesy of our friends over at Tinybuild, the publisher of many games both known and unknown to the general populace.

Games such as-
Pathologic 2 by Ice-Pick Lodge: https://store.steampowered.com/developer/icepicklodge
Party Hard series by Pinokl Games: https://store.steampowered.com/developer/Pinokl/
Which is an absolutely fantastic game by the way, and of course the very well known

Hello neighbor by Dynamic Pixels: https://www.dynamicpixels.com/ (No steam page)

 

But these games are not games we will be looking at today. No, today we will be reviewing the game Graveyard Keeper by Lazy Bear Games: https://store.steampowered.com/curator/32946824
More specifically, we will be reviewing the Switch port for this game. 

Digitally, Graveyard Keeper is priced at 19.99$
It is good to see that there is no surcharge or price gouge for this game on the Switch, as I have seen many titles raise their prices as they came to other platforms, especially the Switch.
This left a fairly good taste in my mouth as I downloaded it.

First, I must tell you all that I did not pay for this copy, this was a review copy that came free of charge to me. Because of this, I had to look up the price myself and will be gauging my experience with this game as if I had bought it for its full market price. 

With that said, I think we are ready to begin our first review ever.
So then, let’s cut into this title shall we?

Overall –

     Graveyard Keeper is a beautifully simple premise built around a deceptively complex and intricate design. Simply put, Graveyard Keeper is like Animal Crossing for nihilists. And well, people interested in the career of an undertaker.
But despite it’s simple premise, Graveyard Keeper happens to be so, so much more than just a town building game.

Going my job as the undertaker – Godfrey

     Now, we should all be aware that the classic 2D RPG format has been struggling to keep relevance in a primarily 3D gaming world. After all, the 2D gaming format was created so long ago because of the lack of hardware and software systems we have today. The limitations presented to Nintendo, Sega and the many companies of the time simply no longer exist today, and in as little as ten to twenty years 2D gaming as a whole maybe a distant memory as we jack ourselves into the virtual space to play the next paper thin, content bare Call of Duty title.
However, even though this format of gameplay can be considered a relic or nostalgia, It is companies like TinyBuild, Devolver Digital and their developer teams who continue to keep this format of games alive and even innovate on this simple design. And this is exactly what we see here in Graveyard Keeper. Despite it’s simple formula, it seems Lazy Bear Games is doing the exact opposite of what their studio name implies. In my time playing Graveyard Keeper, I have been stunned time and time again by just how deep some of the mechanics in this seemingly shallow pool actually go. It is simply a testament to the fact that complexity is not inherent to the 3D space.

 

Story –

     Without giving too much away, you start as confused as your character is. Without warning you are suddenly thrust into a strange land of Medieval influence, with no clue why or how, and are forced to learn and adapt quickly. Of this new world you learn three things very quickly. The first of which is that no one will hold your hand through this game.
It’s up to you to remember all the things that are slowly stacked on your shoulders as the undertaker. It’s up to you to figure out how to get home. It’s up to you to figure out the mechanics behind building and creating the things you need to move forward in the world. The second thing is that not all is happy in this land. As you watch the Inquisitor burn a witch alive at the stake, you wonder if you should really be talking about your odd situation, lest it be confused for madness… or darkness. So do you keep your head low and do your job silently? Or do you continue poking and prodding at the populace of the town, asking your strange questions in your strange modern tongue? The choice is yours… But the outcome?
Well, that may be out of your hands should you say something to the wrong person. This outcome is still outside of my grasp, even after fifteen hours or more I have dumped into the title. Unfortunately, in my experience playing this game, the drive to discover and progress in the story elements of the game is often forgotten extremely quickly in my efforts to keep track of all the responsibilities that continue to pile onto my character as I progress through the game. Keeping track of bodies as they come in, Harvesting and sowing crops as they grow, mining and cutting down trees, researching and preaching, upgrading the Church, Morgue, the house and other places around you, basically there is a torrent of things to do in this game that may or may not be valuable to actually moving forward in the story of the character. Keeping track of bodies as they come in is directly rewarding, as the overall quality of the bodies you bury directly impacts the quality of your church and cemetery.
This burials are not permanent but are costly due to needing permits on exhuming corpses. Because of this, I found myself cremating corpses often. This are many ways to make money in this world, depending on what you want to do, but personally I took to slicing the flesh from the corpses and turning my humble little home into “Meaty Meats Burger shop”, selling burgers directly to the town. They don’t need to know where the meat came from, after all. Heh. Many a body did I burn to cover up my bad surgical work as I pulled skin and flesh from them like Hannibal himself. I’m not proud of this… But it’s good money.
While I honed my skills in all different departments, each expansive in their own right, I worked my way through missions for the townsfolk, steering wide and clear of the Inquisitor each time I saw him, despite being his so called “friend”, and slowly gained clues on how I may be able to find my way out of this place and back home. Between all the different people and mechanics looming just beneath the surface of this game, one could easily pour hours and hours of time into this game and still be no closer to completing it, as I have and will continue to do. Either until I finish the game or until the game finishes me. On top of all of this game play, there are also dungeon crawling elements to the game that I have yet to even delve into deeply. Unfortunately however, it seems that these dungeons were not the primary or even secondary focus of the game considering just how difficult it is to actually get into the first dungeon with the materials you need to actually clear the rubble. It has become apparent to me that these dungeons are likely end game content, simply because of the resource and story walls set in place. It just goes to show just how much content you actually have in store for you within this game.

Characters and the friend system early on – Godfrey
World map as I know it – Godfrey

Mechanics –

     While the base mechanics of the game are almost laughably simple, the deeper mechanics behind them in the crafting, science, faith, farming, cooking, metal smithing, woodwork and mortician skill trees of the game, which are each vast and interesting in their own right. This adds a level of depth to the game I was not at all expecting when I began the game, working and unlocking these skills as I went along.
However, because these skill trees are each so vast, they can quickly become overwhelming, as each item in the game has a multitude of uses that aren’t exactly expressed outright.
Or if they are, these expressions aren’t exactly thoroughly explained. This right here is both the biggest gripe and the biggest applause I have to give this Indy title. It’s not often you come across a game you wish you had a strategy guide for these days outside of FromSoftware titles. I was baffled by just how little information the game gives you before setting you off to your own devices, especially in a world today plagued by “Segway Tutorials” that lead you straight into the microtransaction shop of the game, or overreaching tutorials that feel the need to be training wheels on your bike. It’s always nice to see a developer actually trust in it’s players to figure out the mechanics themselves.
With that said, while some of the parts were simple enough to make me kick myself once I finally figured it out, other parts make me stop and wonder if I would have actually figured out on my own at all without the youtube video shedding light on what I needed to do to create a specific item I needed. This doesn’t seem to be an issue only I had either, because these small light shedding videos had thousands of views for that one thing in particular.
Specifically, I got stuck early on trying to figure out what I needed to do to make the blue experience points for the first time. Looking back at it, it required more steps than I ever would have guessed it needed, and that’s only if I ever had gotten the first step to begin with. If I had not been on time constraints in reviewing this title in a timely manner, I’m sure I would have figured it out eventually, but I feel as if this discovery would not have been by design but rather by coincidence instead. The gratification for finally figuring out these small mechanics like making science points and eventually blue experience would have been extremely rewarding for me. This is how I suggest everyone should play the game, take your time and don’t give in to the simply googling these answers unless absolutely necessary. If you do, you are only depriving yourself of the strongest card these types of games have to offer, willfully missing out on one of the main reasons these types of games are fun in the first place. Do as I say, not as I have done. You will better yourself for it and have an overall better experience with it for figuring out the mechanics for yourself.

     Now, let’s talk about the strongest point of Graveyard Keepers mechanics. Quality of life. For those who do not know the term as it relates to game development, simply put, quality of life is the features or aspects of game design that serve to ensure that the player experience is smooth and enjoyable. This often refers to things implemented that prevent people from becoming burned out on small mechanics that can be extremely taxing when repeated over and over.
Graveyard Keeper, and games alike it, often teeter on the edge of boredom over long periods of game play and it all hinges on the presence of quality of life mechanics. In the worst cases, bad quality of life implementation alone can bring an otherwise good title down significantly and make players not want to play at all. This is where Graveyard Keeper truly shines. Everything from farming to woodcutting to simply moving inventory over from the player to a crate is on some level automated, lessening the pure repetitive nature of the tasks at hand. For instance, the game saves your seed choices in each particular block of farm land, cutting the ten some odd inputs per block down to two clicks. This drastically increases the speed at which you can sew your crops each time you harvest, saving you a ton of time and heartache.
Small mechanics like these, not needing to pull from your crates to make things and auto selection of peat and seeds in the farm, increases the quality of life of the game and the amount of time you as a player will be willing to play the game as a whole. In fact, as I was playing I stopped and asked myself, if I needed to do all this manually would I really have played this game for so many hours? The answer was no, absolutely not. The entire game would have been a chore to play without these small mechanics hidden in the background and the game as a whole would have been downright annoying to play without them. It’s good to see that developers like Lazy Bear Games can sit down and ask themselves “What would the players find annoying about this?”, then proceed to fix it with automation. This is master crafted quality of life work. Well done. Very well done.

My beautiful farm – Godfrey
Building system within the game – Godfrey
A small look at the technology trees that await you in the game – Godfrey

Bugs and Problems-

     Graveyard Keeper runs almost, ALMOST flawlessly on the switch. Aside from a few tile selection issues, issues that I believe stem from the fact that it is a 2D game rather than the game itself, I would say that the game was perfect on the switch. I would say that, if not for the blasted inventory bug that plagues me throughout my game play. Straight up, I thought that my Joy-con was broken before I searched the issue and found that others were having the same problem. It’s real problem is not that the bug is game breaking.
It’s not, as there is a simple way around the bug through the inventory screen. The real problem with having this bug is that the inventory system is such a commonly used thing in the game that your basically constantly reminded that the bug exists as soon as you forget and start having fun again. What annoys me about it is that this bug could easily have been avoided through the switch’s touch functionality.
If it’s one thing that touch functionality is good for, it has to be scrolling through menus to select items rather than using the D’Pad or the joystick.
This is something you will hear me talk about this a lot in switch titles, as the lack of even Nintendo games using the impressive baked in functionality of the switch is baffling to me to say the least. It’s downright negligent not to use the functionality of the platform you are playing to your advantage and many titles fall victim to this.

I have been in contact with TinyBuild about the state of the inventory bug and have been told that they are working on a fix for it now, so my score will take this into account if the fix is patched in. Other than this bug, the games inventory and world mechanics work just about as well as they should and there’s not really much I could ding them on.
The game is even chill on the switch battery drain as well, unlike other games that can nuke your switch battery in as little as three hours (I’m looking at you Smash Ultimate!), Graveyard Keeper can be played just about all day off and on without a battery issue.

Audio –

     The music in the game is well orchestrated, however does lack any variety once you get about ten hours into the game. It’s based on the area of the map you are currently located, so if you spend a lot of time at home, which you will, expect to get the riff stuck in your head until you hate it so much you just go and turn it off.
The characters on the other hand, though not voice acted, all have different and entertaining speaking sounds. I can tell that quite a bit of care went into making sure each character’s chat sound matched the character. The Priest speaks outwardly and loudly md almost seems to be filled with contempt. The Inquisitor whispers softly so that he may not be heard by heretics and witches.
The donkey even sounds exactly like I assumed he would speak. Well done on that front.

Visual –

     No real complaints in this department either, the sprites for characters are well animated, nothing ever feels too pixelated and every item on the ground is understandable at a glance.
FPS is never an issue either, even when I actively attempted to push the game to its limits by filling my inventory and harvesting all my crops to lay on the ground.
I had over a hundred carrot sprites sitting on the ground at once and no issues came about from it. This is because clever designs cause sprites of the same kind to simply stack on each other on the ground, saving the game from overworking the switch with multiple sprite instances. With that said, I never had any doubt that the game would run fine from the beginning either.
Again, very well done.

Marketing –

     Graveyard keeper is available on just about every platform on the market right now. This is not particularly unusual these days , although I still remember the days when your only chance as a developer was to go through Steam greenlight. Nevertheless, this is a solid game that, well, I probably would not play on PC. The reality is that I don’t have a twenty six hundred dollar powerhouse machine so that I can play games like Minecraft and Graveyard Keeper. I have games like The Wild Hunt, Hell Let Loose, The Division 2 and ARMA 3 to contend with.
But the Switch changes your perspective of these types of games. Once again the Switch shows us one of the most powerful assets it has every single time you play it. Portability.
And now that this game has sunk its hooks of addiction into me, it’s not difficult to ignore my PC all together at home and simply chill on the couch playing this game instead.
In this way, I think that the Switch is perfect for exactly these types of games.

In conclusion –

     Rogue Legacy, Streets of Rage, River City Ransom, Graveyard Keeper, all these games that can be ignored outright on other platforms, can shine brightly on the Switch as platform leaders.
It only serves to strengthen the games themselves and the Nintendo Switch as a whole. The Switch is a good console not because of power or exclusives, though it has plenty of those worth talking about, but because the viability that it holds within it no matter where you may be. Couch co-op anywhere. Triple A gaming anywhere, with only at times less visual fidelity and FPS variants.
So am I saying that, as a gamer who strives to play DOOM at max settings with 120 FPS at home, I would take low settings at 60 FPS at work or on a plane?
Hell yes I would.
And would I play a game bought for twenty dollars that I probably wouldn’t have bought and played on PC in the first place? Absolutely.
Perspective is extremely important when it comes to well, just about anything. And my perspective is that Graveyard Keeper, despite its flaws and a few bugs, is a more interesting game when it can leave your computer screen and go with you to work, school or wherever. Just… get that inventory bug fixed as soon as possible. It makes me want to throw my Switch against a wall sometimes. 

     Despite it’s rather old school style, Graveyard Keeper, along with all the other smash hits in its genre like Party Hard and Bloodlines: Ritual of Night, continue to defy the expectation that 2D and 2.5D games are a fossil of gaming history. They do this by innovating in their own ways around the formula they are built around. Graveyard Keeper itself only really suffers in scoring because of lack of changing world music, the sometimes questionable lack of instruction in particular subjects like making science points and getting blue orbs for the first time and of course, that inventory bug. Even with all this against it, I have come to know that this game is more than average simply because I work past these things to continue playing rather than quit because of them.
Even as I finish this review, I sit back ready to bury more bodies and keep more graves. I’ll continue doing so until I beat the game.
Then maybe I’ll do it all over again, better the second time around.

 

Graveyard Keeper –

7.2/10  A fine edge

7.5/10 (contingent on the patching of the inventory bug)


Until next time templars… Strike true!
                                           – Godfrey, baron of gaming

 

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Post Note- I’d like to thank our friends and team members at Drop the Spotlight for giving us this chance to join them, I’d like to thank everyone on my team as well as you, the viewers and readers for supporting us!