There’s an old Monty Python sketch I’ve always enjoyed, that I thought of while playing Graveyard Keeper. Four pallbearers in traditional attire are carrying a coffin on their shoulders up a steep hill. It is hard work. Suddenly, one of the pallbearers staggers and passes out. The other three slowly set the coffin down, open it, and promptly shove the man inside. They set off again, only for a little while later another of the pallbearers to pass out. He too they heave into the coffin. The two remaining pallbearers stagger on up the hill, before once again, one of them passes out. The last man standing drags the unconscious man into the coffin, before looking around in exhaustion to see there’s nobody else left to carry the coffin. So he shrugs his shoulders, and jumps in the coffin himself. This is the style of silly but sombre humour you can expect to encounter in Graveyard Keeper, the new management and roleplay sim from Lazy Bear Games.
There is the bare bones (ho ho) of a plot, but it takes a definite backseat after the introduction. Your character is involved in a car crash in the present day, but instead of dying awakes to find himself in a Medieval-esque era in a different world, confronted by a talking skull who just wants a beer. It appears you’re the new graveyard keeper for the local church, and it’s your responsibility to bury the newly deceased when they are delivered to you by a talking donkey. The diocese bishop also swings by and tells you that if you can clean up the rundown graveyard, he’ll reopen the church. While your end goal is eventually to get back home, you very soon become accustomed to living in the 14th Century, and will chat with characters like the local Innkeeper, the blacksmith, and the Inquisitor, who is responsible for overseeing the witch burnings. It’s all very whimsical and charming, even though you’re dealing with death and cadavers, carving up corpses to sell on the meat.
Graveyard Keeper initially introduces several tasks to you, such as showing you how to autopsy and then bury corpses, but it neglects to have any kind of tutorial for the vast majority of the other game mechanics, leaving you to try and gradually make sense of them by yourself. There is a huge upgrade tree with multiple branches, and you gradually unlock new skills and equipment by gaining experience from doing just about anything; chopping wood, picking flowers, mining rock, etc. There are three different types of experience, and each type is awarded depending on which task you’ve completed. Mining will reward red experience for example, while picking mushrooms rewards green. Many of the side quests (which are mainly of the fetch quest variety) will require you to either know how to do a particular task or will have you buy items from traders, but the quests never spell out exactly how or where the desired items can be acquired.
Graveyard Keeper’s biggest issue by and far is grinding. Almost everything you do seems to have been complicated and made more time-consuming, so that a simple task like “repair the graveyard” becomes a multi-layered journey of acquiring enough stone, chopping down enough trees, building sawhorses and carpentry benches so you can saw the wood into new shapes, build those shapes into wood repair kits and new grave crosses, before you realize you haven’t got any nails and now need to track down iron ore to begin the tedious process of smelting. You only have a limited amount of energy each day to achieve tasks, and while there is no time limit on doing stuff, just going to bed each day to refill you energy meter wastes valuable time. Similarly, trekking across the map is frequently tiresome, given there is only a very limited fast travel system using teleport stones which can be purchased from the Innkeeper.
One of Graveyard Keeper’s real strengths is in the presentation. The graphical style is similar in nature to Stardew Valley but a bit more detailed, while nonetheless still invoking the cutesy, top-down look of old-school JRPGs. The environments are nicely detailed and lively, with a variety of different weather effects to add a bit of variety. Similarly, the soundtrack is also great. Each piece of music wonderfully compliments the area of the map it plays in, and makes me wish there were a greater assortment of tunes as you’ll be hearing the same tracks repeatedly after a while.
At the end of the day, too much of Graveyard Keeper feels like pointless, deliberately convoluted busywork. The vast majority of your time is spent doing fairly repetitive things, trudging backwards and forwards while you grind for resources, with only minor moments of excitement and intrigue. The world is beautiful, the music memorable, and the blend of the darkly macabre with the light-hearted goofy humour works well, but actually getting chances to enjoy the humour are rarer than you would expect. For a game called Graveyard Keeper, it’s strange how little time in the game is actually dedicated to looking after the graveyard. If you can accept the grind for what it is, there’s a lot to enjoy in Graveyard Keeper, but for everyone else it will be a matter of how long it takes before your patience with it is dead and buried.