On paper, Graveyard Keeper sounds like a fun concept. It’s a management/simulation game of a medieval graveyard, with a sense of humor perfectly encapsulated in its wacky braying-donkey app icon. (I choose to believe this is intended to make fun of the endless screaming-angry-man icons found on Clash of Clans-clones.) Unfortunately, Graveyard Keeper will probably not win many new players to the genre thanks to its confusing tone and fixture on arcane busywork.
The first question for a mobile adaptation is: how are the controls? In menus, you get to tap and scroll through interface elements directly, but in the game world you use basic on-screen buttons and a static d-stick instead of swipe-anywhere controls. The d-stick is better than many, especially as it features an animated bounce back when released that visually reminds you to replace your thumb in the center.
It’s fiddly, though, and perhaps a little too sensitive, and I often found myself stuck on scenery or walking around objects I just wanted to approach. It seems to me a system where movement were locked to a grid might work better. There also seem to be a few too many buttons. The ‘work’ and ‘select’ actions could be combined into one control, since work is always held down for several seconds and select is always merely tapped. With a swipe for the rarely-used attack command, the devs could reduce the on-screen controls to a mere menu button.
Unlike similar management games like Stardew Valley, Graveyard Keeper doesn’t have daily tasks to give rhythm to march of time. Certain events, like meeting important characters that only happen on particular days, are about as far as it goes. Compounding this problem, the game uses a weird alchemical-symbol system to track its six-day week, making it impossible to hold in your mind when things need to get done. Is the bishop free on male-symbol day or on sun-day?
Instead, Graveyard Keeper‘s tasks are long multi-step processes that inevitably require a lot of time grinding for experience or materials and building one of seemingly dozens of crafting stations. I played for days and only buried one body, occupied as I was with making every part of every tool out of logs, rocks, and raw iron. Then there are tech trees for gardening, preaching, and writing books among others, three different kinds of skill points, and “faith” and “science” are resources in themselves. There’s a certain zen to it at times, but at other times it feels like a lot of busywork. That said, there’s a great deal of freedom and an awful lot to do, so if planning out long multi-stage tasks is your jam, you’ll love it.
Tonally, the game is strange. It wants to be both goofy and morbid and it works sometimes, especially when the game uses its medieval setting to satirize modern life. The funniest part to me was the unending bureaucracy of stamps and permissions required to get anything done in this supposedly-medieval town. A good joke, but also one that’s frustrating to deal with from a gameplay perspective. I can’t sell this bit of meat I took from a cadaver unless I bribe a thief for the right stamp? Are we just going to gloss over the cannibalism aspect of this situation first? Part of the problem is that NPCs don’t have strongly-defined personalities beyond one-note jokes. (The skull is a drunk. The donkey is a communist.)
There’s clearly a bit of Monty Python and the Holy Grail influence here, but the Pythons had the good sense to satirize the ignorance and bloodlust of a witch trial but then cut away before the actual execution. Not so in Graveyard Keeper, where your protagonist watches a burning without comment and is then tasked with putting up flyers for the next one. It’s darkness for its own sake, and rather off-putting.
Graveyard Keeper is a full-featured, PC-quality indie game, which is enough of a rarity on mobile to make it worth a glance. Fans of crafting will probably find a lot to like in Graveyard Keeper‘s incredibly baroque skills tree and endless tasks. It would be a good game for zoning out and listening to podcasts on a long plane trip. Players who are not on board the crafting bandwagon should probably try something like Stardew Valley.