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Graveyard Keeper is a dark, challenging take on Stardew Valley

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A graveyard shift worth all the effort

Lazy Bear Games / tinyBuild

Stardew Valley taught me something I would’ve never known about myself: I like farming sims. I love how they take me to another, more calming place. I appreciate how they combine a relaxing setting with small, fun tasks. But farming sims still feel incomplete — they tend to lack an interesting story to complement all the time I put into them. But Graveyard Keeper, a “medieval cemetery management sim” that has you tending a graveyard, fills in that gap without losing the charm of completing your personal to-do list.

The game’s familiar pixel-art visuals belie a much darker tone than Stardew Valley and the like right from the start. After a short and somewhat dark opening, you’re thrust into a dingy cemetery. Instead of being introduced to plucky townsfolk, you’re greeted by a talking skull, a ghost, a witch-burning inquisitor and several other shady folks. Your new home is a far cry from the idyllic settings of the game’s farming sim brethren — probably because you’re tending to a graveyard, not a homestead. Even compared to Stardew Valley’s magical undertones (and capitalist critique), Graveyard Keeper comes off like a creepy, fantastical outlier within the management sim genre.

Another crucial deviation is the gameplay, which takes the best bits of the formula that Harvest Moon established and sews several story plots into your massive to-do list. As you progress further into the game, your list of projects grows, but so does your understanding of the game’s dark plot. In this world filled with various cults, curses and mysterious characters, I found myself wanting to work through huge, multi-tiered projects just so I could learn more.

One of the first characters you meet, Gerry, a talkative, alcohol-loving skull
Lazy Bear Games / tinyBuild

This arduous task-driven story progression is where Graveyard Keeper sets itself apart from other farming sims. Almost everything you need or want to do requires multiple steps, including completing another goal first or interacting with a certain, hard-to-find character. There aren’t many simple gathering or fetch quests here. Instead, you’ll dig up (pun intended) the past lives of other townspeople, uncover dark secrets and even fight your way through dark dungeons.

Taking on these quests also involves working though the game’s robust technology tree and crafting system — which is pretty intense. Within the first hour of the game, I quickly learned that to craft even the most common tools, I’d have to create several other ones first. For instance, to craft something easy like nails, I would need to craft not only an anvil, but a furnace. In order to build those, I would also need to create a sawhorse and a carpenter’s workbench. And if I wanted to build a workbench, I would need to get some items from the village blacksmith first. Initially, it felt like a struggle to even find enough resources, but within a few hours, my graveyard became a well-oiled machine.

Graveyard Keeper’s extensive tech tree
Lazy Bear Games / tinyBuild

Too often when I’m playing the calming Stardew Valley, I find myself wondering what to do next. The open-ended nature of farming sims sometimes ends up being more overwhelming, even confusing, than exciting. But in Graveyard Keeper, the extensive to-do list is tied directly to different storylines. Because of this, I can tackle projects that correspond to the ones I want to see through. Those tasks are far from simple projects to complete and move on from; they are necessary, challenging steps for learning more about Graveyard Keeper’s unsolved mysteries. Even menial tasks, like beautifying my graveyard, can have an important influence on the story.

Graveyard Keeper hasn’t completely uprooted the farming-slash-management sim genre. I still spent my first few hours gathering items, crafting and running around introducing myself to townspeople. But the reward for that effort is uncovering the intrigue at the heart of the story, which always surprises me and keeps me plowing ahead. And that’s not something I get out of my casual life in Stardew Valley — nor do I expect to.

Graveyard Keeper is available now on Windows PC, Mac and Xbox One.