Graven is proof that looks can't get you everything in life; well, at least as far as video games are concerned. This upcoming action RPG that just released on Steam's Early Access is one of my favorite looking games in recent memory. The retro visuals that pay homage to the late 90s and very early 2000s are enough to get me excited after a single screenshot. When I dove into the gameplay, however, that thought of looks not being everything sprung into my mind, and it's clear that Graven needs a lot of improving to be a success.
The Dark Atmosphere of Graven
Although retro, low-poly graphics isn't a style for everyone, it's an immediate hook for me. Graven is definitely a strong contender for the best-looking retro-inspired titles, fighting for the top spot with games like Amid Evil and the upcoming Gloomwood. The developers for Graven, Slipgate Ironworks, know how to make one good-looking game, and it's clear from the start. The beginning minutes of Graven is spent on a boat through a dark, ominous swamp. The player has no choice but to listen to a speaking oarsman while soaking in the sights of this Grimdark world.
When your brief voyage ends, you arrive in a town that is decrepit and in its worst years. Yet, despite how horrendously ugly the town looks—with rundown houses, rats, and bodies littered everywhere—it's hard not to admire the atmosphere created by the developers. While I hesitate to call Graven an immersive sim, the world itself is enough to make you feel like your smelling the awful swamp combined with the despair filling the air. That you're soaking in the sights of this catastrophic town.
Venture further and you'll delve into some musty and moist sewers filled with green water and undead. Later on, you'll make your way to a town square that various NPCs inhabit. Barred gates with grasping hands reach through as the player ventures into the unknown. The reason I explain Graven in such a way is that the graphical style, while certainly emulating older titles, depends on showing and not telling. Just by looking around in the environment, you can see just how hard this town has fallen. It is truly some masterclass work here.
I wish I could say the same for Graven's gameplay.
Graven's Gameplay Will Need a Lot of Polish
Graven's objective isn't really clear from the start and depends on players to navigate their way through the world and discover ways to proceed. Much of the gameplay boils down to wandering around the game world, unlocking doors, and fighting off enemies. In many ways, Graven reminds me of the old boomer shooter playstyle with a heavier focus on melee.
Equipped with just a staff from the start, you'll soon gather new weapons and even spellbooks. For melee weapons, I came across a sword that was more powerful than my knotted, wooden staff. I also found a wrist-mounted ranged weapon as well as a handheld crossbow that shoots several bolts in one shot, with an alternate fire mode shooting explosives. Using ranged weapons is highly responsive and easy to aim with, but they rely on ammo. Often times I'd run out and depend on my sword to slash through zombies, cultists, and beasts.
And indeed, while ranged combat feels good, melee does not. The hitboxes for melee weapons confuse me, as there were plenty of times when I'd swing my sword or staff expecting a hit and not landing it at all. Depth perception is a problem in Graven. While I did eventually get used to it, I feel like the reach for both weapons is rather short and created some frustration.
It doesn't bode well for spells, either. You'll get a spellbook that allows you to conjure fire. I have a few problems with this weapon. The field of view for this book is particularly intrusive and blocks a lot of my sight. Moreover, I expected fire to be much more useful in combat. So far, it seems like fire either does pitifully small damage to enemies or none at all. The use of fire is more for the environment, casting it on spiderwebs and stacks of barrels. An update recently allowed for fire to burn the shields of skeletal enemies, but it still doesn't do any discernible amount of damage.
Another large flaw to the gameplay is the abundance of breakable objects. The fact that objects—particularly barrels and crates—are breakable isn't in itself a bad thing. The reason this is a flaw is that your supply of ammo, health, and resource for your spell seems dependent on you obsessively breaking every single container you see insight. I definitely broke hundreds of these things looking for resources to scavenge, and it just doesn't make for compelling gameplay at all. I hope that the developers can add better ways to obtain these resources to reduce the reliance on breaking things.
Lastly, when you decide to take a break from Graven and save, you better be mindful of where you quit. The save system is confusing, to say the least. Respawn points are scattered throughout. When you die, you respawn on these spots. I also assumed they were save points. After saving and quitting, then coming back to my game later, I spawned in a different spot from where I left. Enemies seemed to have respawned as well, although my progress itself had saved. I was left to bumble around searching for the point I left off at. Simply put, Graven definitely needs to make the way it saves more clear to the audience, or rework how it is done.
One Foot in the Grave?
Graven is in Early Access, so there's plenty of opportunities to improve upon this title. It does show a lot of promise and has a great team at the helm. And while saying it has promise means there's hope for the future, it'll take a lot of work to make Graven a game worth playing in the end. Already I see the developers are very receptive to feedback from fans, so even with all its flaws, I do believe Graven has what it takes to prove itself as a great experience.
TechRaptor previewed Graven on Steam Early Access with a key provided by the publisher.