Graven Review – Reviving The Old Faith

You really had to be a gamer in the early 90s to truly appreciate the impact of Doom. There wasn’t quite anything like it at the time, and it inspired so many clones, knockoffs, and also-rans that it beggars the imagination. A lot of them have been lost to time, shareware and shovelware that never caught the same energy as the game they tried to ape. But a few survived and helped refine the formula. Two of these games were from Raven Software, Heretic and its sequel, Hexen. Instead of the far future, they went to a dark medieval past. Still full of monsters and violence, but wildly different, more intimate in a way that Doom didn’t quite capture. Slipgate Ironworks wanted to bring back the distinctive feel of those old Raven games with Graven, and they didn’t do too badly.  Which is kind of the problem.

Graven puts characters in the role of a priest of the Orthogonal Order, exiled for the crime of killing a fellow priest (despite him being a heretic in the middle of sacrificing your daughter for some profane rite). From a boat ride which calls back the opening sequence of Half-Life, you’re placed in the town of Cruxfirth, a small outpost of civilization on the edge of a massive swamp. You must venture forth into the meres and beyond, fighting off hordes of the undead and the unnatural cultists who’ve brought them back in an effort to thwart the dark forces who threaten the world.

That portcullis will open eventually. I just won’t be around to see it.

The visual side of Graven is unapologetically “lo-fi.” The art direction soaks us in Gothic vibes on every front. The slightly blocky looks of characters from regular townsfolk to the monsters trying to eat your face feels like it was something rigged up in 3D Studio MAX thirty years ago. The various environments are mostly squarish, with the slightly “sharp” corners on organic curved objects hinting at the time when ray-tracing was an all-day chore for pre-rendered images and you only had 16MB of VRAM to work with. It takes a certain level of talent to make a game look like it was made three decades ago. It takes more talent to make that visual aesthetic feel authentic. Yet there are little touches which hint at advanced techniques, such as portal techniques to show different skyboxes with certain confines, and the particle effects feel just a little more high end than the typical 2D sprites in some cases. Slipgate definitely did their homework.

Audio in Graven does a workman-like job. The opening narration from Stephen Weyte (Fire Emblem, Dusk) does a good job to set the story, but beyond that, there’s not much in the way of voice work outside of grunts, groans, and the occasional bit of Simlish from standoff-ish townsfolk. The score is moody and appropriately foreboding, but it loops a little too much, which takes away from its effectiveness. There’s plenty of clashing metal, rattling bones, and raven calls to delight the ears in the sound effects department.

“Oh, buddy, how badly did you screw up?”

It’s in the gameplay area where Graven stumbles somewhat. The fundamental mechanics of Doom-style “move and shoot” are right there. It’s at times hyper-kinetic and occasionally disorienting. Vertical traversal is either through obvious stairs and ramps or slightly less obvious (and more finicky) ladders. Reaching certain areas requires an awareness of how surfaces work and a willingness to cheese your way into them. Like any good Doom clone, there are secret areas with loot and restoratives around. And, much like the Raven games they’re taking inspiration from, there’s a lot of looping around, obvious doors that generally can only be opened from the other side.  As you progress, you can use the coin that drops from dead enemies to upgrade your gear (though magic spells require an extra component). So far, so good.

The stumbles happen in the details. There’s a larger array of weapons one can employ than one can easily display on the toolbar. Your inventory shows what you’ve gathered, and you can drag different items in there to change your loadout. However, your loadout bar at the bottom operates on the same mechanic as your inventory. A weapon takes up three boxes in the inventory page, it’ll take up three slots on the loadout bar instead of just one slot. It’s not an ideal system. And the logic for why some weapons take up a certain number of boxes seems to be disjointed. Ranged weapons having limited ammo, OK. Not even going to quibble with that. But it’s the melee weapons which Graven can’t quite seem to get right. They’ll hit hard (sorta), but the effective range of the weapons, how far back you can stand to land a hit, that’s a very big question mark. You can sorta dope it out eventually, but it’s the “eventually” part that kinda sticks sideways. It’s a problem, and it never feels entirely consistent.

“Ahhhh, the classic Savonarola recipe for heretic judgement.”

Another issue which plagues Graven is a lack of handholding and information. There’s a great deal of “figure it out for yourself” in its mechanics at every level. And it’s often tremendously obnoxious. More damningly, it somehow managed to get worse after leaving Early Access. Consider: in the Early Access version, you came across maps of various zones. After leaving EA, the map function was replaced with a “Game Guide” which serves as a pseudo-manual for the game, but definitely doesn’t show you where you are. More irritating, they seem to have changed around a number of quest rewards, making areas which were once accessible in Early Access blocked off until further progress is made. Of course, they don’t give you any indication of how to obtain these items. Not even cryptic clues which at least would give you something to look forward to. This leads to a lot of fumbling around, trying to find your way to the next section, and periodically getting murdered by monsters that have respawned in “cleared” areas and attack while you’re checking the quest journal to try and get a vague idea of where you are in the current fracas. And this was one of the lower “story-oriented” difficulty levels. It’s an often painful slog at the next-to-lowest level. I can’t imagine being so masochistic you’d want to try this at the hardest difficulty.

Graven stands as a technically proficient but somewhat flawed love letter to its forebears. It definitely captured the look, and was inadvertently faithful to the sound, but whether by accident or design, they missed the point on the gameplay. Puzzles and intricately laid out looping sections such are fine, but the very people most likely to play this game, those gamers who first had similar experiences thirty years ago, have thirty years of other experiences under their belts. They’re not teenagers and college kids who can pull marathon sessions at all hours anymore, fueled by Mountain Dew by the case and Cheetos by the gross. They’re fully grown adults with responsibilities that demand a lower amount of friction within the game. Making it harder for them to find their way around, to figure out the optimal loadouts, to actually play the damned game isn’t the right call, even if it’s faithful to the original Heretic and Hexen experience.

Axel reviewed Graven with a review code.

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