Graven Review – An Old-School Identity Crisis

Graven is a new action title looking to tap into several different ideas at once. Whether they work together or not, however, is a different conversation.

Posted By | On 25th, Jan. 2024

Graven Review – An Old-School Identity Crisis

There’s no shortage of the genre colloquially referred to as the boomer shooter these days. From games considered by many to be masterpieces to smaller, more experimental takes on the genre, there’s bound to be a boomer shooter for just about everyone out there.

Set in a dark fantasy world, Graven puts players into the shoes of an exiled protagonist that has been sent to a mysterious swamp. During the boat trip, however, it becomes abundantly clear that something is very deeply wrong with the swamp, and with nothing better to do, the protagonist decides to jump into the fray and figure out what’s going on. The plot in Graven isn’t going to win any awards by any stretch. It does, however, do an excellent job of giving you a vague objective that can be worked towards, while also creating an incredibly interesting world to explore.

The first thing that will jump out to anyone on starting Graven is just how well the game manages to meld its use of a classic low-poly art style. The art style is meant to evoke a certain nostalgia for games from the late 90s and early 00s, while at the same time making use of modern techniques for various aspects like lighting and level design. The use of modern technology isn’t particularly hard to spot either, since the game’s approach to level design, destructibility and lighting are very clearly making use of current techniques.

It’s thanks to these very visuals that the best thing about Graven becomes abundantly clear to anyone playing—the game knows how to lay down a thick atmosphere. Regardless of what you’re doing, be it exploring a small swamp town ravaged by a mysterious plague and beset by enemies, or underground ruins where the drainage system has been blocked off by piles of corpses, there’s always a level of dread that follows the player thanks in large part to the game’s excellent visuals and art design.

When it comes to gameplay, Graven has a lot more going on than you’d expect. Starting the game out with little more than a staff as a melee weapon and maybe a couple of health potions, Graven initially feels a bit like an RPG. The feeling grows deeper as you crawl into the depths of your first dungeon, where you’ll find your first “ranged” attack—a fire spell. This magic ability isn’t really a real attack, since its primary use is setting environmental objects on fire, and occasionally making enemies take a damage-over-time effect. It is at this point that it becomes clear that Graven might just have a problem with picking a lane and sticking to it.

Graven is trying to be several things—a simplistic open world-ish RPG complete with quest logs, side quests, and even an economy, a tough-as-nails boomer shooter with strange weapons and magic abilities, and even a dungeon crawler with puzzles that have to be solved with the use of the environment and the player’s own abilities. Unfortunately, it’s this lack of focus that makes Graven feel like a rather incomplete title.

graven

"Graven has a lot more going on than you’d expect."

Let’s take combat, for instance. Graven has a host of different weapons available, like a crossbow, a powerful sword, and various magical abilities. Where the combat tends to fall apart, however, is the complete lack of reactions from enemies for anything other than the killing blow. Even the weakest of enemies, like zombies or skeletons, will barely react to being shot by a crossbow bolt, and wacking them with a staff does little more than push them slightly off-balance. The first fire spell you get is also guilty of this, with it being incredibly difficult if you’ve successfully managed to set someone on fire.

On the flip side, it’s not like you can level up and get better abilities to then be able to take on enemies in more destructive ways. Graven isn’t really an RPG, and your only real form of progression is through acquiring new weapons, spells, and potions by either going out in the world and exploring it, or by spending some of your well-earned gold at the nearest blacksmith or alchemist. The journal—an incredibly useful tool in any RPG to keep track of what you were doing—also manages to be little more than a to-do list. You’re not really going to get to make meaningful choices or pick up interesting side quests like you would in an RPG, and the best you can expect from the journal is that it might occasionally give you directions to your next objective.

Even the fact that messing around with the environment is supposed to be a pretty big deal in Graven is more of a surface-level idea than anything. You can’t really get up to immersive sim-styled shenanigans where you get the freedom to figure out your own unique solutions to problems presented by the title. Rather, Graven is strict about what kind of objects in the world you can interact with, and what you can’t. Furniture is an interesting example here, since you can freely use your staff to break apart just about anything you see inside a house, as long as it’s not a shelf. For some reason, shelves are completely indestructible. The world’s interactivity is ultimately in service of keeping the player bound to a linear path rather than offering any new, unique ways solutions to puzzles or combat challenges.

"Graven is quite strict about what kind of objects in the world you can interact with"

The general gameplay of Graven feeling incredibly weak and rather dull does quite a disservice to what is an otherwise very interesting looking game. I want to know what’s going on in this weird swamp, and I’m incredibly curious about what’s going in the rest of the world. The art design being top notch also doesn’t help matters, since despite how lovingly-crafted the dungeons in Graven might be, it doesn’t take long to realize that it has all been in service to a game with fundamentally unsatisfying gameplay.

On a very fundamental level, Graven feels like it’s going through something of an identity crisis. It tries to present this interesting dark fantasy setting in much the same style something like a FromSoftware title would, through the use of environmental storytelling. It also sometimes pretends to be a proper RPG with unique spells, a quest log, and even a character screen that doesn’t really give you any useful information aside from telling you how much gold you have. And then there are its attempts to be a classic fast-paced shooter in the vein of classic games. Sadly, none of these different ideas of what Graven is trying to be ends up being particularly successful.

Graven is one of those games where I really wish I could enjoy it. The world it presented, as well as its art style that feels like an excellent throwback to late 90s shooters were incredibly interesting. Sadly, none of its mechanics ever feel like the mesh together in a satisfying way, and the combat itself feels like it’s there out of obligation, rather than to present any real gameplay challenge that might be interesting or fun for the player.

This game was reviewed on PC.


THE GOOD

Looks great; Interesting world and environmental storytelling; Excellent atmosphere.

THE BAD

Gameplay feels bland; Disparate game design ideas that never feel cohesive; Surface level ideas from several genres never feel deep enough to be interesting.

Final Verdict:
FAIR
Graven feels like it’s a game with a identity crisis. Along with being a boomer shooter, it also feels like it’s trying to be an RPG, a dungeon crawler, and an immersive sim. Sadly, none of these ideas really feel like they come together well enough, and even the core combat feels incredibly unsatisfying owing to a lack of hit reactions from enemies. This is a shame, considering how interesting its world actually ends up being.
A copy of this game was provided by Developer/Publisher/Distributor/PR Agency for review purposes. Click here to know more about our Reviews Policy.

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