January 23, 2024
3D Realms, Fulqrum Publishing
GRAVEN is a dark fantasy first-person shooter, harkening back to the ‘boomer shooters’ of the late 90s. In this latest offering from Slipgate Ironworks, you take on the role of a priest who is mysteriously transported to a land ravaged by an unknown plague. You’re handed your trusty staff and set loose to uncover the secrets that are devastating this land, and potentially the whole world. You’ll fight through hordes of zombies, skeletons, cultists, and horrifying beasts as you search for the truth.
If you’re looking for a thrilling story, well, this ain’t the one. GRAVEN starts with real promise with a fantastic opening sequence that feels true to its 90s inspiration, including a Half-Life-esque ride through a mysterious land. But once you’re ashore, the story is delivered via snippets of text you find in letters around the world, and amounts to not much more than “stuff is bad”. You can chat to people in the main town, who will feed you a single line about how bad it is when there’s a big evil plague. But story is not this game’s main focus, and the opening highlights what this game does fantastically: atmosphere.
The 90’s aesthetic is absolutely dripping off this game from the second you hit the menu. Any time you click New Game or Continue you’re rewarded with a deep voice saying “GRAAAVEN”, which should really add a full point to the game’s score on its own. The vibe is executed really, really well here. The low-poly environments, the textures, the particle effects—they feel authentic and fun. The colour palette gets a little samey after a while, but the world is interesting and detailed enough to keep you hooked.
“The 90’s aesthetic is absolutely dripping off this game.”
The sound design is fantastic as well. As you walk past houses in the town square, you hear the muffled cries of those inside. The thunk of your staff against the world’s many breakable objects feels satisfying every time. As you creep around corridors, you hear the rattling of skeleton bones through the walls on the other side. Plus, the soundtrack has some real bangers, setting the mood of this desolate and mysterious hellscape perfectly.
A Desolate Land
There’s a central town hub where you can upgrade your weapons and powers, with gates leading off into the different areas of the game. As you progress, you’re given new (vague) quests that lead you into more and more of these dangerous zones. It’s a good thing the design is fun and immersive because you’ll be spending a lot of time in these areas. GRAVEN’s maps have branching paths that require backtracking to and fro to progress. Sometimes you’ll unlock a shortcut back to a previous area, which can help cut down on the amount of trekking, but don’t expect any fast travel.
There’s no map to be found here either – you’ve only got your memory to guide you through. But as you progress, trying to remember where the next door is, you’ll also have to keep an eye on your stamina bar. Running, jumping, and attacking all lower this, leaving you slower and annoyed until you wait for it to recharge. This is the first major stumble of the game’s design.
GRAVEN requires you to spend ages trudging back and forth, clearing enemies, looking for secrets, things that make you really want to keep sprinting instead of walking. Even worse, for some inexplicable reason when your stamina is low, you cannot jump high enough to clear lots of obstacles. There’s a trick to get past this – if you crouch at the top of your jump, you can usually get over them – but the experience of standing next to a step and waiting for your stamina to recharge just to get over it is truly infuriating. If you don’t wait long enough, your stamina will run out again from that one jump, and you’ll just be waiting at the very next step again. It feels like the game is reaching out and slowing you down for no reason, and when the level design feels like it’s doing the exact same thing, it’s way harder to have fun in the world that’s been created.
GRAVEN has a strong emphasis on melee combat, but it doesn’t land all the swings it makes. At first, the staff you begin with makes for a great weapon – swinging it at zombies, dancing back and forth to avoid their blows, and landing your own. With a couple of whacks, most objects in the world disintegrate – crates, barrels, and corpses explode into a mess of gibs, sometimes leaving treasure behind. It’s undeniably fun to walk around whacking everything for a while. But before long it’s taking more and more swings to take down more and more powerful enemies, and you’re dancing back and forth for longer and longer before moving on. You can upgrade the weapons as you go, but unless you grind for heaps of gold, you’ll find the enemies outpacing your upgrades very quickly.
As you progress you unlock more weapons, medieval-style takes on classic shooter mainstays (like a shotgun that you load lots of tiny rocks into and blast full-force at your enemies). These are really fun when you can use them – but the pacing of ammo and enemies means you’ll find yourself reaching back for the staff very quickly, partly to save ammo for the trickier enemies in the game.
Magic In The Air
The other weapon you have is a spellbook, but it almost feels not worth mentioning. You get a fire and a lightning spell, but beyond their use in environmental puzzles (like burning the planks blocking a door, or starting some machinery to open a gate), these feel completely ineffective in combat. They feel hollow as you hold them down on an enemy and wait – not exciting, like burning a pile of zombies should be. You can also get upgrades for your staff that add magical effects, like one that yeets enemies across the map as you hit them (which I highly recommend using for the joy of watching a skeleton fly through the air). But each swing of these costs you mana, and once again you run out before you know it.
There are a few really great encounters in this game. In one section (after a heavy dose of backtracking), you are lifted into a set of battlements as the music swells and a bunch of ammo is dumped at your feet. After running from tower to tower, dodging projectiles, and blasting through skeletons, you reach an elevator back down – straight into an arena filled with enemies thirsty for your blood. Your only hope is to run and gun, weaving through walls and grabbing health pickups wherever you can. It’s thrilling, but these moments are few and far between in GRAVEN, which otherwise seems to make a point that it doesn’t want you to play like that. They’re left feeling out of place.
Blast(ing skeletons) From The Past
Therein lies the question – if you’re developing a retro-style game, do you bring the flaws of the past forward? How much frustrating design is justified if you’re trying to capture a specific feeling? Those are questions that only you as a player can answer. Some will love the backtracking, the obtuse level design, and the feeling of moving through this world slowly and methodically. They represent a problem to overcome, a challenge to hack away at, and perhaps eventually master. But the balance here just doesn’t feel particularly good, especially for a game that was not created in the 90s. GRAVEN wants you to treat it like a puzzle, untangling its layers as you proceed, but those layers just aren’t all that exciting – and the otherwise fun parts of the game suffer for it.
“The most fun I had in this game was when it let me go wild… but those moments were few and far between.”
If the game leaned more into its boomer-shooter mode, the slow pace would be less of a problem. If you were sprinting around the areas, blasting skeletons with plentiful ammo, then this kind of backtracking and exploration could be really fun. But the game wants you to take a more considered approach – ammo is more precious, health potions are scarce, and you lose valuable currency every time you die. The most fun I had in this game was when it let me go wild in the world it had created, but those moments were few and far between and I was left disappointed. Plus, every single time you quit the game and restart it, you start from a central town square and have to run all the way back to wherever you were last. As someone who plays games in shorter sessions, I did not appreciate that. Not at all.
You probably already know if you’re going to like GRAVEN. If you’re a fan of 90s-style shooters then there’s a lot to like here – the design is delightful, there are fantastic gameplay moments, and you can spend hours looking for all the secrets. But if you’ve been looking to get into the genre, this isn’t the one. The best retro-style games are the ones that take something familiar and innovate on it, playing with your expectations and delivering experiences that learn from years and years of games like them. That’s the missing ingredient I was cravin’, that would have had me ravin’ for GRAVEN.
- Gorgeous 90s inspired design
- A bangin' soundtrack
- Heaps of secrets to discover
- Immersive atmospheric
- Too much backtracking
- Frustrating stamina design slows you down
- Limited gunplay that never reaches its potential
- Very barebones story
GRAVEN’s shortcomings will hold you back from really enjoying it. Although the design and atmosphere are great, it’s not enough to overcome the frustrating gameplay loop. Fans of the genre will find plenty to enjoy, but for most, the overall experience is likely to tip more into the frustrating than the exciting.