Like many gamers, there’s a special place in my memory for those iconic first-person shooters from the 90s. You remember. Games like Heretic 1 and 2 and Hexen didn’t just move shooter mechanics and level design into a whole new realm, they oozed with metal menace and gothic atmosphere. Graven unabashedly aims to recreate the magic of those games, with a few modern improvements. Graven has been percolating in Early Access for some time and is finally releasing in its final form.
Time Travel Made Easy
Games like Quake 2, Duke Nukem, and later, Heretic pushed against the technology of the time. Even though they were essentially linear corridor shooters, their artistic design and aesthetics turned blocky blobs of pixels into 3D magic. We thought they were the height of realism. The sprays of low-poly red blood were visceral and stomach-churning. The monster-filled, gloomy dungeons reeked of evil.
I wax rhapsodic about these things because, more than anything, Graven seeks to reclaim those memories. Its particular and almost entirely successful magic comes from art, audio, and level design that perfectly mimics the feeling of playing those early games. But it’s an illusion. Compare Heretic 2 and Graven directly, and you’ll see the difference. Graven is a modern game wearing a sometimes ill-fitting retro costume.
For example, unlike Graven, Hexen didn’t have a town hub area, voiced NPCs, branching missions, or equipment upgrades. It barely had a story. These are all RPG mechanics that evolved over time. Graven begins with a long, narrated boat ride through a fetid swamp (the kind of opening that always suggests the start of Half Life). It dumps the player onto a rotting dock strewn with bodies and scurrying rats. It looks and feels old school, but it could be some parallel dimension version of Skyrim, too. The mix of old and new continues into the first dungeon through the final credits.
And the Award Goes to…
So, if there was an award category for the best retro-looking game, Graven would smoke the competition. It also literally seems to steal assets directly from Heretic and Hexen, like the health and mana pickups hiding in the breakable barrels and crates. Graven’s voice acting, audio design, and gloomy, spooky music perfectly complement the package. Like the metal, grimdark gothic fantasy art, they both pay homage to, and update, those early shooters.
Here’s where things get dicey and turn disappointing, though. For all its success with the form factor, it isn’t always fun to play. Those early shooters were all we had, but we’ve notched thirty years of game development since. Clunky, imprecise combat and frustrating checkpoints aren’t “old timely fun” for long. Graven’s obsessive dedication to its mission statement means that the gameplay never rises to the level of its visuals.
Combat in particular is a mixed success. While hours into the game you finally get an effective ranged weapon or two, you first have to struggle through a long tutorial dungeon with only a club and some primitive fire magic. Magic in Graven is especially disappointing, as it’s rarely effective as an offensive tool, mostly being used for puzzle-solving or manipulating the environment.
Melee combat is hindered by wildly inconsistent and frustrating hitboxes. It’s often a struggle to know exactly how and when to strike an enemy and there’s almost no feedback when you do. Especially early on, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by clots of enemies, so you just hope that your imprecise swings will hit something. Boss battles can be frustrating simply because of the game’s lack of mechanical finesse. Speaking of bosses, their difficulty is inconsistent, with some of the more challenging encounters occurring when you have the weakest tools.
It’s the Little Things
Graven is certainly a much more substantial game than its 90’s inspirations, with some elaborate dungeon areas and many satisfying puzzles. Though not quite an open world in the modern sense, the campaign moves between several large and reasonably varied zones. It takes quite a while for weapon and enemy variety to kick in. The opening hours, in fact, might turn off a lot of impatient shooter fans.
Those same fans might be frustrated by a handful of other design decisions. As health and magic pickups are often hidden in barrels and crates, players will be smashing an enormous number of them. An obtuse checkpoint system and coin-based upgrade mechanic mean that death can be especially punishing. Without cataloging every nit I have to pick, it just feels that while the game’s design includes ideas from recent action RPGs, and its visual style nails the early shooter vibe, the giddy sense of fun has gone missing.
Time-machine nostalgia and a pixel-perfect retro vibe can only carry Graven so far. Combat, exploration, and level design have to ferry the player to the end. Unfortunately, Graven has enough issues in these areas that its very promising premise isn’t quite fulfilled. Players who grew up with mid-90s shooters will appreciate what Graven has to offer, at least for a while. Ultimately, it might make them appreciate how far we’ve come.
***PC code provided by the publisher for review***
- Beautiful retro art style
- Excellent audio and music
- Generally good level design
- Interesting puzzles
- Melee combat and magic are weak
- Inconsistent pacing
- Frustrating checkpoint design