When I saw the key art (pictured above) of a wizard with a spell book, I was immediately interested. Casting spells and raining down destruction upon my enemies is the dream of any wannabe wizard. However, GRAVEN, at the moment, is not that.
GRAVEN has an impressive retro first-person shooter visual aesthetic. Textures have prominent pixels and models have rough polygonal edges. The world feels modern with anti-aliasing, consistent lighting, and other visual advancements, but also has that 90s 3D game charm. If you are not a fan of the pixel look, there is a texture smoothing filter option, but I think the sharpness of the pixels really adds to the mood and atmosphere.
The world is suffering from a horrible plague. Most of the infected populace have gone mad and attack people on sight. Other abominations and cult members also roam the land. You play as a priest who has been exiled from his order after a sacrifice they made. Now there are are heretics who are creating the plagues are out there and it is up to you to find and stop them. Honestly, after the opening cinematic I quickly forgot what the story was and had to look up the synopsis.
The reason for this is due to the storyline being bare-bones. The only story progressing was through quest objective updates, scattered lore notes, and a few simple dialogues. Dark fantasy plagues are fairly common settings at this point and without a different enough spin on things they begin to blur together. The only story I gleamed from the cracks were that people were decimated by the plague and the priest wants to go fix it by wandering around till they find another objective to do. Strong stories are key to keeping me invested in most games. Without a prominent narrative and reason I’m doing what I’m doing, I quickly find little reason to keep playing.
GRAVEN begins by sending your character to clear out some blockages in a sewer. However, there are no rats in this sewer. Only the insane infected who move surprisingly similar to undead, but technically they are not? Eh, details. You stumble upon a corpse and a find a loose page on the floor nearby. This page contains a fire spell! The priest appears to view magic in disdain, but reluctantly accepts that he needs magic to aid him and adds it to his book.
Here is where a major criticism lies for most players. This spell cannot be used offensively. You will not be setting enemies alight. Only candles, barrels, and other environmental objects will feel your magical matchstick powers! Instead, your character relies on traditional weapons to get the job done. Initially, you only have a staff and must side step enemies and get into an attack dodge rhythm. Eventually, you upgrade to more efficient medieval themed weaponry like swords and crossbows. The other spell I found could temporarily slow down enemies, but it was a hassle to swap quickly between the book and other weapons that I stuck with non-magic most of the time.
Combat in GRAVEN is…okay. Infected enemies shamble toward you and can do lunges to cover more ground. However, they make predictable swipes and after killing your first handful it quickly gets old. They often move in a conga line and can even jump into spike barriers one at a time if you stand in the right spot. A few more enemy types were introduced, but their attack patterns were equally simple. The scariest monsters were giant quadruped beasts that could sprint way faster than you and took many hits to take down. Out of sheer terror, I quickly discovered cheese tactics involving counting out the number of bolts that would down them from a distance. These enemies only attack when you get within a certain range so they merely stood idle while I pegged them to death. The weapons were neat, but I quickly felt like I was simply going through the motions and used the same, simple strategies each encounter.
As GRAVEN currently in development, expect to encounter bugs. While I originally did not notice any issues, upon reading complaints about buggy experiences, I reloaded my save and spawned in a test area. After testing following an update, all of my weapons were gone, making progress impossible.
GRAVEN is in early access and is obviously not close to a finished state. The idea is there, but other than the neat retro aesthetic and atmosphere, it was a milquetoast experience. I would recommend following the development updates and jumping on at a more stable point if you are interested. At the moment, there is about 3 or so hours of content depending on your playstyle, so expect essentially a lengthy demo build if you choose to buy a copy.
Note: GameOctane received a digital code from the publisher for the purpose of reviewing this game. Any code or product intended for review is distributed to the team to review and stream for our audience.
Check us out at Opencritic!