Graven comes crawling out of the primordial 90s FPS soup that birthed classics like Hexen and Heretic. You may not have heard much about this one yet unless you’re tuned into the boomer shooter scene. It’s a brand new game minted fresh in 2024 by the grizzled vets at 3D Realms. But while it’s technically new, one look at Graven immediately blasts you back through a portal into 1996.
This dark fantasy fragfest wears its old school influences on its torn, tattered sleeve. The visuals, the sound design, even down to the floaty movement – Graven is a love letter scribbled in blood to the boxy shooters many of us cut our teeth on. It’s like finding a killer metal album recorded decades ago that somehow never got released.
You fill the steel-toed boots of a dishonored priest who may or may not have accidentally murdered a child and got the death sentence for it. The details are hazy because the intro dumps way too much turgid backstory on you. All you need to know is everyone thinks you’re scum and you’ve got a second chance to set things right. Of course that means delving into plague-ridden dungeons and blasting shambling horrors into piles of fleshy bits with an unholy arsenal.
So in terms of nuts and bolts, at its core Graven leans heavily on old school FPS run-and-gun action with spells and swords instead of shotguns. But there’s a hearty helping of adventure game DNA spliced into its guts too. You’ll spend as much time puzzling your way through tunnels and tombs, hunting for keys and switches, as you will reducing zombies to red paste.
Descending Into Darkness
Graven dumps you straight into a gnarly dark fantasy nightmare from the get-go. Your journey begins on a creaky boat drifting down a murky river, surrounded by an ominous, mist-cloaked bayou forest. Makes the Shire look downright cheery.
You play as a fallen priest of some sort, exiled for apparently shanking a child in self defense. The details around that are about as clear as the river you’re floating down though. And the plot doesn’t really give you much meat to sink your teeth into as you go either. There are hints of a wider plague and general bad mojo threatening the land, but it’s mostly just an excuse to throw you into creepy dungeons and present you with an endless buffet of nasties to slay.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Especially when said nasties seem ripped straight from a 80s metal album cover. As you’d expect from a retro shooter there’s no shortage of undead abominations, corrupted beasts, robed cultists and worse to paint the walls with. You’ve got your standard shambling zombies in a few putrid flavors. Rabid hellhounds that pounce like spiky cannonballs. Misshapen brutes wielding massive maces. And let’s not forget the flying acid-spitters that made me invent entirely new curse words.
It’s just that aside from providing wave after wave of wonderfully hideous foes, Graven doesn’t bring much to the table in terms of storytelling or lore. There’s no memorable characters to latch onto. No jaw dropping plot twists or mysteries that left me dying to unravel them. But again, no huge loss there when your priority is delivering delicious old school demon slaying action just like mama used to make.
If pounding stakes through bloodied vampire hearts or smelling the charred flesh of a flame broiled ice wraith gets your motor running, Graven has enough gory ambiance to satisfy. Just don’t expect more than the thinnest of narrative threads tying all the monster mashing together.
Get Your Crawl On
Graven blends old-school shooter action with a hearty dose of dungeon crawling adventure. The result is a mutant stew that pays tribute to boxy FPS ancestors like Hexen while stirring in a pinch of Elder Scrolls.
Things kick off with a pretty boring melee weapon – a simple staff that feels about as deadly as a pool noodle. Whacking undead with it over and over quickly gets old. But that’s just the opening amuse bouche. Your arsenal diversifies before long with the addition of a wrist-mounted crossbow, fire/lighting spells, and eventually classic weapons like a blade launcher that pins baddies to walls.
There’s solid variety here…in theory at least. Unfortunately putting holes in enemies rarely feels as crunchy satisfying as you want. Feedback is lacking and it’s tricky to tell if your blows are actually connecting or just grazing molecules of fart gas. Guns fare a bit better, especially heavy hitters like the ballista, but magic is an even bigger disappointment. Spells seem tailor made for lighting up dungeons rather than baddies. Their damage is so pitiful most skeletons just laugh them off.
Boss battles are another mixed bag. They shake up the rhythm with multi-phase fights, but with no real mechanical twists. Just bulkier bad guys you whittle down while trying not to get combo womboed by their heavier hits. A couple do stand out, like a shield bearing minotaur who requires some environmental problem solving. But most feel more like an endurance test than a white knuckle challenge.
The saving grace is Graven’s exploration and puzzle solving. Each new area challenges you to seek out keys, levers, switches – anything to open the next gate barring your way. The level design can get a tad repetitive when it falls back on grabbing three medallions to activate something over and over. But there’s generally enough environmental riddles and secrets to keep the journey satisfying as you delve deeper into dungeons.
Just don’t expect to manually save your progress. Graven rocks an old school checkpoint system that plops you back at home base whenever you exit. It fits the retro vibe but also means retreading steps constantly. Annoying yes, but also gives ample opportunity to admire the killer environmental art and aroma. Take a whiff – you can almost smell the decay!
Beauty And The Beast
Graven absolutely nails the visual presentation of a grimy retro FPS. The environments are intricately detailed, slathered in gloom, and pulsating with atmosphere. From the rickety village streets to the winding catacombs below, every area oozes menacing charm. Smashing boxes and barrels unleashes satisfying splinters and the monsters themselves animate smoothly during combat.
It’s clear the artists poured their dark hearts into crafting a pixel-perfect paradise for fans of 90’s shooters. The visual style transports you through a portal to 1997 even more convincingly than the stellar sound design. Graven looks so authentically boxy that when widescreen support kicks in it’s oddly jarring!
Of course nailing the retro aesthetics is one thing – making it run smoothly is another. This is where Graven trips over its robes a bit. Performance is less than spellbinding, with sporadic frame rate hitches and loading hiccups. It’s not a deal breaking slideshow by any means, but the chugging framerates and long load screens do distract from the devilish atmosphere.
I played on a high end rig and still encountered occasional sluggishness which suggests the developers need to polish their sorcery. The good news is these dips predominantly plagued the opening area. Once you break free of the dreary town and delve into wider environments, things smooth out considerably. But there’s definitely still room for optimization with spells and effects.
It’s a testament to the wicked environments and gruesome opponents that you push on regardless of the occasional hitching. Graven’s ability to nail the retro audio-visual experience outweighs the technical blemishes – but only just. A few more patches could work wonders in helping the game match the silky smooth tempo of its boomer shooter inspirations.
Back For Seconds With Graven
Beyond the initial 12-plus hour romp from plague-stricken town through depths of the damned, Graven offers a few tempting morsels to keep you coming back for more after those end credits (well “end”, no actual credits) roll.
For starters, the world design lends itself nicely to replays if you’ve got an explorer’s heart. There’s plenty of hidden secrets and stashes to sniff out beyond the critical path that can take even attentive players additional runs to uncover. We’re talking bonus weapons, gnarly armor sets, piles of gold, and even entirely optional areas if you poke around those gloomy environs thoroughly.
Some might feel motivated to dive back in on higher difficulties which remix enemy placement and consumable scarcity for a more white knuckled challenge. Personally I’d need some mechanical and combat improvements before subjecting myself to even beefier beatdowns though.
Those who enjoy dissecting game design could get a kick out of poking around Graven’s intricacies too. Seeing how skipping certain spells might impact progression, or speedrunning between checkpoints for bragging rights definitely carries appeal for the analytical crowd. Creative types can stretch their legs concocting custom character builds focused on melee over magic, and other experimental tweaks the game supports.
And honestly, sometimes you just want to zone out by reducing zombies to red mist again set to a killer retro synth soundtrack. Graven absolutely delivers enough ambiance-rich undead slaughter to warrant repeat visits on that front alone. Some games are a fun meal the first go round, but not worth sitting down to again. Graven may serve up an uneven plate on occasion, but the taste generally leaves you wanting seconds.
Graven Review: Final Thoughts
If you cut your teeth on Hexen, devoured classic D&D modules, or just have an insatiable appetite for dark fantasy, Graven will likely appeal despite its flaws. It nails the chilling retro aesthetics and gives you plenty of wonderfully grotesque beasts to slay across winding dungeon maps. Exploring the interconnected areas and solving environmental puzzles also captures that addictive old-school adventure itch.
Just don’t expect the same level of polish or tight design as modern entries in the genre like Dusk. Nostalgia can only carry Graven so far when its combat lacks visceral impact and the technical performance stutters. Floaty movement and imprecise weapons ensure fights feel more like flailing pool noodles rather than delivering crunchy tactical gunplay. The awesome spell effects end up mostly just solving puzzles too. What I’m sayin’ is the magic feels more Harry Potter than Gandalf the wicked.
Yet at the end of the day, Graven’s strength lies in delivering exactly what it promises – a grim slice of old school FPS adventuring with a darker, freakier edge. It sticks closely to the boxy blueprints of 90’s shooters, for better or worse. So if you can stomach the occasional jankiness and grind of backtracking through areas, there’s plenty of nasty dungeon romping fun to dive into here. Just make sure to pack your patience along with extra crossbow bolts and a fresh pair of chainmail underwear.
For all its flaws, Graven succeeds in channeling the dark allure of 90's shooters into a gooey, if imperfect, modern offering. There's pulpy B-movie charm oozing through its dank dungeons that will delight retro enthusiasts. Just brace for occasional jankiness mucking up the action.
- Nails the retro visual style and atmosphere
- Great monster design and variety
- Satisfying exploration and environmental puzzles
- Classic FPS action with added RPG elements
- Combat lacks visceral feedback
- Frustratingly floaty movement
- Performance issues with frame rate dips
- Backtracking can feel repetitive