The Grave Digger [Review]
How do you make grave robbing into a video game? Ask Home Groan Games, as they made a fun romp through picking over corpses in The Grave Digger. Tasked with digging up bodies and relieving them of their treasure, you’ll get to explore many different, cheerful graveyards and dodge the restless undead that you’ve disturbed through your desecrations. Don’t expect to just whack ghosts over the head with your shovel and get away, though. You wake the dead; you run. If you’re interested in a little stealth robbery where your life is on the line, The Grave Digger will keep you entertained.
Let’s get the game’s looks right off the table now, all right? It looks like a high end game from over a decade ago. The polygons are huge, the characters look blocky, the faces are really small, and the areas don’t look that great. Monsters look awful during their close ups after they kill you (I’m looking at you, soldier), making me wish the developers never zoomed in on anything. The good part is that game mostly plays at a good distance, showing the playing field from far enough away that the details on the enemies aren’t so offensive. The screenshots and videos of the game all show it from those close angles, and they don’t do the game any justice at all. You will not be seeing things from that close all that often.
So, when you’re playing The Grave Digger it doesn’t actually look that bad. You look down on the playing field from an overhead view that shows you a lot of the finer details on the creatures and enemies without making it abundantly clear how big the polygons they’re composed of are. The game doesn’t look too bad at all from that distance, with the bride looking particularly chilling from overhead. There are trails of what look like blood or tears down her dress, and her withered bouquet looks pretty gruesome. Other ghosts benefit from the vague details you can see on them from that distance, making the little girl look pretty creepy, as well as the old woman. The developers really played the view to their strengths, and made something that looks a lot better than many might give credit for.
The sound design is a little hit or miss, though. I laughed a little bit at the Batman parody in the preview trailer for the game, but the voice of the main character in The Grave Digger sounds even more haggard and grizzled than that. I thought I would never hear a voice as deep and scratchy as the guy who played Mors in the Game of Thrones…game, but your character makes him sound like a Powerpuff Girl. I loved hearing his voice, and that of his partner Tully. Tully rarely opens his mouth without saying something fun to hear, and his voice is just so dopey that I always looked forward to any exchanges between the two men. As for the ghosts, the sound made by the small girl ghost sent chills up my spine. There was nothing strange about it, but just hearing a little girl crying for her mom in these ghost-filled graveyards creeped me out a bit.
The monster calls in general aren’t all that good, though. The soldier is the worst by far, crying out ‘Halt’ in about as straight of a tone as possible. It’s got nothing on the creatures in Alone in the Dark: One Eyed Jack’s Revenge (That needs to be heard to be believed. Check the 8 minute mark in the video and listen reaaaaaaal carefully), but it’s shouted in a lifeless tone that just did nothing for me. The bride’s cry is just short of being creepy, but it did get the jump on me a few times when it came from off-screen. It feels almost a little too forced and crazy to me, but the urgency and panic in the scream might appeal to other horror fans. There wasn’t much in the way of ambient music in the game either. I barely detected any change in the music through the game’s eighteen levels (plus one bonus one), and while there were some spooky sounds that played, they felt a little bit like they’d just been taken off of a Halloween tape. They work sometimes and do provide a nice backdrop, but there’s not a whole lot of variety.
One tone you’ll be hearing more than anything is the one that plays when you’re being chased by a ghost. It’s a bit droning, but it does make it very clear that you’re in trouble and it heightened my panic at those times. That tone gets a little bit more complex with each additional ghost that chases you, creating this cool effect where you’d instantly know if another ghost saw you just by the change in music. It’s very handy for the basic ghosts, as they don’t make a whole lot of noise when they see you, making the tone invaluable. Even so, I wish the tone was a bit more interesting to listen to just based on how often I hear it. It also lacks some punch, so I never really felt all that scared of the monsters that were chasing me.
How did you get in trouble with those ghosts to begin with, though? Well, your job is digging up graves for loot in the game, so the second your shovel touches the ground you’re in trouble. The maps all start without any ghosts in them until you do something, so I strongly suggest getting to know your surroundings before you dig. The early maps aren’t all that complicated so there’s not much to keep track of, but as the stages move on you really need to know as much of the arena as you can before you begin. The developers were kind enough to let you explore big chunks of the map in advance, and I suggest you take advantage of that. You may be able to open some doors and set off some helpful beacons before things get bad.
Once you’re ready to go, you can hit a button to start digging. Depending on what difficulty you’re playing on, the graves take more digging to get the loot from. As you dig, the camera will also move in closer to your character, making it harder to see if there are any ghosts closing in on you. It takes a couple of seconds for you to put your shovel away, so if you don’t see a ghost after the first few shovelfulls of dirt, you might not see it until it’s too late. It helps to watch your surroundings for a few minutes before you start to dig, making sure nothing is coming your way.
The ghosts all have varied patrol routes that they tend to stick to. The basic ghosts are the most troublesome in this regard, as they change direction erratically. They move the slowest so they’re the only ones you can avoid for any length of time, though, so they’re manageable. They start coming in huge packs very early on to counter that fact, though. Soldiers follow a route very rigidly, to the point where they won’t pursue you if you leave the area they’re protecting. Knowing their limit will save your life a lot in this game. Brides work similar to soldiers and follow a set path, but they will never stop chasing you once they see you. They’re pretty much a death sentence if you haven’t set up a beacon (A checkpoint light, essentially) to hide under. Old women stand still, but will home in on your location whenever a ghost is chasing you no matter where you are on the map. Finally, little girls call ghosts to them if they see you, and you might swiftly find the entire graveyard hanging around one spot if you don’t escape.
Watching the routes these enemies take is the only way to win. Basic ghosts can be lead off of their routes if you get close enough and kite them to a new area, as they lose interest in you if you move a certain distance away. Other enemies are much more difficult to shake from their paths, so you need to watch them for moments when their backs are turned. Once you get good at discovering that, you often have to find the best time to start digging when the ghost’s not looking, as it takes a few precious seconds to stop digging if one catches sight of you when you haven’t finished. It turns digging into a tense process, as your screen is zooming in and hiding nearby ghosts from you while you pray that nothing is sneaking up behind you to kill you. Hearing one of the ghosts cry out when you’re in mid-dig is the closest this game comes to being terrifying.
Figuring out when an enemy can see you can be a bit frustrating. The basic ghosts only see you when you’re pretty much on top of them, but the brides and soldiers are harder to guess. They seem to have a line of sight out from them in a cone that only stops if it’s blocked by another object, so you often have to guess at whether you’re out of sight enough for them not to notice you. I got seen by a ghost I was practically standing behind, though, so you may get caught a couple of times when you’re not suspecting it. Considering that it is almost impossible to ditch the bride and soldier in some situations, this makes the game pretty hard. It’s a tough learning curve at times, but if you play cautiously you can typically work with it. I really only got upset about it a handful of times over the whole game. Still, it makes for some intense situations when you’re skulking behind a bride, praying you won’t get caught.
Managing the ghosts’ line of sight and digging the holes in time makes for a lot of fun. It’s a tense atmosphere when you settle in to dig, even on the lowest difficulty, as you really have a hard time knowing when something is going to stumble across you. All it takes is one ghost shouting for you and you’ll find yourself on a harrying chase to the last beacon you lit up; assuming you even get up fast enough. It stressed me out every time I sat down to dig, and left me cackling with glee every time I pulled up something from a grave and got away.
The graveyards get progressively bigger and more challenging as the game moves on. The spaces you have to mess with get a lot tighter, and the setups for the doors and passageways get more complex. You might have to spend a couple of lives messing around with the ghosts and seeing their travel routes before you get to the end of many of these areas. One of the hardest was a graveyard that went pitch black the moment I began to dig. Poking around in the dark while hoping I wouldn’t run into anything was pretty difficult and satisfying to beat. Beyond that, the ghost placement gets pretty ingenious over time, although never to the point where I got angry with the game.
There were some glitches that made my life a lot easier than the developers intended, though. I found this out while running away from a bride. I thought there was a chance I could run around a grave and lose her (the holes you dig can’t be walked over by you or the ghosts). It was near a cliff, so I was trying to be careful, but apparently she wasn’t as she flew right off the side and never came back. It made the rest of the level a lot easier. Considering the main character can fall of those cliffs and die, that may not have been a glitch.
Being able to walk through iron grates was definitely a glitch, though. I never picked up on it until I tried to swing around an open grave to lose a ghost again, but I could walk straight through the iron grates that were meant to block my path. Luckily, I only found out in the 17th level (although it was incredibly useful in that stage), but it’s a huge glitch that wasn’t hard to find. Considering I could walk through these grates and the ghosts couldn’t, that’s a big issue. Nothing a patch can’t fix, though. Besides, with how annoyed I was getting at that stage, I welcomed the break.
Also, they had a final boss! And it worked really well with the theme! I was really impressed with the last stage and how it capped the whole game off. It was an intense standoff with the final creature, and the game used its digging mechanic to create a fun fight. It seems like a pretty small thing, but considering how many lackluster final bosses there have been in games lately, it was nice to see a studio get the last boss right.
I had a good time dodging ghosts and digging up treasures. The game’s fun sense of humor and tense gameplay kept me playing the game even when I was laughing at the huge polygons in the sprites. The game doesn’t look like much, but the creepy atmosphere and stealth gameplay made it hard to put down. It has several issues, but nothing that will bog it down for a stealth fan who is looking for something different. It’s not terribly difficult (except the bonus stage, which was meant to crush the human spirit), but it will give you a solid couple of hours of fun for your six dollars. A lot of heart went into this game, and it shows.
The Grave Digger can be bought from the developer’s site.