FBT gains Early Access to the 90s

There’s so many throwback to the 90s games now, what will developers in the 2030s throw back to? Retro-retro games? And Graven is another, living and breathing the era – but does it stand apart from all the other 90s atheistic retro games that have become commonplace?

We’re a pissed-off priest roaming a pestilence-infested medieval location (Like Hexen) wielding a staff and a crossbow while picking up vials of health (Like Heretic), meleeing with our Mighty Foot (like Duke 3D) in a Quake-like world. I’m not sure what we’re up to, as this is still Early Access and unfinished, but it has something to do with Priest failing to stop his adopted daughter being sacrificed by his Order. Cast out, the priest seeks revenge against the heretics who are warping the Order to their own needs (Like in Blood).

But this isn’t a modern-retro shooter like Ion Fury, Dusk or Prodeus; I’m doing Graven a disservice lumping it with the Doom-Quake honouring games. Most see Graven as Heretic/Hexen but it put me in mind of the Wolfenstein-powered Strife; it’s not completely linear, there’s missions, safe areas, puzzles, NPCs you can chat to – well, click on and get a one-liner response. It’s great. Or will be.

Even in Early Access, this is a pure 90s fantasy world. Lightning cracks, fog rolls, gothic spires stick up, crows (or maybe ravens) gather in wizened trees, there’s caves, sewers, church yards, stone and iron buildings. I feel at home here – or at least back in my teenage bedroom. A wrinkly old man ferries you across a swamp to the town which is muddy and medieval, filled with houses with X’s painted on doors; rats scurry, flies fly, dead bodies pile up, and barred gates with zombified arms reaching out surround the besieged town; this place is calling out for a hero to save the day, and I am here.

While I’m happily lost in the world, there’s still a few elements to be ironed out, but that’s what Early Access is for… one sticking point is getting used to checkpoints. They feel out of place in the era of Quicksave and aren’t exactly consistent. It’s a drag to get offed, which happens a lot, and then have to amble all the way back to where you were – the game saves all your looting and killing, which is grand, but that also means after a few failed attempts, ammo and health gets thin on the ground, making progress even tougher.

And if you happen to be near a checkpoint and die, you respawn right there with no stamina, 30% health and right next to what just killed you. I once passed a checkpoint in mid-air then got killed, which meant every reload I’d drop and land on some spikes, lose 50% of my 30% health and then have to slog back through a completely rinsed area in no fit state for a fight.

Restarting the game replaces all the ammo and crates, so sometimes it’s easier to just quit and push through again than keep trying, except the game restarts in the village and that might be miles from where you were headed. And restarting sometimes causes doors to relock meaning you have to go back and kill your way to a key again.

Other annoyances are it’s missing a mission marker which might seem lightweight but some of the quest parameters, maps and goals are vague. Someone might suggest an old house, cave or other location worth exploring but you’ll have no idea where that is. Explosive barrels and loot barrels are almost identical which is funny unless you’re miles from a checkpoint, and something that’ll upset the mage crowd is spells aren’t lethal. A scroll I found suggests they don’t intend to weaponise spells, which is fair enough but it is frustrating when you’re out of ammo and a fire spell destroys everything but only singes the bad guys – although in fairness, sparking an explosive barrel near them does the trick. Loot barrel not so much. At best they’re stunners or distractions and mostly for solving puzzles/barriers.

The bad guys aren’t particularly threatening to look at – zombies, leaping beasts, weird one-eyed bats, skeletons, super-fast monks and so on, but they’re pure 90s and each area reveals another nasty to put down. It’s constantly evolving the threats and supposedly the final game will have 30+ monsters. Just hope there’s 30+ ammo and health too.

And they’re all brutally lethal. I hope it’s a balancing issue to be tweaked, but I think it’s just being realistic/sadistic. A zombie takes 3+ arrows to the head and taking a hit from one costs you easily a quarter of your health – and they’re the lowest level creature there. Also, you can swing your staff point blank and miss, while the undead never miss, even when you’re out of reach. The first few hours are a real slog – made worse for me because I missed the sword pick up and was stuck with a walking stick for the whole game. I did find some great weapons later on though that evened the score. No ammo, but can’t have everything.

Which does draw attention to the level design. It looks great but it’s very easy to get lost, lose track and never really figure out where you’re going or have been – even if you watch a YouTube video explaining where to find the sword.

But, to hell with all that complaining. Graven has got a charm to it, reminding me not just of the Heretic/Hexen games, but that whole fantasy period of Strife, ShadowCaster or Elder Scrolls Arena – hell, all the way back to Bard’s Tale and Sabrewolf, where Dungeons and Dragons was the main influence before Doom influenced everything. I sometimes struggle with reloading old games, finding they don’t meet my memories and have just aged out – or I have. But Graven captures the period perfectly, it’s a lovely little game, effective and committed to that era but with just enough modern sensibility to keep you in the game. A better starting weapon than a dull stick wouldn’t have gone a miss though. Even Caleb started with a pitchfork to keep the zombies at bay.

Previously known as Interceptor Entertainment, developers Slipgate Ironworks (a nod to one of Romeo’s post-id dev companies) has had a bloody hand in multiple retro/pure FPS games, starting with the 10/10 Rise of the Triad remake, Bombshell, Wrath, Ghostrunner and many more, along with the in-coming remasters of Kingpin and SiN. Those guys know their shit and their shooters. Best thing is, as an Early Access game, Graven can only get better.