You might notice that Graven sounds a lot like Hexen, and that’s probably deliberate. Touted a spiritual successor to the 1995 dark fantasy FPS, I was tempted to just look up some details and run with it in a vaguely official sounding games writer tone for a bit, but truthfully, I never played Hexen. I jumped into Graven because it looked a bit like Monolith’s 1997 game Blood and a bit like David Szymanski’s 2018 game Dusk. It’s not actually entirely like either of those games, but – if the hour long demo is representative – it is bloody excellent.
Since I went into Graven expecting something that riffs on classic boomer shooters, my first surprise was that I wasn’t immediately dropped into a pit of speedy bastards with a shotgun, but instead embarked a lengthy ferry ride through accursed swamps while a wizened boatman spoke forbiddingly at me. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but I think he mentioned a place called ‘shit’ and how everything around me had gone there.
I had a few out loud “damn” moments on that ferry ride, soaking up the artistry that has gone into creating the sense of place that really sets Graven apart. There’s grimly funny gallows humour, and then there’s something so utterly grim it goes right round the wheel and becomes funny again. After the boat ride, you end up in a village. Graven’s peasantry are almost Monty Python-esque in the sheer scale of their evident suffering, and the town and surrounding swampland are deliciously moody, dripping with grime, grunge, and despair. Ten minutes into the game, I wanted a wash, but I couldn’t find a source of water that wasn’t clogged up with corpses.
Exploring Graven feels open, bordering on an RPG. In the demo, at least, there were no distinct and separate stages. A town, catacombs, and the surrounding outskirts all flowed into one another. I get the feeling this is some of that Hexen DNA, how Graven seems more an action adventure wearing a 90s shooter trench coat. Combat is fast, immediate, and brutal, but exploration and puzzles are more complex and expansive. And, once again, there’s that sense of place tying everything together – a world to explore, rather than abstracted stages to beat.
You start off with a staff, which fills the time-honoured video game archetype of ‘big stick to hit things with’. You can also kick, which adds extra timing and strat to melee. First person melee has a lot to measure up to in a post-Vermintide world, but there’s something very satisfying about Graven’s nippy swings and squishy skulls. Gold coins collected from pots and corpses can buy you additional gear, including swords, flails, and a wrist-mounted crossbow.
You’ve got a spellbook too, which plays into both exploration puzzles and combat. You start with a fire spell, the jets of flame you release from your palms able to ignite barrels, and you’ll quickly find a lightning spell to stun enemies. You can electrocute water pools and work machinery with it, suggesting some tasty immersive sim reactivity later down the line. You get a nice pool of MP, too, so you don’t have to be stingy about spellcasting. Burn everything. Go on, no-one’s looking.
I am very, very curious to explore more Graven, and to see which parts of the formula it expands on. Will there be optional quests? How expansive will the spellbook and weapon inventory end up? What other ungodly monstrosities will emerge from its cursed swamps? Will I finally be tempted to give Hexen a go? Hopefully I’ll get some answers when Graven releases later this year on pretty much all platforms.