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GRAVEN – Demo Impressions

“I have come here to pet dogs and kick wooden crates. And I’m all out of dogs,” is what I imagine the protagonist of Slipgate Ironworks’ GRAVEN telling anyone who’ll listen. Really, there are a lot of crates in this demo and only one dog.

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A Wonderful Smell

GRAVEN is an immersive, dark fantasy first-person adventure with a late-90s graphical aesthetic. It casts you as a disgraced priest seeking answers and redemption in an accursed land. This limited, hour-ish-long demo was released on Steam to coincide with the 2020 Game Awards (I sure hope Bioware can finish that new Mass Effect before EA murders them). It’s been taken down at the time of writing and I can no longer play it, but fear not, I went through it twice beforehand and even made a few notes.

After awakening on a dinky boat drifting through the swamps, you arrive at the backwater village of Cruxfirth. There’s a blight on the realm, and the guards won’t let you in until you’ve cleared out the corpse piles causing a nasty plumbing blockage below the village. That’s right, GRAVEN begins with the sewer level. Most games like to lull the player into a false sense of security for a few hours before dunking them waist-deep in raw faecal matter, but that’s too long for GRAVEN. If this isn’t a power statement, I don’t know what is.

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Down here lurk the demo’s most common enemy: shambling plague victims driven to homicidal madness (don’t call them zombies). They move slow, but have a nasty lunge attack that covers a considerable distance. A few thwacks from your trusty staff will put them down, or a single accurate strike can take their heads clean off. You could try kicking them with your mighty boot, but that’s more of a last resort for when surrounded.

You’ll also find a pyromancy spell in the sewers that can be used to burn away sticky cobwebs and ignite explosive barrels – something which will come in handy for dealing with those corpse piles. It is not, unlike the electrical spell you acquire later, meant to be used as a weapon due to its rapid mana consumption and seemingly nonexistent damage output. I found that out the hard way.

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Fresh Air

Unclog the pipes and the portcullis of Cruxfirth will rise. Once inside, you’re immediately tasked with reactivating a fallen lighthouse beyond the village walls. It’s here that GRAVEN opens up and gives a proper sense of how the final game might play out. Each area is expansive, and there are no loading breaks between the sewers, the village or the outer swamps, resulting in a world that – so far – feels engrossingly seamless.

Before heading out, you may want to pay the blacksmith a visit. If you managed to scrounge up enough gold (often found in breakable pottery and those aforementioned wooden crates) you can buy a short sword. It does decent damage, but as the name suggests, your target must be in Eskimo-kissing distance. Later on you’ll find a flail that takes about 30 minutes to wind up, but the resulting swing can turn multiple enemies into a fine red mist.

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Two varieties of crossbow are available in this demo to supplement your melee tools. The first is wrist-mounted with a zoom function and fires light bolts (good for picking off flying annoyances). The second is… a shotgun. OK, cool, I’m down with that. It comes with a secondary attack that absolutely devastates even the toughest monstrosities you’ll face.

As you collect more weapons, the equipment display at the bottom of the screen becomes increasingly swollen. You can carry up to 10 items (anything extra is stored in your inventory), but heftier weapons take up two slots, so there wasn’t much room left by the time the demo ended. It remains to be seen if full-fat GRAVEN will allow us to upgrade the number of item slots, but I’d like to take this opportunity to say that such a feature would be very welcome.

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The Road Ahead

On that note, I’m not sure why GRAVEN has a stamina gauge. More specifically, I’m not sure why it has three stamina gauges. You can sprint for several seconds, then you can jog for a bit longer, and then you can hobble. This system seems very at odds with the large environments and your rather leisurely default movement speed.

I’m also only slightly ashamed to admit that a fair chunk of my first playthrough was spent wandering around in a clueless daze, unsure of where exactly I was supposed to go. In a way, it’s refreshing and makes me all misty-eyed for the days before objective markers, but I do believe a little extra direction here and there can help. The trick is to do it without ruining the player’s immersion, and if push comes to shove, I’d rather be lost than feel steered.

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If anything, it just shows how GRAVEN is being developed as a love letter to the classic era of PC gaming (as you’d hope from a title published by 3D Realms), and different influences can be seen throughout the demo. Most pointedly, the non-linear world structure and medieval weapon variety feels like a direct ode to Raven Software’s Hexen series. In terms of setting, Cruxfirth and its suffering citizens could be compared to locations from Thief and Daikatana. Even the swamp beasts evoke the pouncing mutants from Quake 2 (alright, maybe that’s just me).

We’ll find out how it all ties together when GRAVEN launches in 2021.

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And I wasn’t kidding about the dog.

Trailer