Dark Light

I’ve been saying this for years and I’ll say it again – it’s the best time to be alive for a retro shooter fan. The last few years have given us ol’ chaps gems like DUSK, Amid Evil, Ion Fury, Project Warlock, Hedon, Shrine, and more. Now, 3D Realms, 1C Entertainment and Slipgate Ironworks are back with another throwback offering in the form of GRAVEN, a dark fantasy first-person adventure/shooter. I’ve been impatiently awaiting its arrival onto Steam Early Access since Realms Deep 2020. So, let’s see what the fuzz is all about, shall we?

GRAVEN puts you in the worn shoes of a disgraced warrior-priest who arrives on a blighted town with more unanswered questions than a badly written mind-bending fiction. From, there….you know what? The story isn’t all that important, nor is it the core focus of the gamea staple of classic FPS from the ’90s. What matters here is the gameplay.

GRAVEN wears its inspirations on its sleeves. Heavily inspired by Raven Software’s Hexen series with a pinch of atmosphere from Heretic II, GRAVEN is a dark fantasy FPS with a focus on non-linear exploration, puzzle-solving, and of course, melee combat. Let’s get the more positive things out of the way first. Even though it looks like it’s being made on an antiquated Quake engine (similar to Wrath), the game actually uses Unreal Engine 4 to deliver crisp retro visuals filled with details. There are no two words about itthe game looks absolutely stunning for what it’s trying to mimic and the visuals add a lot to the already grim, foreboding atmosphere of this plagued land. I did notice the fps dropping to 90s from a smooth locked 144 in certain sections on my RTX 3070. But I suppose that is to be expected from an EA title.

Then there’s the overarching non-linear level design with lots of opportunities for exploration thanks to environmental interactions and physicsbarrel stacking is an art indeed. Even though the Early Access version is lacking in weaponry, the rocket launcher-equivalent weapon, the Peat Burner is a blast to use. There are also snippets of world-building in the form of interactable items such as notices, posters, and letters/diaries fleshing out the world and its doomed denizens. I hope to see more of this in the coming updates. Finally, there is the music and sound design. I’m not an expert when it comes to sound mixing and design but I’m really digging what’s on offer. Plus, you can pet the dog. 11/10 game, easy.

Now, let’s get on with the stuff that’s not so great. Most of the problems of GRAVEN can be attributed to the Early Access tag. There have been so many EA disasters over the years that people have grown kind of weary of the format. There’s so little content here to justify the purchase at the moment. The whole game, as it currently stands, can be completed in about 2 hours. It even ends on a very anti-climactic note. Moreover, the devs took the strange decision to remove a weapon, spell, and even a boss fight from the earlier demo in this version.

GRAVEN seems to have caught me at a disadvantage from the start. I expected it to be a hybrid of melee-magic combat similar to its inspirations and something like Arx Fatalis. However, for the time being, it seems as if the use of spells is limited to exploration and not the actual combat. It really feels like a missed opportunity. The first-person combat relies on the tried and true melee and the standard fantasy projectile weapons. The enemy AI, for the most part, are just straight out dumb, incapable of even damaging you for the majority of that time. Combine that with the ridiculously easy difficulty, and the whole experience comes across as kind of unsatisfying. Even the big scary-looking lizard thing can be beaten to death with your basic stuff just by circle-strafing around it. But, like most retro FPS, the fishes in this game are absolutely annoying and I hope they all die of water pollution.

I’m not also a fan of the inventory system with a really limited hotbar and the badly implemented checkpoint save system that puts you back in the hub town every time you boot up the game. Then there are certain poorly explained sections of the game that leave you scratching your head and wondering ‘what’s next?” (thank the 9 hells for Steam guides).

Overall, I believe that GRAVEN has potential to fill that Hexen/Heretic gap left by the demise of the old Raven software. That being said, to achieve that ideal vision there is a lot that must be done before it hits Early Acess. If you believe in supporting the developers, go ahead and buy the game but wait for a few updates before jumping in. For everyone else, ‘Wishlist’ and ‘Follow’ are your best friends.

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