Graven review: Bonkin' up all the wrong trees

3D Realms' ambitious new shooter blends old-school style with dark fantasy vibes and modern design. Does it all work?


I barely understand what “boomer shooter” really is, to be frank. But here at Shacknews I’ve found myself delving into old-school shooters of different flavors. Turok 3 and Rise of the Triad were both fascinating revisits to older games, but this week we’re looking at the space from a different angle. Graven is a totally new game from one of the genre’s legacy developer brands, 3D Realms. It gives off every vibe a shooter from the late 90s could have, but is releasing for the first time (Early Access aside) in 2024.

Graven is about a Priest who has fallen from grace (I think), after taking revenge on a refrigerated female child character (I think). You’re executed or something (I think), then wake up on a mysterious boat headed to a plague-ridden continent in need of a hero (I think). The introductory cinematics are grossly overwritten with flowery language devoid of context clues or connective tissue, so it’s hard to tell for sure. It’s not really important, since after that you just kinda do what NPCs ask you to do and move on.

Boomer Brooder

A strange old man, a boat, and a coin in the only interesting part of Graven

If I were to draw a comparison as a relative lightweight in shooter knowledge, Graven seems to be heavily inspired by the likes of Heretic or Hexen. It’s like a primordial version of what we call “immersive sims” today, a blend of first-person shooter trademarks with environmental puzzles and weird, world-altering powers. Heretic was an offshoot of the original DOOM, but with a dark fantasy setting. Hexen was more of that, but with additional RPG elements and a heavy emphasis on exploration. Graven is all of that, but with several decades of game design evolution under the hood.

Here’s the part of the review process I don’t like much. The part where I say something like, “the problem is…” before ruining what sounds pretty neat during the introduction. Graven sounds awesome on paper. A dark fantasy shooter that’s kind of like BioShock and DOOM occupying a whirling garbage disposal in some arcane nerd’s Dungeons and Dragons game room sounds pretty badass. Unfortunately, the way the parts are put together doesn’t work very well. It’s not that there’s too much going on, or that the pieces are put together awkwardly. It’s that the pieces themselves are kind of limp.

No Rizz Wiz

Magic being used on enemies in Graven, which is weird because the game tells you not to do that
Source: 3D Realms

Let’s talk about the magic, for example. When you look at the game’s front-facing materials and the opening moments of Graven itself, it feels like magic is supposed to be a big deal. I mean, one of the coolest parts is when you first access the fire spell. Your character produces this cool-looking magic book, and his hand is taken over by glowing markings that indicate you’ve uncovered some serious stuff. It’s very BioShock in that way; it feels like a big deal and something I’ll be considering deeply throughout the game.

But I didn’t, really. For one thing, magic is not a combat tool whatsoever. To be fair to Graven and the developers, it goes out of its way to explain magic is not meant to be a combat tool. If you look at the Early Access patch notes on Steam, there’s even an amusing anecdote in the updates about needing to communicate that to the players. So it’s very apparent, and I’m not bemoaning that.

But fire’s non-combat utility is kind of a fart in the wind, undermining the cool visuals. Great, I get this awesome fire power and I’m just blowing up barrels and burning doors open. Awesome. It’s funnier when you get the lightning power, because it actually stuns enemies. But the stun is so quick to wear off it may as well not bother.

Bonk bonk bonkin' on Graven's doors

Bonkin' a zombie in Graven. You can kick too, but there is no useful difference.
Source: 3D Realms

Meanwhile, your actual combat tools are equally disappointing for different reasons. You start with a staff, which makes sense for Graven’s premise. So the first several hours are spent bonking zombies with a stick. There isn’t much impact to it, and the way you have to maneuver your aim to actually hit weak points isn’t very intuitive. So right off the bat, combat feels like busywork. When you get your second weapon, a sort of wrist-mounted bow, the arrows just wisp out like you’re blowing straw wrappers into your sibling’s face at the mid-tier restaurant your exhausted parents sat you down in.

Enemies barely react to the hit, and ammo is bizarrely scarce. Apparently ammo being plentiful from breaking objects was a complaint in Early Access, so the solution was to just cut that part out and make it not worth seeking out anyway. You get a sword which sounds like a great break from the bonking, until you quickly realize bonking is still more efficient in most cases. You can upgrade your weapons, but getting enough gold for what the blacksmith is charging takes forever and you drop half when you die.

There are other weapons too of course, but it’s a cycle of disappointment. Too much time bogged down in bonkin’ and boppin’ and not enough poppin’ and hoppin’ when you finally get a new thing to try.

A swing (and another swing, and another swing) and a miss

A confusing screenshot in Graven showing the player aiming a spell at a NPC for some reason
Source: 3D Realms

Perhaps all this friction would feel more meaningful if the rest of the game felt built around it, creating tension during puzzle-solving segments or throwing powerful threats at you to teach resource management. But nope, it’s all about the bonkin’ business. Boss fights mix things up of course, but they just feel like a slog in their own way.

Graven’s biggest problem is it utterly fails to be interesting or invigorating at the moments Graven needs those things the most. The game feels like you’re constantly walking uphill, and not because of any compelling challenge or novel difficulty. It’s more like you’re walking up one of those awful angled sidewalks in San Francisco because you’re a tourist and don’t know any better, because you made a wrong turn and are too committed to the direction you’re going in to turn back and find a new route. This is definitely not a real-life experience I’m referring to. Nope.

It feels like there were some very specific ideas the creators of Graven wanted to communicate. But while those ideas sometimes weave together with the game’s dark fantasy, old-school shooter style to form some immaculate vibes, that’s about as deep as it gets. The game seems confused about whether or not it wants to be an awesome action game, a thoughtful explorative puzzler, or some kind of mutant Soulslike gimmick. It sputters across the finish line not really achieving anything but a cool look, undermined constantly by boredom. It’s a shame, because Graven has a hell of a vibe. But there’s simply too much bonkin’ and not enough bangin’.

Graven is available for the PC on January 23, 2024. Console versions are planned for a later date. A code was provided by the publisher for review.

Contributing Editor

Lucas plays a lot of videogames. Sometimes he enjoys one. His favorites include Dragon Quest, SaGa, and Mystery Dungeon. He's far too rattled with ADHD to care about world-building lore but will get lost for days in essays about themes and characters. Holds a journalism degree, which makes conversations about Oxford Commas awkward to say the least. Not a trophy hunter but platinumed Sifu out of sheer spite and got 100 percent in Rondo of Blood because it rules. You can find him on Twitter @HokutoNoLucas being curmudgeonly about Square Enix discourse and occasionally saying positive things about Konami.

Review for
  • Neat vibe that marries an old school style with modern fidelity and control
  • Dope visual effects for magical abilities
  • Actually using magic is not dope at all
  • Too much bonkin'
  • Never finds a solid hook despite gunning for several at once
From The Chatty
Hello, Meet Lola