A first look at the latest Hexen
Genre: FPS, Action
Developer: Slipgate Ironworks
Publisher: 3D Realms, 1C Entertainment
Release date: 26 May, 2021
Hexen, that’s the game that Graven has been compared to a lot ever since the first screenshots were released. And for good reason, the game seems to have borrowed heavily from Hexen 2 with its aesthetic, even going so far as to borrow some of the same notifications of things happening from that game, which was seen in some early screenshots. It also went with a font for its title reminiscent of that used for Heretic (the first game in the Hexen series).
But is that comparison apt, or is there more to Graven than just being a spiritual successor to a series that has not seen any new entries in 23 years, or is it its own thing that just takes inspiration from some of the classics?
At the time of writing Graven was just released into Early Access and it’s far from complete. Only the early area is accessible, and the story is sparse. Bugs are of course also a staple of early access games, so this preview won’t dwell too much on those, but overall apart from a nasty save file-related bug, that the developers are aware of, I did not experience anything serious during my time with the game.
Graven looks like a game that came out in the late 90’s, played in a modern resolution. Textures are intentionally blocky, and look like something that could have been made in the Quake 2 engine running software mode (as opposed to the smeary look that textures got when using early 3D accelerators), though with better lightning and more fluid animations, not to mention more impressive physics than was the norm back in the late 90’s.
Going with this late 90’s look is an art style that’s reminiscent of some of these older games, mostly Hexen 2 and to a lesser degree Chasm: The rift. That is to say it’s a dark fantasy with a lot of browns and greens, which keeps a somewhat grounded look, at least on the surface. Structures almost look like they are things that could have been built in the real world, except they sometimes have unnecessarily large open spaces in them, and some things are built in places that would not really make much sense. So it’s grounded the same way something like Warhammer Fantasy is grounded.
The enemy design also keeps this retro-look. Most enemies are humanoid, and with pretty much human proportions, though they all have something about them that make it clear that they’re not quite normal humans, be it bestial features, unnaturally pale skin or the fact that they’ve clearly been dead for a while and are still somehow wandering around. At least what’s in the early access version feels consistent and ultimately this is a pretty good looking game, despite its intentional low-fi look.
The sound effects are also solid. There’s a good weight behind attacks, and the game overall does a pretty good job at communicating what’s going on just through the sound, without the sound becoming too overbearing. The music, while possibly too high quality to really fit the visuals, also works well, and helps give the game a gloomy atmosphere.
Graven is a first person shooter/action game with one foot in immersive sim territory. You’re playing as a priest who gets dumped into a dark and unforgiving world, and you need to find a way through it. But in order to do so you need to fight fiendish enemies, and solve puzzles on a largely interconnected map.
Combat is somewhat melee focused. While you do find ranged weapons, a wrist-mounted crossbow early on and then a bit later a weapon that fires a large number of marbles, similar to a medieval shotgun, you don’t get enough ammo to be able to entirely rely on these, and thus your melee weapon is important. Fights are all about rapid movement, you need to quickly strafe around enemies in order to bait out attacks, and doge out of the way when they try to leap towards you. Most enemies are also more interested in fighting in melee, though as the game progresses more and more ranged enemies started to be added in. Combat is not all that deep, but it is pretty fun. Don’t expect to see an intricate system of directional parries and clever use of the environment, it’s mostly about movement, just like in the games that inspired this one.
There’s actually a pretty decent enemy variety in the game even this early in development, although the hordes of zombies that will swarm you for the first 30min might give a different impression. Once you’re past the zombies large 4-legged enemies that leap at you start showing up, as well as bird-like creatures that spit acid at you, and skeletons who use shields to block attacks from the front. There are a few more than this that will show up even later.
The world is not split up into separate levels (in this early access version at least, we’ll have to see how that changes when they add more to it), instead it’s one large level, with paths leading back to earlier parts opening up as you go along. It’s not completely non-linear though, you need to progress through a mostly linear series of events in order to unlock new places, you can always go back to previously visited areas, and you also need to do a bit of backtracking as you find keys and new tools.
Most puzzles in the game are about finding the right key (or key-like object) and using it at the right places, though there are a few that are a bit more involved than this and require you to stop and think for a moment. None of them are particularly hard though. Those who were expecting Hexen 2 levels of obtuse puzzles will be disappointed, as at least as far as this early version goes there’s nothing that even comes close to that games difficult puzzles.
There’s an inventory in this game where you store weapons and healing potions. At the moment it’s not particularly necessary to worry about inventory space, but as the game gets expanded there will probably be more things put here, and you won’t be able to lug around absolutely everything. Inventory items can be dragged to the hotbar at the bottom of the screen, where larger items end up taking more space than smaller ones, thus limiting exactly how much you can have in your hotbar. You also have a spellbook with two spells (thus far) that can be found, a fire spell that’s mostly used to blow up explosive barrels and a lightning spell that temporarily stuns enemies.
There are a few modern conveniences in the game. A proper automap that marks any locked doors with a relevant symbol for the key that’s needed is one of them, and a pretty decent journal is another. This is not the kind of game that expects you to memorize everything, although there are plenty of secrets scattered through the game that you need specific tools for, and that won’t be marked on the map. A cracked wall might be something that you can’t break when you first find it, but later in the game you’ll be able to do it.
Graven is also quite forgiving. Remember the respawn stations in System Shock 2 or Bioshock? Graven uses a similar system where if you die you just respawn at one of these, and all the enemies you killed and all the progress you’ve made still gets saved. You only respawn with 30 health (out of 100), but die again and you just respawn again, with the only real punishment being that you need to walk to where you died.
State of the Early Access Version
The early access version is in a pretty good technical state. There are of course a few bugs, like enemies getting stuck in doors or you losing all stamina if you hold down the run key when dropping from a height that’s about as tall as the main character. There’s a rather serious savegame bug that can make it so that whenever you load a save you start at the beginning of the game with no equipment, and no ability to replace what you’ve lost, which would force a restart.
There’s also not a whole lot of content in the game thus far though. The area that’s available should take about 2-2,5h to get through, give or take a bit of time depending on how carefully you look for secrets or if you ever get stumped on a puzzle. More will come, but right now what’s here is fun, but there’s simply not enough of it.
There’s also some balancing issues. Healing potions are plentiful in the early bits, too plentiful perhaps, but then any healing items just almost stops showing up. This is not game breaking, as the respawn system makes death a minor annoyance rather than a showstopper, but it would be nice to have a few more healing items later on, particularly when ranged enemies are starting to become more plentiful, as their attacks are harder to avoid than those from melee enemies.
Graven is a game that shows a lot of promise, and if Slipgate Studios, the developers of the game, can keep up the quality that we’ve seen thus far this might well be one of the best games of the current 90’s-style FPS revival that we’ve been seeing. But at the moment the game is a bit sparse with its content to warrant a full recommendation. But if you’re a fan of late 90’s style first person shooters this one is well worth keeping an eye on.
How well does it live up to its reputation of being a successor to Hexen though? It’s not a Hexen clone, that’s for sure. It borrows elements from Hexen, and Hexen 2 in particular, but if anything it might be a bit closer to a more action-focused System Shock 2, which is not a bad game to be compared to. Graven is not shy about taking good ideas from a bunch of different games though, and that’s probably the best approach anyway.