I am sorry that this impressions piece took so long to get up despite the Alpha being out for a little while now. I was having too much fun playing Gravewood High to get down to the act of writing about it. I said it before and I will say it again, Gravewood High is the most excited I have been about a new game since I got this job. To boil down the experience to a single sentence: Gravewood High takes everything Hello Neighbor did well, improves it, tweaks it and adds its unique flair all while allowing for the highest levels of player choice and experimentation, all wrapped up in the tiny little playground of its first public Alpha build.
Don’t mistake my intention here as me trying to crap on Hello Neighbor. When I say that Gravewood High is the next step in the evolution of whatever type of game Hello Neighbor is, I mean that in the best of ways. Clearly, from the similar aesthetic choices to the first person stealth gameplay involving a child running around a cooky location while being chased by some evil and possessed adult, Gravewood High owes almost everything to Hello Neighbor, which it borrows and omages liberally. And I am not the only one to comment on this; other journalists seem to have much the same opinion.
So please know that when I say that Gravewood High is the next game in this lineage that I am in no way trying to depreciate Hello Neighbor or it’s accomplishments. But Gravewood High did something that Hello Neighbor couldn’t: it hooked me.
There are a couple of reasons for this, and they are the main selling points of the game, and the things that I find do the most to differentiate it from its spiritual forbearer. The first and most obvious is that from the get-go, the game tries to set up a story.
As I stated in my initial coverage of Gravewood High, they were doing this before the Alpha even came out. Over at GravewoodFiles.com, you can find the blog of one Jack StickerSeeker as he tries to investigate the disappearances going on around Gravewood High. I thought that was pretty neat, and so to did the developers because they brought all of that stuff right into the game as you wander around the messed up and closed down school, trying to find a way to get to the top of the tower while avoiding the teacher who is continuously stalking you. You will often find little radios which will start playing audio logs of Jack StickerSeeker, cluing you into the history of Gravewood High. The mysterious things are going on around it as well as the goings-on of Mr. StickerSeeker’s investigation while you are hiding behind desks, jumping through windows, and avoiding security systems.
While this is also one of my only complaints about the game (the damn things always seem to start playing the audio logs from the first entry no matter how many runs you have done in a row or which ones you find and it can get a bit annoying not being able to hear any new tapes because you are trying to focus on the other objectives), it is also something that immediately hooked me. What happened here? Why does the teacher seemingly want the students dead? It has something to do with the “anomaly,” the glowing bouncy ball you can find throughout the school, which acts as a superdestructive bouncy ball that you can throw to destroy the environment and open up new paths for escape and exploration. And is that in any way attached to these arcane trinkets hinted at in the artwork? And what does this all have to do with the civil war? Is Jack StickerSeeker still alive? Despite playing the Alpha for several hours now, I feel as though I have not yet uncovered all the mysteries hidden within the thin walls of this decaying labyrinth, and I can’t wait to continue playing to find out more.
Hello Neighbor wasn’t bad about this just sort of cryptic with its details. Seeing my neighbor being weird, I felt almost nothing but hearing about the missing students and being one myself, wanting to see if my friends are ok, I feel hooked from the start. But back to the anomaly, that is perfect in to my second point, the other thing that Gravewood High does so well and which elevates it above so many other indie horror fare. Gravewood High offers tons of options for player choice and experimentation.
You can go about running away from the Teacher, completing objectives, exploring the school, scavenging resources, and getting to the top of the tower in almost any way you want using almost any tools or techniques you choose. Unlike a lot of videogames, there are a variety of ways you can combine the tools you have before you, and they all make for entertaining and creative solutions that make you feel like a genius when you figure out a new one. Let me give you a brief example from my last few runs.
I spawned in a random location outside of the school as you do each time after your first “death.” Upon checking the area out for ways inside, I noticed something; there were windows near the top of the building. Could I get in from up there, I wondered. It would be preferable to the usual way of smashing a window and either trying to lure the teacher to a different location or hide before he finds you because he heard you breaking in. I had seen windows like these before high on the wall of some classrooms inside the school and was able to make my way up to them and get through. But how could I reach them? Luckily, there was a large stack of boxes in front of me, likely something placed by the developers to help prompt this line of thinking, and I still had more in my inventory from before I had died. So, I used an idea that I had picked up from Minecraft and jumped in the air, quickly placing boxes below me until I was able to reach the window finally and stealthily drop down inside.
I felt like a stealth wizard, and since I hadn’t broken anything on my way inside, the Teacher was nowhere in sight. I found myself in a section of the building with quick access to the basement through some broken tiles in a classroom. I didn’t have a hammer. But I did have the anomaly. So I blasted my way down there, but in so doing, as happens every time you use the anomaly, a ton of noise got made, which summoned the teacher.
This isn’t usually a problem. The teacher doesn’t seem to want to go down into the basement, at least not in the Alpha, and so you can just run down there anytime he is a-comin’. But not this time. Because this time, I had blown a giant hole in the entrance to the basement. I freaked out, realizing my mistake but managed to hide behind the rubble of the floor until he left, and things were ok. I made my way to where I was going, the other end of this underground passage, which lets out via a double-sided locker. There was just one problem. The locker was chained shut.
Usually, you just get the bolt cutters and open the darn thing up; however, I didn’t know where the bolt cutters were, so I had come up with a plan. I had noticed earlier that the anomaly is often powerful enough to blast through doors, and I was hoping that it could blast through this locker as well. I got to the top of the ladder, faced the chained locker, and threw the anomaly. And it worked! My crazy plan to circumvent the rules had worked! I was so happy and once again felt like I had done something smart despite this likely being something that the developers had tested for and planned on people doing.
But that is half the fun of Gravewood High. You can run around the school at your own pace, either being aggressive and taunting the teacher while trying to think of new ways to mess around with the physics of this world. You can also go slow and steady, make as little noise as possible, hide whenever you can, and get out in one long, well-executed run. It is totally up to you, and the developers have been thorough enough to account for tons of possibilities. And that is just in the Alpha! I can’t wait to see what else they have in store, and if you haven’t, you should sign up for this thing ASAP. Gravewood High is shaping up to be an excellent game, and if I have anything to say about it, the next indie horror darling. It’s well worth your time, so give it a try. And don’t let the teacher catch you!