Grave Danger was released to little fanfare in 2016. The game had failed its Kickstarter, raising less than 10% its £26,417 goal. Despite this setback, Grave Danger was released on Steam that December, and the reviews it got, though few by number, were by and large very positive.
Fast-forward to summer 2018 and the game’s ultimate edition has been released on PlayStation 4 and the Nintendo Switch. It has with the same roster of characters but comes with 10 additional levels and a handful of other features to bolster the gameplay. But, given that the game went mostly unnoticed back in 2016, it doesn’t help to compare the two beyond this.
Now that that’s out of the way, Grave Danger is a nifty little puzzle platformer. I say little, but that’s not in terms of scope or amount of time you’ll play it. With a clean, open aesthetic, Grave Danger is certainly pleasing on the eye. The colours are vibrant, the animations are pleasant and I almost want to call the game cute, despite there being skulls and monsters everywhere.
As the game progresses, you control three independent, charming little characters who are trying to get out of the same dungeon, past the smashers and saw blades, and the enemies that your trash-talking antagonist has scattered throughout the world. Despite their small stature, our three heroes — a cowboy, a wizard and a grim reaper —all have their perks that will help you evade being captured, dead and alive as the game gleefully points out. Dante, the cowboy, can wall hang and pull off dash jumps; Elliot, the wizard, can double jump and execute power shots with his staff; and Maurice — which is the best name for a grim reaper this side of Discworld — can hover in the air and move horizontally for a short time and drop bombs to catch enemies chasing you. Using this trio of talents, you’re pitted with the task of getting our heroes from A to B. It must be said at this point through that Dante is the only character with two relevant abilities: the power attack and Maurice’s bomb dropping ability are pretty much useless.
Unfortunately, the maps are pretty linear in how you must conquer them. Maps can be quite sprawling at times, taking around 25–30 minutes to complete if you’re taking it as a leisurely pace. If you want to speed-run the level, you’re handily told you can do them in about six minutes, but that’s not going to be easy. Certain areas of the map can only be traversed by certain characters, due to their unique abilities, which means that if you need to figure out which character to send where to get the right keys (often dynamite) to success.
Sadly, this means dying. A lot. There is a lot of dying in Grave Danger, as the name suggests. When a character dies, however, they are not just sent back to their latest checkpoint. They become a ghost that you must manually return to the latest checkpoint, before hauling themselves back to where they last died. With no quicksaves or anything of that sort, and only two checkpoints per level (roughly) you can expect to see a fair few ghosts once you get just a few levels in.
Compounding this is that the levels are surprisingly tricky. Once you get past the first two missions, the game stops holding your hand. Enemies respawn fairly quickly and the jumps don’t get any easier the second time around. That said, there is a certain pride in overcoming the challenges ahead of you. It really is important to realise at this point that this is a challenging game: if you’re after something simple, you may want to look somewhere else.
If the challenge gets too much, or if you prefer playing co-op, you can recruit a friend to help you by handing them the second controller. Two heads, they say, are better than one. Personally, I don’t think this game works very well in this area —only one person will have the screen centre on them, causing the other person to die at an increased rate as they run about off-screen. A split-screen option would certainly help: given that this is a puzzle platformer, such a feature would actually be a massive boon. It’s also a bit tricky selecting the right character for the right job when you’re on two-player mode as you can’t boot someone from a character they are in; and if they bump the character swap button, you may find yourself playing as someone you haven’t touched in an hour. If you thought the jumps were tricky before, try doing them with a brand new character that runs at a different speed.
Moving past the gameplay, Grave Danger is a witty game with excellent writing. It is self-referential and quirky in a way that is reminiscent of Age of Zombies (or anything else that Halfbrick has made, on that note). While the game breaks the fourth wall a few more times than I’d like, I certainly cannot fault the quality of the writing. The music is impeccable, too, reminding me of something between Sonic’s casino levels and the Persona series. The upbeat, jazzy retro music is suits this game, and the sound effects you get are perfect. Again, nothing to fault there.
All told, I’d happily recommend this game to anyone that loves a challenge, but I probably wouldn’t spend more than £10 on it. Grave Danger is not easy, and I got stuck a non-zero number of times, and the risk of being stuck early on puts a big question mark over the playability of the game for a lot of people. Given the lack of lets-plays and walkthroughs online, being stuck is as difficult now as it was back in the 90s: ask a friend or stay stuck. My only other grievance is that Dante has two useful abilities, whereas the others have one. A minor inconvenience, but it feels like a missed trick all the same.
*Code kindly provided by the publisher for review*
- It’s beautiful, fun and a joy to listen to
- The writing is witty and the story, although pretty simple, is intriguing
- This is single- or two-player as you like at the time. Players can drop in and drop out at will
- If you want to really increase the challenge, you get rated at the end of each mission, too
- The challenge is real and it may be off-putting to a lot of people
- The death and checkpoint system is bit of a nightmare at times
- The two-player gameplay could be a bit more watertight