When I first saw Never Grave: The Witch And The Curse rising up the Steam Next Fest charts at the end of last week, I thought, “Oh! That’s a neat Hollow Knight-looking Metroivanida roguelike, I’ll definitely give that a go.” And having played its demo over the weekend, I can confirm: it’s certainly an intriguing little thing that I’ll be keen to keep an eye on when it launches into early access, possibly sometime next month.
The biggest surprise was that, despite its very Hollow Knight-looking visuals, it actually plays more like Dead Cells in practice. Instead of being a sentient lump of flesh able to inhabit infinite bodies, you’re a magical witch’s hat that can possess, discard and rematerialise your chosen sack of limbs at the touch of a button. The second thing that surprised me was that it also has quite a substantial base/village building aspect to it on the side, and the third – well, perhaps this isn’t so much of a surprise given everything I’ve just said, because it also turns out this is the next game from Palworld developers Pocketpair. Yep, it all makes a bit more sense now.
Before you all groan inwardly at the thought of indulging another Pocketpair game, I must stress again that Never Grave is actually pretty all right. Its hack and slash combat feels good in the hands, and navigating its proc gen hallways with your limited health and pool of growing abilities creates that same kind of nervous trepidaton as setting out on a new Dead Cells run. The demo isn’t flush with tons of weapon types and stat buffs, admittedly, but it does bring a few interesting things of its own to the table to give it a bit more personality than just another Dead Cells/Hollow Knight clone.
The first is that cursed hat, which you can control independently of the very Bravely Default-esque witch girl you play as for most of the demo. Technically, the girl appears to be little more than an empty vessel, as when you jump off her head, she’ll crumble to the ground like a limp pile of bones. This allows you, as the hat, to sneak through tiny gaps, or gain extra height to reach particularly high platforms, and you can summon her back into being again at the touch of a button. I didn’t encounter this in the demo, but it looks as though you can possess monsters, too – giving it a strange Kirby-kind of vibe that I hope will form the basis of some interesting puzzle platforming obstacles. It will no doubt also be handy to help distinguish between characters in its four-player multiplayer, too.
The main thing that sets Never Grave apart is, of course, its base-building, which takes place in the home hub you return to between runs. Blueprints will let you unlock new buildings and features, and you’ll need to research them by spending the coins you gain from defeating your foes. You’ll also need to scavenge for additional resources during a run, too, and then plug them into its various crafting paths. There are new weapon types and spells to learn, which will appear randomly within dungeons once unlocked, new permanent stat boosts to acquire, new building types to work towards… It’s very Palworld in that sense – just without the drive toward automation and exploiting cute beasties while you’re out biffing them in its many-layered underworlds.
I’m surprisingly into it – though I’m less into the idea of Pocketpair trying to distance themselves from it by listing a different developer name on its Steam page. At a glance, Pocketpair just look as though they’re the publishers of Never Grave, but you can see from its SteamDB updates that Pocketpair were also listed as the original developer for it back when the game was first announced last May. That the name was changed to Frontside 180 on January 25th, days before the launch of the controversial Palworld – and if one were being unkind you could quite easily speculate that they didn’t want to mar it in yet more copyright infringement discourse, given its similarities to both Hollow Knight and Dead Cells. It’s since been confirmed that Frontside 180 is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Pocketpair, too, though without knowing the finer details of how either of them operate in regards to one another, I will tentatively give them the benefit of the doubt for now.
In any case, Never Grave: The Witch And The Curse should be heading to early access before the end of March, judging by its Q1 2024 release window on Steam right now, though whether it will become another Palworld-style mega hit remains to be seen.