Harvester review — December 1996, US edition
Every Sunday, reviews editor Tyler Wilde publishes a classic PC Gamer review from the '90s or early 2000s, with his context and commentary followed by the full, original text from the archived issue. This week, Harvester is reviewed in the December 1996 issue of PC Gamer US. More classic reviews here.
Apropos of nothing, other than that I saw it on Steam the other day and chuckled, I bring you our review of Harvester. I don't recommend this game—at least, not as more than a stunt play, to be enjoyed with friends and some kind of numbing agent (primarily to make the adventure game combat go down easier).
At the time, I think we underplayed our insecurity over Harvester's likeliness to be seen as "hateful and repellent." This is a hateful and repellent game, where children are murdered or murderers, and with a plot featuring incest and child molestation. It's the '90s self-aware horror scene combined with the youthful, audacious "how far can we go?" attitude of games, which probably peaked with Postal in 1997.
Harvester goes far enough to be enjoyed from that perspective (we did call it "the most dark and disturbing game ever"), but you might prefer experiencing Richard's Saturday Crapshoot from a few years ago, in which he braves the entire thing for science. He called it "Twin Peaks, as directed by Uwe Boll," and that's probably the best description there is.
Only two years behind schedule, the long-awaited (and simultaneously dreaded) Harvester is finally among us. Bleed on...
1996 will undoubtedly go down in gaming history as the year in which Hell officially froze over as, one by one, projects long consigned to the Vaporware Hall of Fame began making their way to market, sometimes even proving themselves worth the wait.
But 1996 will also be remembered as the year that dark and disturbing became watchwords for PC entertainment—witness Bad Mojo, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, and two (count 'em) releases featuring Bay Area weirdniks, The Residents (Freak Show and Bad Day on the Midway). Fitting then, that one of the last releases of the year not only redeems its vaporware status but walks away as quite possibly the most dark and disturbing game ever.
They say you were born in the small town of Harvest and, apparently, you've lived there all your life. The trouble is, you wake up one morning with amnesia and can't remember any of it. The place you call home has become a nightmarish parody of a 1950s Norman Rockwell nuclear community, with David Lynch as the Lord High Mayor.
All people can talk about is your impending marriage to the town babe, but the only thing you can remember about Stephanie is that there are nine letters in her name. They also speak in glassy-eyed reverential tones of The Lodge, the mysterious manor that serves as home for The Order of the Harvest Moon—an exclusive organization that controls the town in ways you can't begin to understand. Oh, and there's also the town's preoccupation with meat...
At its heart, Harvester is a typical adventure game. There are plenty of puzzles—none unreasonable tough and all relatively logical—and the standard method of breaking and entering to steal objects that clearly belong to other people serves you well. But what sets Harvester so far apart is its cheerfully mean-spirited attitude toward its characters. Harvester makes absolutely no compromises in its approach and what was intended as horrific satire can easily come across as hateful and repellent to those whose nature it is to fear anything more threatening than Hello Kitty.
To be sure, there is much for those people to seize upon—the game never takes the high road when it can go for the base and carnal, and the plot is riddled with bizarre behavior, twisted sex, murder, mutilation, and arson. The local grade school is named after wacky Wisconsinite Ed Gein, whose peculiar ideas about nutrition and decorating inspired The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Hell, even the cheat codes (available at DigiFX's web site) have unpleasant connotations.
Yet for those with strong stomaches, and for those who actually get it—Harvester is a refreshing breath of foul air. With six days to figure out what the hell's going on, you set out each morning (dressed in the same blue flannel shirt and jeans) getting to know the town and its eccentric inhabitants and completing the hateful tasks you must perform to gain admittance to The Lodge. Using an intuitive point and click interface, you move your character, Steve (who was always quite a kidder) around the screen with an animated 3D cursor that changes to alert you to hot spots.
The presentation is pretty outdated, with Steve shuffling across the screen much like Mike in the first Darkseed, and conversations are a bit tedious, with still photos of the participants' face appearing inset at the top of the screen, but the optional text-parser interface makes getting to the point that much easier. Clicking on objects yields descriptions worthy of the best text-based adventures ("Knives gleam wickedly in the kitchen's antiseptic glow"), and the infrequent combat is pretty straightforward. Fortunately, the Super VGA graphics are scalpel-sharp and the ambient sound and moody music (complete with B-movie theramin effects) create an apprehensive atmosphere that compensates somewhat for the lack of innovation.
Harvester is undoubtedly going to come under critical fire, particularily from people who like to blame the entertainment media for the bad behavior of a few misanthropic miscreants, but its solid gameplay and thematic integrity will be appreciated by those with a genuine taste for the exotic. This is no lightweight Phantasmagoria wannabe—it's an unrelenting assault on your sensibilities from start to finish.
If you liked the movies Blue Velvet, Hellraiser and Bob Balaban's little-seen Parents, Harvester is right up your dark little alley. — Scott Wolf
Definitely not for the squeamish.