From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about bringing random obscure games back into the light. Grab an apron, because this one's gonna get bloody in a hurry.
Like all the best stories, Harvester starts with Cliche #37b—Amnesiac Hero Wakes Up; Does Stuff. This is probably a good thing, because if he had any idea of the madness that awaited outside his bedroom door, the only puzzles in the game would be 'make noose out of of dressing gown' and 'use noose'.
Welcome to the goriest, most confusing, and above all stupidest horror game ever.
Phantasmagoria? Bah. Harvester is Twin Peaks, as directed by Uwe Boll.
When telling you about these obscure games, I occasionally need to make something clear: No, I am not making it up. I'm not going to bother today. With Harvester, I could have it written in the sky by God Himself and even I wouldn't believe me.
Instead, I shall simply direct you to this short clip, which you can get to in the game simply by walking out of your house and selecting the Military Base from the map screen. This is what Harvester is. And this is nothing compared to what's coming.
At first glance, Harvester looks like your standard suburban horror—a small town with a dark secret. Except it's not a secret. Almost from the first second you leave your bedroom at the start, every character makes it clear that you should be looking straight at the Order of the Harvest Moon, which controls the town and all evil therein. Can't find it? Look for the huge evil temple in the dead centre of the game's map. It's the one guarded by a sinister looking, telepathic monk who sounds like Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget, and psychically tells you that if you want to join his obviously evil cult of murder and puppy kicking... you'll have to fill out and submit an application form.
Yes. The evil cult has application forms. Which you get from the Post Office.
Have you ever had food poisoning? The worst bit is before you throw up—lying in bed sweating, feet twitching at half-composed dreams. Harvester is that feeling, mashed into game form. It's not scary in the slightest, just unsettling, and even then, not because of the blood or gore, but because it just doesn't make sense. The whole game doesn't just run on dream logic, but the kind of dreams you only get when you stick your fork into chicken, draw blood, and decide to eat it anyway.
Here's a non-violent example. You can more or less go wherever you like at the start of the game, but one place you have to visit is the General Store. You only have a quarter in your pocket, and the only thing you can buy from the sweet old lady behind the counter is a porn magazine.
"Steve!" she gasps. "I'm surprised at you! I'd expect that sort of thing from Deputy Loomis, but never from you. He's always coming in here oogling the girlie magazines behind my counter. Darned if I'd sell him one, though. I know his wife for heaven's sake!"
"Well, will you sell ME one?" he asks.
"I certainly will, Steve," she tells him, suddenly sounding proud of him. "That kind of interest is healthy for a young fella. Steers him away from being a fireman."
The one non-Evil Lodge related clue Steve gets about what's going on is that everyone tells him he's supposed to be getting married to a girl called Stephanie, who's also been struck down with amnesia, and has no more idea who he is than he has about anything else he's seen. Unfortunately, unlike him, she's been locked in her room to keep her out of trouble.
On the plus side, it sounds like a very romantic wedding, with the service taking place at the local funeral parlour, followed by a meat buffet courtesy of Steve's father. Mmm. Meat. In fact, it quickly becomes obvious that at least in Stephanie's father's eyes, the whole marriage is a way for him to get free food. Not exactly Father Of The Year material, even before you find the peep-hole he cut to let himself watch his daughter get naked.
"Everything in Harvest seems to revolve around this damned Lodge," complains Stephanie. "They're responsible for this insane bake sale that's coming, and for the—"
Stop. The evil cult is running a bake sale? Head... hurting...
Steve points out that everyone in town thinks he should have joined the Lodge already, which Stephanie describes as "probably the worst thing you could do". He happily agrees, but points out that they don't have a lot of options, and at least if it is a trap, there's a chance that investigating it will open up some way for them both to get out of Harvest with their lives and sanity partly intact.
"Look, why not explore the town a little?" begs Stephanie. "If I I could, that's what I'd do. Maybe you can figure out what's happening here without going anywhere near the Lodge."
She makes a good point. Maybe the friendly school teacher has some ideas?
Screw it. Give me a damn application form for the cult. How evil could it be, really?
As you'd expect, there's more to joining the cult than simply asking. There's a hazing process first, and considering this is a town where the local kids carry weapons and will blow you away with them if you get aggressive around them, you can imagine what kind of fiendish challenges await.
Except you can't, because the first one is 'scratch a car'. Of course, the puzzle design in Harvester being no more sensible than anything else, you don't simply USE KEY ON CAR. No, you need to find a manhole key and go down into the sewers, and blackmail the school teacher to get her baseball bat and make use of lube first. But that goes without saying.
Once the car's scratched, the Lodge has another assignment. And then another. And another, broken up by occasional visits to see Stephanie, and shamefully poor attempts to be 'edgy', like her father turning out to be a child-molester who attempted to bury the local diner owner's young daughter alive to cover up his crime. Harvester!
None of the challenges are particularly exciting, with the basic gimmick being that the 'pranks' quickly start having unintended consequences that the Lodge totally wasn't planning when it set them.
After one for instance, a loose wire left behind ends up electrocuting someone by accident. The final one is setting fire to the local diner, after which the owner and her young daughter hang themselves. Words cannot describe how ham-fisted these emotional bits are, so here's some awkward sex instead.
"I... I had no idea she'd kill herself," Steve stammers to the Sergeant at Arms, back at the Lodge.
"Come now, anyone who spoke with her five minutes would've known what a tragedy the destruction of her diner would be," the hooded man replies. "Still, you sought to torch her diner, and torched it is. You have proven yourself a worthy candidate for Initiation."
That has to wait though, because... it does. Steve returns home to find that while he's been selling his soul, something horrible has happened to Stephanie. He runs straight over to her house, where her pervert dad isn't exactly bawling his eyes out at his daughter's disappearance. "Your dad must've pulled some strings," he growls. Be sure and check Stephanie's pillow, you lucky bum."
What follows is... is... I honestly have no words.
Undeterred, Steve takes the card to the Evil Lodge of Evil, where the Sergeant informs him that the invitation wasn't supposed to be the card itself, but Stephanie's spinal cord. What a schoolboy error! If that schoolboy is Damien. Still, it's nothing that a little burglary won't fix, and after handing it over, Steve is finally ready for his proper initiation. This is where the game starts getting weird.
Yes, I am indeed aware of the words I just typed.
"You have done well," the Sergeant tells Steve. "Now, let the Initiation commence. As your Mystagog, it is requested and required that I turn over this sacred dagger to you... to aid you in your quest. Whatever occurs in here is relevant to the Great Question, which you cannot help but answer. What is at issue is whether, in answering the question, you will find the answers you seek. You will encounter those intent on preventing or prompting your answer, depending on how you look at it. While the assumption is you want to live, DYING is easy, and provides its own answer. But not for you."
"Just tell me... is Stephanie dead or being held within?" asks Steve, somewhat oddly considering he just broke into her tomb and gave her spine to a creepy guy in a cloak. The creepy guy simply smiles enigmatically, or would, if he was actually capable of such subtle acts of acting.
True to form, the Lodge is filled with the most horrible things in the universe: adventure game combat. There are three levels to work through, all stuffed with ridiculously unforgiving combat and nonsensical, gory deaths, all stitched together with twisted moon logic. Level 1 for instance starts with a valet greeting you in a lobby lined with the silent stone busts of celebrities like Jefferson and Beethoven.
Then you fall down a trap door into this:
Picking your way through sphincters and rat monsters, you eventually find your way to a giant eyeball, which you carve open using a dagger in the shape of the Order/Harvester logo. Unfortunately, in doing so, you get splashed with acid that will kill you in quick order, unless you do something about your clothes. No problem. A couple of screens away, there's a coatroom for some reason. Unfortunately, they won't clean the deadly gunk off you for free, and you don't have any money unless you find a deserted bar, where drinking booze summons your evil doppleganger armed with a scythe, who you kill with nothing more than an "All right!" to get the key to the till to steal some money to give to the coat-check guy to save your life to give you the time to find take a toga off a peg and put it right back on the wall to open a secret passageway to find the scythe that makes killing much easier.
At this point you'd think you'd go back to try and kill yourself, time-travel style. No. Instead, you steal a meat cleaver from a cook and take out the coat-check guy using the evil Harvester blade, possibly swallowing some candy to repair the damage caused by being gutted by the rat monsters, to head into the sewers to find a way into some toilets to get some pesticide that destroys a plant monster which lets you get an effectively invisible key from a fountain with no clue that that's what you're looking for, but which you use to open a new path to a backstage-type area, where you climb another rope that shrieks in a familiar female tone as you ascend to more craziness.
That's Level 1 of the Lodge. There are three levels.
Level 2 is an art gallery with several rooms full of murderous jade sculptures. They bleed as you hit them with the scythe, but that's fine—they also stop trying to kill you back. One of them has a key to the Lodge's library, run by a reasonably pleasant old lady.
"Can I help you?" she asks, not trying to kill him. See? Told you.
"I'm looking for a girl," says Steve.
"This is a library, not a brothel," says the Librarian. Steve quickly explains the hilarious mix-up though, and she tells him that because the Lodge is a boys only club (except for a few celebrity members in the past), there are unlikely to be any women at all in the building, at least, not 'extant'. She apparently discounts herself on the grounds that she's not a member, just... there. The good news is that she'll help you get to the Third Floor, which is where Stephanie will be if she's anywhere. The bad news is that first, you have to retrieve a book from a certain "Mr. Cain".
Gee. He sounds friendly.
With the book returned, the Librarian sends you to go see the Chessmaster, who immediately greets you with open arms, gives you the key you need, and sends you on your way. As if.
"I am the Chessmaster. Any initiate who wishes to pass this way must do so over my dead body," he announces. Fine, you think. There are two choices—beat him at his own game, or just carve his smug face off with the scythe of doom. If you fail or just choose to fight, he dispatches a giant chess piece to kill you, which goes down in a couple of hits and is as dangerous as a giant chess piece should be. Outraged, the Chessmaster smacks himself in the face with an axe for some reason, letting you get at the key in his mulched up brain. Whatever.
There are still a couple more characters to deal with. The Lodge Membership Director is, like the Librarian, not helpful, but not dangerous either. His best advice: If you want to win a girl, find a kewpie doll. I suspect we just found out why the Lodge is a boys club. Elsewhere, the janitor shows up, protesting having to clean up after all the crazy people with the power of a deadly nail-gun. Well, it's a deadly nail-gun if you didn't find the shotgun. If you did, it's more 'a hilarious joke' at this point.
Speaking of which: It's killer clown with chainsaw time!
Several pointless puzzles and timed challenges follow, none of which are of note or tell you anything—unless you count finding Stephanie's clothes lying around, suggesting that whatever evil plan the Lodge is up to, her dignity is almost certainly getting sacrificed to the God of Fan Service. At least they've let her keep her underwear. Just because they're killers and thugs doesn't mean they're uncivilised.
Several fights take place, several things meet The Scythe, and then just like Level 1, there's a rope that screams in a female voice as you climb. But who cares? On to Level 3!
Level 3 is all about grotesque images and moral choices. Every room is a Mystery, often with two solutions, almost always including a pointless fight. There's the Mystery of Pain, where you have to choose between torturing a helpless prisoner, or killing the torturer. There's the Mystery of Motherly Love, where a woman shows up to tell Steve that "Everyone says motherhood is fulfilling, when in reality it's draining." As she says this, she's being eaten alive by several small children, who promptly attack him. There's the Mystery of Flesh, where you finally get to take down Stephanie's evil father, who explains that he abducted the little girl earlier to buy his way into the Lodge, with his next initiation being to leave the doors open for his own daughter to be snatched away. There's the Mystery of Lust, where you have to choose between sleeping with a hooker (contracting a fatal STD unless you find a vaccine in a hurry) or beating her to death with some kind of weapon, and the Mystery of Charity, where a beggar describes himself as more of a 'taker' and demands a tribute. Told to go to hell, he replies "I'm a taker, Initiate. Allow me to take YOU there!" and attacks with a walking stick.
As with most fights in this part of the game, a shotgun makes this less imposing. The only problem is that the more you use your projectile weapons, the less likely it is that you'll have shots left for the final battle. If you don't have any left... you're screwed. At the same time, use the scythe on enemies with reach, and you won't have enough health left to take the hits either. Ever wondered why adventure games usually avoid combat? It's because of games like this.
But! Triumph in this most dangerous of battles, and you'll finally be reunited with the beautiful, scantily-clad Stephanie, and get some answers. And oh boy, are they doozies.
I'll let Dr Claw here explain the TERRIFYING SECRET OF HARVESTER.
That's right. The whole adventure has been a VR simulation run by an evil organisation to help train serial killers. Its goal, to desensitise regular people—regular gamers , if you will—into being able to murder people in real life. Yes. And no, thinking about the details here doesn't help, from why everyone spent so long trying to kill you, to why simply walking around town and killing people is treated as a bad thing by the simulation. Either you get arrested, and if you don't have a Get Out Of Jail Free card (literally), this is the guy who zaps you in the electric chair, or instantly killed. Punch the paperboy? He's got a gun, and he'll kick your arse faster than any of the actual villains can manage.
As for the 'deal', that just begs more questions. I suppose it's nice of the Harvesters to let you live out your life in their terrifying little town, given what else they could do to your squishy brain. But Steve? Have you seen this place? Do you want to be trapped here for the rest of time?
God, the conversations about bake sales alone.
Oh, and if there was any doubt that the developers considered Stephanie nothing more than a prop, it's right here. It's as if she didn't have any big plans for her life beyond sitting around in her pants in a serial killer training camp, and true to form, if you choose the path, the two live happily together and even raise a little virtual baby. The evil path? That goes a little something like this.
That's right. Harvester is Jack Thompson: The Game. While in reality only a murder simulator if you actually live in Toontown, that's the premise—that games really can teach you to kill. Hell of a risky thing to release back in the days where people thought stuff like Night Trap and Mortal Kombat actually had that power.
Even now, it's slightly controversial. Which is why we finish with a plea. If anything you have seen today does in fact drive you to slaughter the innocent with a chainsaw and bathe in their blood, please leave a note blaming it on the existence of Don't Scare The Hare. Thanks.