REVIEW / Gleaner Heights (PC)

 

I’d like to think it’s common sense that if you go into a game expecting it to be exactly like another of its kind, you should also expect to be disappointed. This had me worried for Gleaner Heights, which has been compared in numerous reviews to Stardew Valley. But for those of you considering Gleaner Heights as your next farming time-sink, I have good news: it is not a Stardew Valley clone. While it might bear some surface similarities to other farming simulators, trying to compare it to a pre-existing game is just setting it up to fail. There are huge facets that are singularly unique, for better or worse, which help to make Gleaner Heights a game in a category all its own.

 

Farming simulator meets Lynchian mystery

 

It’s not just its Lynchian, “who killed Laura Palmer” mystery, the pixelated retro homage to SNES-era Harvest Moon, or the Shin Megami Tenseimeets-smoky-jazz-nightclub soundtrack that sets it apart from 2016’s breakout farming simulator. Gleaner Heights is an entirely unique game that makes you work for what you want. It tells you right from the get go that it is not giving you any handouts, and that if you want to get to the bottom of the mystery, get married or win the golden chicken, you’re going to need to get comfy and be prepared to put in some serious time. Gleaner Heights is the brainchild of a single person, developer and publisher Emilios Manolidis, and for the complexity of the game, their dedication is impressive. It went live on Steam February 21, 2018 as a fully finished product, and already Emilios seems to be incredibly receptive to player feedback, fostering an open line of communication and encouraging players to report any issues they’ve found within the game.

Granted, game-play is still clunky. There are certain areas of the map where you may experience some serious lag (most notably for me was when exiting the hotel), loading between different locations can take a while, and there are instances where I glided past doorways or had to attempt an interaction multiple times before the game registered what I was trying to do. All of this can be attributed to the game’s newness, however. It’s not broken, just a little rough around the edges, and it is completely playable (and enjoyable) from beginning to end.

 

 

What Gleaner Heights could benefit from is a tutorial. As it stands, there is absolutely no “how to play” introduction outside of a brief directory in the menu. The game starts you off on your farm with tools, but no idea how to use them, and multiple buildings, with no explanation of what they are or what they do. Even things as simple as what keys do what thing are not explained, and I spent the first ten minutes of my game randomly pressing keys in an effort to learn through trial and error. Coupled with some unintuitive key mapping (the space bar is used to interact, but also to pick up items, and if you hold it you can place the item in your pack, but only sometimes; other times “c” is required to do so), and the clunky, hit-or-miss interactivity that I mentioned above, this lack of introduction resulted in some serious friction that almost soured me on the game as a whole.

That’s a damn shame, because once you get the hang of it, Gleaner Heights is really quite fun. But it is such a struggle just to learn how to play it, that I fear a lot of players might not give it a chance to get there. On their development blog, Emilios said that they don’t “like games [that] treat players like morons,” and they’d  “rather have half of the people complain about not understanding what to do… than treat all of them as idiots.” I can understand that. I’ve been equally as frustrated with video games that excessively hold your hand, and that are so paranoid you won’t realize you can do x, y, or z, that they beat you over the head with intrusive text, explanations and tutorials (here’s looking at you, Skyward Sword).

 

 

There is an art to introducing players to your game in a way that’s fun and informative, but also discreet. Like the age-old screenwriting credo states: show, don’t tell. Games like Uncharted 3 or Half-Life find a way to integrate the tutorial into gameplay, so that players can learn by doing. Other games integrate the tutorial into the theme of the game, sometimes so fluidly that the player doesn’t even realize they’re being taught. And still other games like Total War: WARHAMMER, which would suffer from a fully interactive tutorial because they rely on forethought and strategy, rely on optional tutorial battles and encyclopedic text. That’s not to say that having no tutorial isn’t a completely valid option, either. Video games are all about overcoming challenges. That’s where the fun comes from: playing the game and figuring things out. Without a tutorial, the players are allowed to come into their own understanding of the game organically, resulting in a sense of accomplishment when they discover something new.

Trouble arises when basic functions that should have been explained go undiscovered by the player, and that’s where Gleaner Heights suffers. Be it something as simple as how to plant your crops, the lack intuitiveness between the game and the player runs the risk of becoming frustrating. In the beginning it can almost feel like the game is actively fighting against you, putting up barriers to your enjoyment of it through lack of communication alone, and I fear it acts as its own unintentional gatekeeper against players who might otherwise become fans. And for a game like Gleaner Heights, that hides so much of itself so steadfastly, this lack of fundamental understanding seems to be a step too far into the realm of “too much bother.” I wholeheartedly believe that it needs a tutorial, even something optional like “press F-whatever for exposition,” so that players who need help aren’t having to scour the Steam hub looking for answers to questions outside of the game itself.

 

Dark and spooky mines in farming simulator, Gleaner Heights

 

Gleaner Heights expertly toes that magical line between loving retro-pastiche and originality in its design. It functions much like any other farming simulator in that you farm (clearly), raise animals, get married, and so on. There are a number of mysterious townsfolk to befriend, and multiple celebrations and events that take place throughout the seasons. Harsh weather like heatwaves and cold snaps, which cause your stamina to deplete faster, add another level of strategy to an already wonderfully challenging game, and a level system that includes select-able perks allows you to customize and adapt your character to your play style.

I did find myself wishing there were more dialogue options for NPC’s. Outside of community events, and the occasional difference depending on where the character is in town (characters have different dialogue in church on Sunday, for example), most NPC’s say the same thing over and over again, day after day. It tends to get monotonous, and it makes it hard to even want to build a rapport with them. I mean, if all Linda from finance said to you was “I like puppies,” every day for a year straight, you’d probably avoid her like the plague, even if your paycheck came up lacking. But it’s exactly then, when you put your head down and focus on building your farm and making friends, that the true heart and soul of this game makes itself known.

 

 

Axe throwing, just because

 

Gleaner Heights is a Twin Peaks analogue, through and through. Gigantic old hotel, with a rich and secretive owner who seems to have his sticky fingers in everything? Check. Visiting agent investigating the murder of a young, beloved local girl? Double check. A town full of rich, interesting characters with their own secrets and troubles? You better believe that’s a check! There’s even a sinister, paranormal force underlying all of it, infecting the towns inhabitants and driving the main plot of the game.

Things get weird in town after dark, and you will spend most of your nights combing through different avenues, collecting Nightflowers (a universally liked gift that only blooms after 9 p.m.) and seeking out events. As you build a rapport with your fellow townsfolk, more events will become available but you have to go looking for them, as they won’t come to you. They require diligence and hard work to discover: this is a game that does not relinquish its secrets easily, so if you are in it for the mysterious plot, be prepared to fight for it. It’s a Lynchian daydream down to its very core, but is also a fun, mysterious romp for everyone, and you don’t have to be a fan of David Lynch or the show to appreciate it.

 

 

Gear menu

 

The soundtrack is impeccable, a jazzy synth combo that inspired me to purchase the soundtrack so I could rock out to the boss battle music on the treadmill, and the dialogue can veer back and forth between charming, disturbing and outright ridiculous so fast, it’ll make your head spin. The coolest function, in my humble opinion, is the Sin System, and it is the one facet of the game in which the lack of explanation works completely in its favor. During the course of the game you are faced with delicate ethical dilemmas, and are forced to make decisions that rely on your perception of morality. Immoral actions grant you a sin, which stack up and play a major part in the end game scenario, but throughout the game, you have no idea what that is. All you are aware of is that you’re either gaining sins, or not, and it looms over your head like a dark, ominous cloud, building tension and promising nothing good. And while some issues of morality are cut and dry (don’t murder people, or condone murder, for instance), some are dubious at best. It adds a layer of unease to the game that, coupled with the obvious, yet painstakingly hidden mystery at the center of this strange little town, leaves you feeling like you are always a step behind, in the best way possible.

The plot itself is fairly cut and dry: someone died. There is a fresh grave in the cemetery when you arrive, and it is clear there is something odd happening in this sleepy town. There are pieces moving behind the scenes, but they will not show themselves to you. As a player, you need to make a conscious decision to go out and find them, sometimes with painstaking diligence and a lot of time and dedication. Be prepared to sink hours into wandering different paths around town, night after night, systematically gifting things to characters on the off chance it might be enough to spark an event during one of your patrols. And even when you put the work in, be forewarned: Gleaner Heights is loath to give up its secrets.

 

 

In his last development blog post before the games release, Emilios confessed that they “like games that are a slow burn,” and that they “don’t really like gratification because [they] double clicked the game’s icon! [They] actually want to do stuff, and [are] totally fine with missing some of them!” And in Gleaner Heights, you will miss stuff. If you don’t put on your sleuthing cap and follow the right story lines, or if you just don’t put enough effort into (or skip out entirely on) building relationships with townsfolk, the main plot will pass you by. After two years, no matter what you have or have not discovered, if you did not get to the bottom of the mystery, the end game scenario will happen with or without you.

That’s it. There goes the plot, and you missed it.

In this way, it’s two games in one for two different kinds of players. It’s for those of us who want the plot, and those who want to farm. However, it feels a little lacking for those who want both. You need to submit yourself to the humdrum, day to day farm life to make progress, but it can start to feel like you’re spreading yourself a little too thin, especially when you add to that the relentless friendship grinding and film noir spying the plot demands. It’s a game that will appeal to some, not all. Not everyone is going to like this game, but honestly, that’s fine. Not every game needs to be accessible to everyone, and for the audience that Gleaner Heights appeals to, I think it’s a total gem. It’s just a shame that it came out after the success of Stardew Valley.

 

Sermon on the mountaintop

 

I think its asinine to go into a game expecting it to be exactly like another of the same genre, and Gleaner Heights is so clearly modelling itself after Harvest Moon, if anything. Regardless, I still think the mere fact that it’s a farming simulator along the same vein as Stardew Valley will color people’s opinion of it, when really, it is a game in a category all its own and deserves to be seen as such. Despite only having released on February 21st, developer and publisher Emilios is already a superstar. At the time of writing, the game has been patched seven times, and Emilios has considered every piece of critique they’ve received, taking steps to rectify any issues in functionality, and actively listening to their fans suggestions. Some of the issues mentioned in this review will probably already be resolved by the time your read this, and that is just a testament to how fantastically adaptable they are. Though I was unable to find a site for them, they’ve been updating their twitter consistently, as well as the Steam community page with updates, and I am certain that as time goes on, what is already a good, solid game will become even better.

If you loved the challenge of older generation farming simulators, and you aren’t one to shy away from heavy subject matter and a good murder-mystery, give Gleaner Heights a shot. Just remember to be patient, work hard and fight for your right to insight. What this game hides is exactly what makes it memorable, and it only rewards the most steadfastly determined of adventurers.

 

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