[Mr Creosote] Alright, today we'll be talking about Harvester. This is a game I bought in a garage sale years ago and it's been sitting on my shelf ever since. This was the chance to try it out finally.
[Johann67] It's a game with a Mature rating, due to violence, gore and other nasty stuff. The main reason to try it (for me at least) were the wildly differing opinions of reviewers about it.
[Mr Creosote] It's on the BPjM index in Germany, meaning it was adults only - sold only on request, even ads were forbidden. The UK version I have is labelled '18'.
[Johann67] The game was supposed to come out before other gorefests like Carmageddon and Phantasmagoria, but was delayed for two years, limiting the shock value somewhat.
[Mr Creosote] The game magazine I was subscribed to when it came out in 1996 actually gave it quite a good rating: 80 out of 100. Other reviewers smashed it right into the ground.
[Johann67] I've seen reviews literally from 100/100 to 0/100 on sites like Mobygames.
[Mr Creosote] So you readers might be in for a treat. Johann67 and me didn't discuss the quality of the game before, so everything's possible - we might agree or disagree completely.
[Johann67] Let's move into the actual game. It is a story about a man named Steve, who wakes up with complete memory loss in a fifties-style town.
[Mr Creosote] 'Town' is a nice way to put it. The population of 'Harvest' is given as 51. And calling Steve a 'man' is very nice, too: He's 18 years old and living with his parents, his little brother and his baby sister.
[Johann67] At least that's what he is told by the other townsfolk.
[Mr Creosote] Nobody wants to believe him about the amnesia. People think he just got cold feet and wants to get out of the imminent wedding with a local girl called Stephanie.
[Johann67] Stephanie, as you find out, also suffers from memory loss. She's locked in her room by her rather strange parents. Come to think of it, most of the townsfolk behave really strangely.
[Mr Creosote] To put it mildly. One neighbour apparantely loves telling Steve his fantasies about participating on the wedding night. Stephanie's father is obsessed with meat. And the women are all busy baking cookies constantly.
[Johann67] Not to mention the all-gay firemen team who do nothing besides draw "nekkid men".
[Mr Creosote] Or the soldier who has lost the lower half of his body in the war and is now in charge of a large arsenal of nuclear missiles.
[Johann67] The strangest thing is right in the center of town though: the Lodge. Everyone in town keeps telling you to join it, but you have no idea who or what they are.
[Mr Creosote] Everyone but Stephanie who finds the Lodge very creepy. Still, she sees it as a way to get out of this city.
[Johann67] So, since it seems to be the only thing that might jog your memory, you set out to join the Lodge.
[Mr Creosote] Joining the Lodge involves some strange tasks and tests... but that part, you'll have to find out about yourself.
[Johann67] The "memory loss" part of the story has of course been done before. Often. It's needed for the latter part of the game's story to "work" though, in this case.
[Mr Creosote] Personally, I don't see the point of the amnesia. It could all have been done without it. Steve could just be a regular guy trying to join the Lodge, because that's what everybody in town wants.
[Johann67] Yes, but it's obvious Steve isn't from the town, even though everyone says he is. He wonders about things like black and white TVs, and is clearly from a later era than the fifties. Also, Steve isn't quite as insane as the rest of the townies. He seems to be a "normal" person, while the townsfolk are more caricatures than anything. Stephanie excepted.
[Mr Creosote] That's right and that's where the story actually shines: There is always an undercurrent feeling of weirdness. Something's not right, but it's hard to put the finger on it. It's all small details.
[Johann67] Yes, I really liked that part. What I didn't like was the linearity of the story. You can go anywhere at the start (or almost anywhere), do anything, but the story only progresses one way. And that's joining the Lodge.
[Mr Creosote] The designers were most likely big fans of David Lynch. Harvest is basically a smaller version of Twin Peaks (or, to a lesser degree, the town from Blue Velvet), complete with a a 'Log Lady' and a 'Black Lodge'.
[Johann67] There are other cultural references, too, though. The army veteran would fit quite nicely into Dr Strangelove, for one.
[Mr Creosote] Problem is, whenever stories of this mystery genre get to the end and try to explain things, they usually have problems keeping up with the the quality they had before. But I guess we'll get to that later in this review. For now: The plot is one strong point of the game, it's very funny, cynical and eerie.
[Johann67] Yes. Where the game does not really shine, though, is the gameplay. Let's start with the interface.
[Mr Creosote] Alright. Everything is point & click. Verbs (like examining or taking) are selected automatically in a context-sensitive way.
[Johann67] However, some conversation topics (most, actually) vanish from time to time. So, when you talk to someone, you never know if you forgot a topic. You can type it manually into a text box, but that takes good memory.
[Mr Creosote] Yes, that was very annoying. Also, it's kind of a false promise: It pretends you can talk about anything by entering the topic yourself, but almost everything is only answered by "I don't know anything about that".
[Johann67] True. Another silly thing about the conversation system is that there seems to be no check if events have occurred already or not. For instance, there are two pieces of evidence you can gather on day one. Either one ends the day, but if you bring piece nr 2 to the relevant character the day after, he'll respond like it's still day one and nothing happened yet.
[Mr Creosote] Also, I'd sometimes get into 'conversation loops' where characters would say old sentences again and again. There is never really a good way to tell whether talking to someone will be worth it.
[Johann67] Something that is interesting about the game though, is that the gameplay changes drastically from one day to the next. It starts as an adventure, but ends more like a hack-and-slash.
[Mr Creosote] That's right. Actually, you can try killing any character you meet right from the start. When I first tried out the interface and noticed I could hit at will, I tried it out on a boy in front of my house - the little bastard gunned me down! That was when I knew this game would be... irregular. It's only in the second half of the game that this fighting mode actually becomes relevant, though.
[Johann67] Also, where at the start you can go anywhere in town, at the end you're very restricted in your movements.
[Mr Creosote] Let's talk about the first phase first: Although you're right about being able to go anywhere, the game is still very linear in that phase, too. You have to do things in the order the game intended - whether this makes sense or not.
[Johann67] Sadly, you're right about the making sense part. One very short day took me hours to solve-I had no clear idea what I was supposed to do at all. Turned out I just needed to buy some tape. However, if you have no inkling you'll need that tape, why would you try to buy it?
[Mr Creosote] Because you can - that's the only reason.
[Johann67] At that point the game is basically "arrange stuff you need for the Lodge entry exam by day, execute the assignment by night".
[Mr Creosote] Trigger actions are sometimes completely unrelated to what they're causing. So the only way to get ahead every day is to go to every location and try to see if anything has changed there or anything new can be done.
[Johann67] Some locations (well, a lot of them) are very scenic, but duds story-wise. Nothing happens there. That makes the town a fairly big place to search for changes.
[Mr Creosote] At the same time, you can hardly do anything which isn't required by the solution. What I found out was I could show a porn magazine to a little girl (sorry...) which wasn't required and I got into jail for that. In the cell, I could dismantle the sanitary installments which wasn't required. But that was about it. At some point, the player gets a ladder and there is a frisbee disc on a roof. But can you put the ladder against the wall and get it? Of course not.
[Johann67] What did you think of the puzzle difficulty in general?
[Mr Creosote] Most puzzles were fairly basic. Unscrew screw with screwdriver, give meat to dog.... Finding out where to go is harder than solving the actual puzzles. Which made the second half extremely easy as there was no choice where to go anymore, then.
[Johann67] We've been rather negative on the interface so far, but there are some positive points too. You can just double-click on a location exit to go through instantly, which I really liked. Steve does not move very fast.
[Mr Creosote] Now that we're getting to positive things, in the second part of the game (which, as mentioned before, is rather bloody and violent), many fights can be avoided by solving small puzzles instead. I liked that, even if the puzzles themselves weren't that great.
[Johann67] That fits in with the two paths the players can take at the end - but more on that later.
[Mr Creosote] If I were to sum the gameplay aspect up: Not great, but I've also played way worse. Pedestrian, I'd call it. I'm not a big fan of action-based fights in Adventure games, but they weren't too hard and, as I said, usually avoidable.
[Johann67] Sadly, I have to disagree there, gameplay was maybe not the worst ever, but definitely below-average. Basic amenities such as a conversation log would have improved that, but they're missing.
[Johann67] The presentation, on the other hand I really liked.
[Mr Creosote] To describe it a bit first: Harvester uses filmed sprites in front of rendered backgrounds. Sometimes looks a bit stiff, but it's generally alright.
[Johann67] If you want a game to compare it to, think Mortal Kombat.
[Mr Creosote] Remember, we're talking about graphical style now, not gameplay Cutscenes are small film clips. I'm curious there: How did you like the acting?
[Johann67] I really liked the cutscenes (except the one with the baby, that was just nasty). Well, the acting wasn't always great, but the movie quality was much better than I'd expected.
[Mr Creosote] You mean the technical quality?
[Mr Creosote] That was quite alright, yes. I'm always wondering how to 'classify' these people who appear in computer games from that time. Would you say they're professionals?
[Johann67] Well, they are actors...but they will never make it to a big-budget Hollywood film. I do wonder if it's all they do though, and if they're not part of the game designer team in another capacity as well.
[Mr Creosote] One of them (the undertaker) was the game's lead designer, I read, but I don't know about the rest. Well, compared to the usual computer game standard, the acting was quite alright, I thought. Sometimes spotty, sure, but those roles aren't very demanding anyway.
[Johann67] But, the many cutscenes did give me the idea that this game had an above-average budget. Which I suppose is good. The game is on occasion really really heavy on the gore, that goes for the cutscenes as well. Luckily, there's a switch to turn off some of it.
[Mr Creosote] At least that's what it claims. In fact, if you turn it off, it's just a few especially nasty pictures overlayed with a silly text nagging you to turn gore back on. You really thought this switch did any good? It was still completely clear what happened in those more disgusting scenes.
[Johann67] I'm not a fan of gore switches in general. If you buy a game, it has a rating so you know what to expect. If you can't handle 18+ games, don't play them. But, if a gore switch is implemented, it should be done right.
[Mr Creosote] Yes, but I believe this isn't done right in Harvester. However, I wouldn't really know how to make it better. You can't make the same game without the gore. It's an integral part of the later game. The switch is a bit of a cop-out, in my opinion.
[Johann67] Also, part of the design idea behind this game was to shock, and gore is one of the main ways in which the game tries to achieve that.
[Mr Creosote] Still, we have to warn our readers once again here: This game is extremely disgusting in some scenes. Think twice whether you can really stand this. It's definitely not for kids or even teens! I'm stressing 'not for teens' here, because the 'gore genre' is often associated with a teen audience. This game isn't for teens, though.
[Johann67] Yes, it really isn't. But that's one of its distinguishing features.
[Mr Creosote] I especially doubt most teenagers would have any chance of understanding all the irony and especially the ending of the game. A fair warning: If you haven't played the game and you want to avoid spoilers, skip to the next section of the review now!
[Johann67] Right, the endings-with MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD!!!
[Mr Creosote] After Steve completes all the Lodge's tasks and he's told that...
[Johann67] ...the town of Harvest is an advanced virtual reality sim, where you and Stephanie are the only two real people. The intent of the sim is to desensitize you to violence, and to turn you into a serial killer. Your final exam is to kill a defenseless Stephanie. If you do it you're released as a serial killer. If not, they pull the plug and you both die.
[Mr Creosote] If you choose the latter, though, you'll live out a whole virtual life in the virtual city of Harvest, virtually married to Stephanie.
[Johann67] In truth, neither of the endings made much sense to me. There is no way to rescue Stephanie, she'll die regardless. You can only choose to save your own life - or not. But does that instantly make you a serial killer? The game thinks so. It does force you to kill Stephanie rather brutally, though - if you go that path.
[Mr Creosote] The distinguishing 'moral' factor is that if you choose to kill her yourself, she'll die in extreme fear and pain. Otherwise, she'll pass away peacefully after images of a whole, regular life is fed into her brain. It is true that there is no real 'good' ending, though. You can't save Stephanie, you can't get out of the simulated world without becoming a killer.
[Johann67] As long as you can consider a life amidst the caricatures inhabiting Harvest, fully aware that you're dying, "regular".
[Mr Creosote] I'm not sure whether Steve and Stephanie would be aware still that it's only a simulation and that they're dying. I understood it so that their recent memory (learning the truth about Harvest) would be wiped. In any case, it's an unsatisfying choice. Of course, the aspect which is really interesting about the ending is the allegorical level... which is even spelled out explicitly in one ending.
[Johann67] At the very end of the Serial Killer ending, another movie plays - linking video games to real life violence. Basically a warning.
[Mr Creosote] That's the question. I'm still not sure how to interpret this. Is it a serious warning about video game violence leading to actual violence or is it a satire about the media hype about video game violence?
[Johann67] I hope it's satirical. When I saw it, I did wonder: "If the designers think video game violence causes real violence, why did they make this ultra-violent game?"
[Mr Creosote] It could be a satire of a satire
[Johann67] That would be in line with the game
[Mr Creosote] Seriously: Yes, it would be in line. And that's the part which I think non-adults (and many adults, too) wouldn't understand. It plays out on many different levels.
[Johann67] I did not see the full second ending of the game though, I never got that far, sadly. I encountered several bugs in the game, but one of them was game-critical and for me unavoidable
[Mr Creosote] Yes, the game is rather buggy. I couldn't see the ending video of the 'happy' ending, either, although I could at least select it. The video (if it exists) was immediately skipped, though.
[Johann67] For me, the game ended in the Lodge. As soon as a specific enemy appeared, the game crashed to desktop every single time.
[Mr Creosote] To quickly explain to the readers how he can still comment on the ending: I sent him a video.
[Johann67] Also, there are many continuity bugs, like the evidence thing I talked about earlier.
[Mr Creosote] The game never crashed completely for me, but it sometimes seemed to be in inconsistent states, yes.
[Johann67] I got 3 other crashes, but those didn't always occur so I could get past them. But, maybe the game just doesn't like Dosbox on Windows Vista 32-bit.
[Mr Creosote] Also, maybe this wasn't really a technical bug, but it certainly seemed like one: Characters appeared in several places at the same time.
[Johann67] Aah, like the Sheriff and his coffee breaks!
[Mr Creosote] Exactly! So it wasn't just me!
[Johann67] Funny thing was, he sometimes had the dialogue of one location in the other location.
[Mr Creosote] The deputy could also talk in the diner although he wasn't even there.
[Johann67] Yes, also, I don't know if it qualifies as a bug, but sometimes the characters acted really strangely, even for Harvest.
[Mr Creosote] For example?
[Johann67] Like the little girl <spoiler warning>: "I just got raped and buried alive. Thanks for rescuing me. I'll walk home alone to mommy now."
[Mr Creosote] Eh? That didn't happen to me - she wanted me to take her home. After she was reunited with her mother, though, she did act rather nonchalant.
[Johann67] She just vanished after one dialogue for me.<end of spoilers>
[Mr Creosote] That was another bug, then. Certainly not how it's supposed to happen. There's more little things like that, but no point listing them all. If you decide to try the game out, be prepared that it might just stop in the middle for you, whether you want it to end or not.
[Johann67] As you can see, the game has many bugs. But, it's still a rather unique game to play.
[Mr Creosote] 'Unique' is certainly one way to put it. I find it very hard to judge. On the one hand, we've got some very good story elements, on the other hand, we've got stupid gore and mediocre gameplay.
[Johann67] That's probably why the reviews are all so different. Also, the switch of game type, and the explanation only at the very end, make reviewing it hard.
[Mr Creosote] I wouldn't say the 'game type' really changes. As I said, many of the fights can be 'puzzled around'. Though it makes absolutely no sense to review it without having seen the ending, yes.
[Johann67] That might be something that would turn people away from the game. Not knowing what's going on. The actions of quite a few characters make no sense without the ending.
[Mr Creosote] On the whole, I'd say I liked the first half, i.e. first exploring the town and the first few tasks to join the Lodge. These tasks then got a little repetitive. And once within the Lodge, the strange eeriness was replaced with splatter stuff. I didn't like it anymore, then, and I'm ambivalent about the ending.
[Johann67] The game is made up of very good and very bad parts, with little middle ground. I loved the humor (the alternate birds and bees story your father tells you was really good), the presentation of the game with all the cutscenes and the maturity of it (gore included). I disliked the crappy gameplay and the loads of bugs in it. Some things were done really well, some were done very shoddily. Which is strange, given the two years of extra development time.
[Mr Creosote] Although I say this all the time anyway, it's especially important for this game: Giving it a rating is virtually impossible due to what you're saying. So I'll say: You've read this review, you know what we mean. If you just look at the number, you don't deserve any better.
[Johann67] Almost too bad The Good Old Days only accepts ratings for the totality