Water the crops. Feed the chickens. Milk the cows. Brush the horses. Head down to the lake and catch some fresh fish. Talk to the cute grocery store owner’s daughter. Ship some produce. Witness my neighbour physically assault his wife. Stumble across the town lumberjack trying to poison the blacksmith. Uncover a dark, otherworldly force that perpetuates a cycle of torment and destruction in a town that really doesn’t deserve it. Mend the fences. All in a day’s work in Gleaner Heights, the Silent Hill of farming simulators.
Gleaner Heights is a strange beast: It’s part farming simulator, part RPG, and part psychological horror/mystery interactive narrative. Although there’s a lot this incredibly unique and experimental title gets right, it most definitely is not for everyone. There are aspects which are going to be deal-breakers for some players, who will find themselves getting frustrated or bored with the game long before they even get to experience the key moments in the story that really kick it into gear.
And it is the narrative that is really the main draw card here. The RPG elements (making friends and enemies, finding a wife/husband etc.) are certainly fun and do add a bit of flavour, but the game doesn’t need them. The farming gameplay, which is reminiscent of titles like Harvest Moon and Farmville really only exists to sell the illusion that the game’s titular location is a cute, quiet little agricultural town where the most exciting day of the year is the annual Chicken Festival.
Unfortunately, the trailer and description for Gleaner Heights make it very clear that something sinister is going on below the surface. This isn’t like Spec Ops: The Line or Hatoful Boyfriend which don’t give away their major meta twists until you’ve already sunk hours of gameplay into them. This ultimately hurts the story’s progression and the “jaw drop” factor when you discover that things aren’t quite what they seem is basically non-existent. That’s not to say the story is bad. Far from it. It’s creepy, intriguing, and twisted, and the (sometimes wildly) diverging pathways that both the main and various sub-plots can take depending on the player’s choices and actions add a great deal of replayability.
But a lot of players won’t be able to stomach the gameplay and some of the developer’s bizzare design choices. Gleaner Heights offers almost no guidance beyond a few very basic tutorials in the options menu, which means your first couple of hours spent with the game will be just trying to grasp its relatively deep mechanics. I’m all for not hand-holding players, but when you have to go to a Wiki just to understand how to ship some crops, that’s just a dick move.
And the gameplay isn’t nearly fun enough to warrant saying “oh but it’s to give you a sense of accomplishment when you work it out.” Gleaner Heights might just be one of the most repetitive games I’ve played in years. It’s basically “Routine: The Video Game.” I can appreciate that this is designed to act as a kind of juxtaposition to the weird, creepy stuff going on in the narrative, but it’s just not rewarding or entertaining. It’s a huge grind and will be enough to turn some players off even bothering to reach the game’s conclusion. Frankly, I’m not convinced the farming gameplay is even necessary - the game could still have been based on the premise that the player lives in a small, seemingly innocent town with a dark secret without needing to check the next day’s weather in case their cows get sad.
The “figure it out for yourself” approach bleeds over into moving the story forward, which often actually requires some rather specific gameplay steps. Some story beats only occur at very specific times (a certain hour of a certain day of a certain season of a certain year) in particular locations, but there are rarely (if ever) any sort of hints given to guide the player in the appropriate direction. I’m not saying we need Ubisoft-style minimaps and objective markers, but even just some dialogue from NPCs that provides hints would be nice. I’m not kidding when I say the overwhelming majority of your time in Gleaner Heights will be spent with the repetitive daily farming tasks and then just aimlessly wandering around the town talking to every single person you can at various times of the day in the vain hope that you’ll stumble across the next part of the narrative. This game is at its best when you’re unravelling the town’s dark mystery, so making it so damn hard and boring to do so is a wasted opportunity.
So should you play Gleaner Heights? If you can handle doing a lot of boring, repetitive tasks and blindly trying to find narrative triggers, then the story is absolutely worth the effort. It’s one of the best mystery/horror stories in recent years. But I wouldn’t blame you if you think it’s just not the worth the effort.
Gleaner Heights (Reviewed on Windows)
The game is average, with an even mix of positives and negatives.
A deep, intriguing story that gets buried under bland, repetitive gameplay.