Originally planned for 1994 and pushed back to 1996, Harvester is a point-and-click horror game that revels in its absurdity and gore, banking on its status as a “controversial” game to get attention. Like Phantasmagoria before it, it has full-motion video with live actors (and that term is used quite loosely here) and depicts gruesome horror lurking beneath the façade of a quaint little town called Harvest: a stand-in for stereotypical 1950s Americana with smiling neighbors and impossibly green lawns.
A young man named Steve wakes up with no memory of who he is, how he got there, or any recollections of the town’s odd inhabitants. Apparently Steve has a few obligations he must take care of first–including marrying the girl next door Stephanie and joining the mysterious Lodge, a large and ominous building in the center of town. Everyone in town urges Steve to join and says that’s where he’ll find answers.
Getting inside isn’t as easy as saying the secret password. To be initiated, Steve has to perform a series of “tests”. These tests involve him engaging in antisocial activities that start out being innocuous and gradually escalate. Blackmail slowly turns into vandalism and eventually goes above and beyond things like arson and—dare it be said—murder.
Harvester is mostly a point-and-click adventure–the player examines, takes, or operates objects as well as talks to NPCs with a click of the mouse. Steve can open up his inventory and do things like combine items, equip weapons, and administer some first aid. Curiously, there’s a combat component to the game and some small measure of freedom. Once equipped with a weapon, Steve can shoot, swing, or slice at whoever happens to be in the area.
Enemies don’t show up until much later in the game, so the combat mostly serves as a means to either engage in some sadistic fun or as an alternate means to solve a tedious trading sequence. Does someone have an item you need but you don’t want to take the necessary steps to get it? Turn them into a red smear with a baseball bat and just take it. But it’s an illusion of freedom, really, as Steve will most likely be thrown in jail immediately afterwards or be killed by a surprisingly well-armed citizen of Harvest.
A bulk of the gameplay is devoted to talking to the NPCs that inhabit the town, hoping to gleam some kind of sense of direction. Conversing with the clearly disturbed townsfolk leads to a scattering of hints and occasionally amusing gossip, although the majority of the actors sound like they’re lifelessly reading off the script to themselves or hamming it up like nobody’s business. Conversations also have a tiresome habit of repeating despite employing new lines of questioning or choosing an alternate response. This is particularly irksome whenever there’s a snippet of film lurking in the dialogue tree, and navigating it means watching the exact same scene play over and over.
Harvester is also the victim of obtuse gameplay design. Solving puzzles boils down to grabbing whatever Steve can get his mitts on like a kleptomaniac and waiting until its purpose becomes clear later on. Here, take this tube of glue. Why? Because eventually you’ll need to glue a glass cake cover over a smoke detector so you can burn down a diner undisturbed, duh. Or take for example the little prank you have to pull requiring the keying of one guy’s car. You can’t just scratch it with anything, only a flathead screwdriver will do.
Steve’s descent into the life of an amoral hoodlum spans six in-game days and only on the seventh (and thankfully final) day is he allowed into the hollowed halls of the Lodge. Inside is a grotesque funhouse of three levels where Steve has to prove his mettle by slaying enemies, solving puzzles, and making “moral” choices.
At every turn is a completely random scenario involving mayhem and murder, serving to convert Steve to the Lodge’s twisted world view. The phrase “gore for the sake of gore” immediately leaps to mind as it’s pretty clear the developer’s goal was to gross out players rather than evoke the type of actual tension or sense of dread that good horror games have.
Harvester is like a gaudy Fiji mermaid, proudly displayed in a cheap sideshow to fleece slack-jawed rubes with cartoon-level gore and needlessly over-inflated dialogue. Any mystique the game previously built up is dashed by its abrupt descent into incoherence once Steve enters the Lodge to face the horrors within. This one-eighty coming in so late makes you wonder why so much of the game consists of so much inconsequential puttering around, capped-off with what might be one of the most out of left field endings of all time—and that isn’t a compliment. Harvester ends up being horrifying for all the wrong reasons.