Hello gentle readers! It is I, the resident head nerd, the Terminally Nerdy one himself, Clay, coming to you from the magical world of the internet.
Now, normally the topic for today’s article would be in video form, however I simply have not had time to really sit down and record it, so I decided to go back to what I used to do for Vox Ludicus, and do an old school written review of this video game. Now, please keep in mind that the developer has been actively updating the game, so some aspects of my review may become nullified.
And what is this game, you might ask? At its core, Gleaner Heights is a farming / life simulator / rpg created by one man. Similar to games like Harvest Moon and Stardew Valley, this game attempts to harken back to the bygone era of SNES styled 16 bit sims, with some unique story twists based on one of the creators favorite shows: Twin Peaks.
Does it accomplish this feat? Well let’s break it down, starting with the visual style.
Visually the game looks solid. The sprite work is nice and varied, with characters looking “Chibi” styled with large heads and tiny bodies. The various buildings and areas around town look good, and I am a sucker for the way the water looks. The color palette tends towards the grimey, dingy, dirty style, which given the subject matter touched on in the game makes sense. This world, the region is not a bright cheerful place. There is darkness here, and the twisted trees, muted colors, and general dark look to the game evokes that quite well.
Enemy variety could however use a bit more spice. A large portion of the game takes place in a cave system in order to mine, and every floor in the caves looks virtually identical and is filled with the same sorts of enemies. I found myself going slightly mad down in the mines, which I guess, given again the subject matter of the game, makes a sort of sense. Also, it took me a little while to figure out what plants and trees I could and could not interact with given the art style of the game. Once I figured it out I was fine but it took a bit of learning.
The UI however is a mess for me. Its built for a controller, which I found odd considering that as far as I can tell this is a PC only game. You have a hotbar with 2 rows on the upper left, one row being your tools and the second row being usable items. Your backpack is divided on the inventory screen into a Tools section and an Items/Loot section. It takes some getting used to.
Overall I think the visual style works well for the game and I enjoy it quite a bit. But what about the audio?
I despise the audio of this game at this point in my life. After 17 hours with the game, given the sheer lack of variety in music and sound effects, I have slowly been driven mad by it. There seems to be one theme (and ONLY one theme) per season, plus music for the mines. That’s it. Sound effects are bog standard, nothing great or terrible there. But the lack of options for songs during the day of the game (and the mines) means you will hear the same tracks over and over and over and over and over again till it bores into your mind, threatening to break your sanity. It just really needs more variety.
Speaking of sanity, let’s discuss the most unique aspect of this game, its story and setting!
STORY AND SETTING
Gleaner Heights takes place in the fictional mountain town of, well, Gleaner Heights. You leave your previous life and purchase a rundown farm on the edge of town in order to start over. All however is not what it seems in the world of Gleaner however, with strange noises at night and secrets to be found.
There is a story thread running through the game involving the townspeople and the strange and dark things that take place in town. And unlike say, Stardew Valley which only hints at darker tones, this game goes all in with them. There is a government agent in town, for example, trying to uncover the secrets of the town. There is abuse, death, eldritch horrors, and more, all waiting to be discovered and exploited.
And yes, I said exploited. You can be a right bastard in this game. Early on, for example, in the Summer season I was walking around at night to collect these flowers that EVERY Villager in the game loves as a gift. I got near a particular building to find a townsperson having fallen off a cliff nearby and was dangling by a rope. They begged me to pull them to safety and I had the actual choice to save them, or let them die. Or another event where I witnessed domestic abuse between a husband and wife, when the wife accused her husband of being a straight up drug dealer. Turns out that whole story can get REAL bad (I looked it up).
While on the surface it seems like this game is another happy go lucky farm sim, dig a bit deeper, befriend the townsfolk, and you can learn all sorts of dirty nasty secrets. I adore this aspect of the game because it feels unique when compared to the other life sims out there. Finally, lets talk about what brings everything else together: The Gameplay.
After 17 hours with the game you could say that my feelings towards the gameplay are conflicted. There is a lot here that I enjoy, and almost an equal amount that I dislike.
First, understand this is a farming simulator, and it does not have the same level of depth that Stardew Valley (its direct competitor) has. You can’t really grow orchards, or make booze, ect. Your farm has only one layout and it does not have any resets at the beginning of a season. You will spend time in a mine digging your way down to fight a boss and collect metals and other materials to upgrade your gear. You can upgrade your house and tools. You can fish. You can get animals and care for them (just cows and chickens) to collect milk and eggs. In a sense, if you have played one farm sim mechanically you have played them all at this point until something comes along to really shake up the genre.
Where things differ, however, are in things like the weather. Gleaner has an actual weather system. Rain for example can wash freshly planted seeds right out of their soil. In summer days can get so hot you take double stamina to do anything outdoors. Fall can have fog so thick you can barely see what is around you. When mining, you don’t break small rocks on the floor, you actually dig out the walls and carve your way through things. Hell you can even jump over fences (which I adore). Combat is more action oriented in Gleaner, with dodge rolling being a thing, and your tools doubling as weapons as well. At its core, Gleaner is a competent game. One thing I have to mention that I love is that time stops when you are indoors. It makes no sense, logically, for this to occur. But it’s handy. Like when you are mining, time will not move. You can spend literal real time hours in the mines (assuming you have stamina recovery items) to dig. Also, you do not faint when you run out of stamina! Instead you simply no longer gain skill XP or drops from anything you do, which is tolerable.
However, I have some distinct problems with some of the systems. First up we have the UI when you sell items. There isn’t one. There is no results screen for the end of your day. This means that when you sell crops, you have to note how much money you had BEFORE you put any crops into the sale bin, and then check it the next day to see how much it increased. This also means its difficult to determine the worth of each crop or item you sell. I could not find anywhere in the UI where this information was housed either.
Additionally, some of the perks seem useless, as do some of the backgrounds you can choose from during character creation. While it’s fun to be able to choose your previous job, a lot of the bonuses are useless. Chef, for example, gives you a ton of cooking recipes! What the game neglects to tell you is that you cannot cook a single thing till you upgrade your home to have a kitchen. Wrestler (yes you can be a wrestler, and I was) gives you boosted combat damage. But the boost is so minimal its basically nonexistent. The best one is the background that increases the money you make from your crops.
Another thing is while you can make friends with the villagers and townsfolk, you cannot track your levels with them. Other then marriage candidates having a colored heart on their dialog boxes there is literally no way to check and see if you are making headway with any particular person. At times, it felt like I was just spinning my wheels trying to get townspeople to talk to me, which is bad because almost all of them unlock either new crafting items or town services once you reach enough friendship with them, but you can’t track where you are.
My biggest issue, however, is with the mines. You see, time stops in the mines. This is a good thing. However, to counterbalance this, finding your way around in there is madness. You see, there is no quick exit. The mines are 40 levels, and the only exits to get out are on floors 1, 20, and 40. That’s it. If you are on Floor 15 and you want out? You either need to go down to 20, or back up to 1. No other way. And each floor gets regenerated when you enter it, meaning that if you go down to floor 3 and want out, you have to go up to 2, find the ladder UP all over again, and climb up to floor 1. Now I know this doesn’t seem that bad right? But see, the ladders are hidden in the actual walls. And without a specific perk (perks you buy when you level up) you will have no idea where the ladder could be. You will always start next to the ladder from the floor you last came from, but the way forward (either up or down) can be hidden. Sometimes you get lucky, and the ladder you need will be out in the open.
This means the most effective means of traversal in the mines is to go up and down the ladders over and over again until you can see the ladder you want on screen, and then make your way over. And since you cannot get knocked out from stam loss, your only other option to get out of the mines is to let an enemy kill you. This is NOT good game design in my opinion and severely punishes players. I have no idea why I cannot exit the mine by going to an up ladder at all. And given how often you need to go to the mines (its the source of a variety of materials for crafting) you will be driven mad by it.
Overall I like Gleaner Heights but I am unsure if it does enough new to really warrant a play through. The farming aspects while solid are also very basic, the combat is engaging but basic, and the major selling point, the story, is locked being a friendship system that is hard to deal with at times.
Given however that its only $10 on steam I would say, if you are looking for a new 2D Farming Sim, it can scratch that itch. While the developer game me a key for the game for this review I would not have been sad had I bought it. I easily got $10 worth of entertainment out of my time with Gleaner Heights, and with the developer actively updating the game I can only hope that my concerns noted here get fixed.
If you wish to pick the game up, you can do so on steam RIGHT HERE.
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