What lies beneath
There’s beauty in the farmer’s routine. Every day revolves around a taxing schedule. Each row of crops requires watering, animals need to be fed and produce needs to be prepared for market, all before the sun rises high in the sky. Reaping the land’s bounties is tough but rewarding work. There’s always something to do, day in and day out, but the bucolic life is full of small moments and interactions that make it seem worth living.
Gleaner Heights is a game about making a living as a farmer. It’s a cartoonish farming simulator, with charming pixel graphics and a host of activities outside of daily chores. Like the Harvest Moon games before it, Gleaner Heights encourages players to make the most of their situation and find a balance between growing crops and fostering relationships with the residents of the sleepy town your farm borders. It’s familiar in its design, almost to the point of monotony—anyone who’s spent time on a digital farm will adapt to the game quickly.
But then again, not everything in the titular town is as it seems. After a hard day’s work, just when the sun goes down, the small town’s secrets come to light. There’s a darkness here. Everyone has something to hide.
Gleaner Heights (PC)
Developer: Emilios Manolidis
Publisher: Emilios Manolidis
Released: February 21, 2018
There are two sides to Gleaner Heights. On the surface, it’s a serviceable farming sim with slice-of-life elements. There’s farming, fishing, mining, and plenty of interesting characters to interact with. Gleaner Heights has seen better days, and with some hard work — and an infusion of players’ hard-earned coin — the town can be restored to its former glory by purchasing several upgrades like a pier (and boat) and a brand-new playground for the town’s children. Similar to Stardew Valley and Harvest Moon, Gleaner Heights‘ structure assures that there’s always something to work towards, be it a new friendship level with a girl you like, a better axe, or a bigger farmhouse to call your own. There isn’t much that feels wholly unique, but like the farming lifestyle it attempts to emulate, there’s comfort in familiarity.
Gleaner Heights‘ other half is much more sinister. Though the game wears a Harvest Moon-like mask, its spirit is made up of Lynchian themes and suburban gothic stylings. Exploring the town at night feels like a different game entirely; the dimly lit streets become pathways towards crime and corruption. Terrible things are happening in Gleaner Heights, and players who seek out danger can play a role in either stopping the madness or exploiting it for personal gain.
Uncovering the wicked lives of Gleaner Heights’ residents and the town’s troubled past means confronting tough subject matter. Though never explicitly graphic, topics like spousal abuse, attempted murder, and alcoholism get dragged to the surface by advancing specific plot points. Although engaging with the town’s malevolent underbelly isn’t required — players can happily go about their farming routine if they’d rather be blissfully unaware — it’s both engaging and fascinating to see how these scenes play out. After spending so much time getting to know the townsfolk, be it through hanging out at one of the seasonal festivals or gifting them presents every day, learning what they do behind closed doors is a twisted, unique experience.
The juxtaposition of simple farm life and dark social elements makes Gleaner Heights a tough nut to crack. It can go from charming, even monotonous in that farming kind of way, to astoundingly bleak once you peel back its layers. Everyone has secrets to uncover, but the main, connective thread that holds the game together requires a significant investment of resources and planning. It’s interesting to explore a town so clearly inspired by Twin Peaks — with a few characters and locations that are almost direct pixelated adaptions of the show — but finding all of the town’s mysteries and secrets is an opaque process. Going in blind will require dedication; be prepared to scour every inch of town on a near-nightly basis in hopes of triggering events.
But solving mysteries, much like surviving as a farmer, takes commitment. And those who are willing to sink hours into Gleaner Heights — either for its agrarian elements, Lynchian plot, or both — are in for a treat. Though it has some rough edges, including occasional script-related issues and town-wide events that seem to ignore changes players have enacted around the village, Gleaner Heights has enough content to make it feel like an instant cult classic.
[This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.]