Gleaner Heights Review -- More Than Meets the Eye
If you take a look at Gleaner Heights on Steam, it may appear to be an ugly Stardew Valley clone. I'm just going to tell you now that is not the case.
If you're coming into this game expecting something akin to the carefree and easy-to-manage Stardew Valley, you will be disappointed. If you're looking for a new farming RPG more in the line with the Harvest Moon series up to the Friends of Mineral Town on the Game Boy Advance, you're in for a real treat.
Gleaner Heights, for whatever reason, meshes classic farming RPG mechanics, light action RPG mechanics, and a Twin Peaks-style world and plot to make what may be the most original-yet-unoriginal take on this genre yet.
I would wager to say that this game is perhaps a more mature take on a genre that has generally been the opposite. The bizarre plot, the struggles of the townsfolk, and the sheer amount of things to do have no trouble keeping you engaged.
Want to farm? Yeah, you can do that. But why don't you go forage, mine, dive, fight a boss, search for hidden chests, and break up a marriage while you're at it? Just for good measure.
You can do all of this in a single day in Gleaner Heights, depending on what's going on. The game lets you know things are a bit off before you even get to move your character, but at first glance -- and certainly as you're learning the ropes -- it just seems like a regular farming RPG. Your neighbors may say something odd once in a while, but who cares? Farming.
Something Old and Something New
The primary focus of this game is the farming, and as such, it is fair to compare it to other games within the genre. It does hold up against them, but the farming action you're going to get in Gleaner Heights isn't as fancy as the competing Stardew Valley. You're not going to be installing sprinklers on your farm and plopping down fertilizer.
Farming here is extremely stamina-intensive, as is any action that makes use of a tool. As with older Harvest Moon games, much of the effort you put forth in Gleaner Heights goes in stamina management and making the best of your situation. That very facet is what makes it appealing to me, though its story (and the prospect of multiple story paths) and wealth of secrets are not far behind.
The secrets -- the very prospect of them -- is especially exciting. While we've certainly seen secrets in modern farming RPGs, this game is packed full of them. None of them are obvious and even some of those that have already been discovered are obscure enough I'd expect most will miss them completely. I can only imagine what else there is to find.
This game isn't perfect, though.
Gleaner Heights, for all of its good (there's a whole lot of good), has some aspects that put a damper on the whole experience.
The first is the very small effect box for your tools. Unless you're the most precise gamer on earth, you're going to be missing watering your crops or hitting enemies sometimes. This is especially cumbersome during combat, as it will cause you to take hits you should technically should not. It's a waste of stamina, which is no laughing matter.
In addition, the game's character sprites just don't look good. I've played through the first year and a half and restarted twice so far, and I'm still not interested in the characters and have trouble discerning who is who. This is a stylistic choice that isn't likely to change as the sprites do fit the game's overall aesthetic, but it is something that bothers me.
Lastly: The keyboard controls, while functional, leave something to be desired. The game is best played with a controller, and even then I question the button to put an item away and to go back in the menu being the same. There are times this is not ideal.
These negatives don't do much to stifle my enjoyment of the game, but results may vary. Gleaner Heights is not a game I would recommend to younger gamers or those who did not experience early Harvest Moon games.
The above said, I would recommend Gleaner Heights to anyone who fell in love with the farming RPGs of yore or anyone who really enjoys figuring things out on their own. There is a distinct lack of spoonfeeding here, and I'd like to keep it that way. What's the fun when everything's right there in your face all the time? But that's just my preference.
If the controls were a little more forgiving and villagers easier to discern, Gleaner Heights would be an easy 8 for me. As it stands, it's a good 7. With so much to do, so much to see, and so many of the town's closet-bound skeletons to bring to light, how could I say no? Despite its appearance, this is a solid Harvest Moon clone from top to bottom.