Harvest Hunt Review - Running In Crop Circles

  • First Released May 22, 2024
  • PC
Mark Delaney on Google+

Villainous Games' roguelite horror game builds enjoyable systems around a central monster with more bark than bite.

There's something timelessly scary about cornfields. Their impenetrable depth and intimidating height can quickly disorient anyone who stumbles into one, leaving them desperate to find an exit path, and turning a simple field of grain into the setting of a horror story. Villainous Games leans into this universal truth as the centerpiece of its folk horror game, Harvest Hunt. Pitted against a ceaseless monster hellbent on corrupting and consuming a village, it's the game's interlocking systems that make it worthwhile, even when the creature leaves something to be desired.

In Harvest Hunt, you're tasked with amassing enough ambrosia over five-night-long runs to secure your village's immediate future. The deeper you get into a harvest season, the higher the requirements and tougher the tasks may become. The game leans into some light deck-building elements like so many similarly designed games have as of late, but these cards are varied enough--no matter if they're beneficial or detrimental--that they remain interesting after several hours of play.

Played in first-person and presented with stylized visuals that borrow Rare's no-straight-lines approach paired with a rustic but comic-booky layer on top of it all, the mood is strong. A foreboding night sky hangs over the randomly generated farmlands, combining with the plethora of cornstalks, creaky footbridges, and uninviting ponds to form an initially intriguing whole. It's a world that makes you feel unwelcome and disoriented, adding a compelling creepiness to a game with a relatively simple gameplay loop.

There's something timelessly scary about cornfields.
There's something timelessly scary about cornfields.

I only wished these randomly generated maps had more variable parts. Outside of the cornstalks and ponds, there are three key landmarks on each map, like a massive, gangly tree and a haunting windmill through which the moonlight so stylishly cuts. But these locales aren't supplemented with smaller, equally memorable sites to see from night to night, leaving me feeling like I'd seen it all before even though, at the same time, I couldn't possibly map the pathways. It's somehow dizzying and overly familiar at once.

In spirit, I likened Harvest Hunt to Slender, the once-viral and simplistic horror game that randomly spawned journal pages across dizzying maps as a ceaseless monster nipped at your heels. Harvest Hunt builds interesting card mechanics on top of that, but its underlying substance is the same, or sometimes worse; the monster is restless, but unlike in Slender, they're also pretty easy to evade.

The Devourer stands two or three times taller than the player character, with a peculiarly round shadowy body sporting green sores but not much else. Given their height, you can sometimes see them coming from a distance, and when you can't, there are ways of locating them, such as placing a weathervane that points toward the beast in real time. I was often able to crouch-walk very close to the Devourer without them spotting me, and when they did, I could sprint away and easily lose their tail more often than not. Worst of all, however, is what happens when they'd catch up: They'd grab me and immediately deplete a portion of my health, forcing me into a simple button-mashing minigame where I'd need to wiggle free to minimize the damage. Once I did squirm away, the game seemed to give me something like a cooldown where I could escape to hide again, resetting the creature's pursuit back to its unalerted state. All of this is to say, the Devourer isn't scary.

This loop of dodging the monster while collecting enough supplies to meet a particular quota by run's end isn't unlike that which you'd see in the hilarious-but-scary horror du jour, Lethal Company, but Harvest Hunt is played entirely solo and serious, and it doesn't have the scares to make up for that difference. The game even wants you to consider harming the beast to transform fragments of their body into stockpiles of ambrosia, but they were consistently easy enough to dodge that I never saw the point. I always preferred playing stealthily and collecting the vital resource piece by piece. I appreciate the play-your-way approach in theory, but found one way was clearly better.

By applying buffs and nerfs in every round, new strategies could emerge, but no matter what, I didn't see the point in fighting the monster.
By applying buffs and nerfs in every round, new strategies could emerge, but no matter what, I didn't see the point in fighting the monster.

So much necessarily hangs on a horror game's scare value that I was oddly still impressed with Harvest Hunt for being interesting even as its monstrous mascot isn't. Played as a horror game, it's moody but falls shy of its goals. Played as a roguelite first and foremost, however, it fares much better. This is mainly because the game's deck-building system offers consistently worthwhile obstacles and rewards. Each night of a five-night run, you're given a new random benefit and detriment, such as being able to damage the beast with fewer hits or turn healing items into additional ambrosia when at full health, but also suffering from effects like the Devourer's stationary "fiends" calling out your location more easily, or turning all waters, even small puddles, into toxic baths.

I enjoyed the way these played off each other and altered my approach for each night. Though the maps felt insufficiently varied after the early hours and the monster never instilled the fear in me they were meant to, I nonetheless enjoyed trying to complete runs as they grew to be more oppressive with increasingly improbable quotas.

As you sustain a run, you'll also pile on temporary bonuses, called strengths, night after night until a season ends, as well as longer-lasting village fortifications that really just translate into more strengths. Meanwhile, the Devourer enjoys a single, consistent feature each season, such as leaving a trail of toxic gas in their wake.

Strengths and fortifications are selected from different intervals, and choosing any card over the others offered to me became hard since they were well-designed and would each make different aspects of a run easier, such as allowing me to crouch-walk faster versus expanding my hit point total each time I'd heal or making the act of healing a faster one. This gave me pause and forced me to consider builds to counter what else the harvest season was already throwing at me. I could also trade starting HP for tools around the map, which felt like an often risky trade-off that I'd nonetheless accept.

The foreboding world is comic-booky and rustic at once.
The foreboding world is comic-booky and rustic at once.

These many overlapping and sometimes stacking effects ensured that in seven hours of play, I never explored the setting in the same way twice. I was often desperate to escape with my life and ambrosia not because of the monster, but because of these other hazards that would deplete my HP and bring me to the brink (or beyond) of total failure, thus resetting all of my progress.

In Harvest Hunt, the stakes are real, but the scares aren't. There is tension in the game, but it doesn't rise to the heights it wants to due to a central villain who can't pull their weight. That places a figurative ceiling over its best moments, but it does have bright spots. I appreciate its rustic, askew art style and interlocking roguelite systems, which give me an objective worth hunting down in a folk-horror world that at least looks, and in some ways, plays, the part.

Mark Delaney on Google+
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The Good

  • Overlapping roguelite systems create meaningful differences between runs
  • Folk-horror vibes are strong and cornfields feel effortlessly creepy

The Bad

  • The central, ever-present monster isn't tuned to be as scary as they should be
  • The multi-strategy approach soon reveals the ideal path, making a combat-focused run seem irrelevant
  • An initially intriguing setting never evolves enough

About the Author

Mark crept through the corn like a mouse in a movie theater for seven gameplay hours, always hoping for that faster crouch-walking card to spring up in his playable hand. A review code was provided by the publisher.