Not-E3 2023 Mini-Preview: Play a tense game of tag in roguelite Horror Stories: Harvest Hunt
Throughout June, Video Games Are Good is spotlighting a handful of amazing demos released on Steam as part of "Not-E3" or the summer Steam Next Fest (June 19-26).
Roguelites dominate the gaming landscape and I remain a hopeless victim to their whims. Horror games are always a hit and I'm in the middle of rediscovering their greatness, playing more of them in my older age. Now that I'm a big, strong grown-up able to play them without shedding any panicked tears.
So what about horror roguelites?
It's an underutilized blend that amplifies the specific anxieties that horror games prey on to great effect. Not knowing what's waiting around the corner — especially because your version of the world is just that little bit different from anyone else's — is horrifying.
Horror Stories: Harvest Hunt hopes to be the game that nails the combo better than any before it. Prepare to stalk through cornfields and hunt or be hunted by a horrendous slug-like beast.
Horror Stories: Harvest Hunt comes from the petrifying (but, like, in a complimentary way) people at Villainous Games Studio, a UK-based but fully remote horror indie studio clearly looking to create some innovative horror experiences. For a sampling of what else is in their villainous repertoire, there's an interesting murder mystery where you simultaneously play as the murderer in the past and the investigator in the future, and an already released interactive horror experience they describe as having "a dark twist on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs."
So, yeah. They're not afraid to try something out there.
Harvest Hunt is the latest in their "Horror Stories" series, this time setting scares against the backdrop of a cursed village with an eternal struggle against a hooded horror known as The Devourer. In Luna Nova, there are only 32 villagers left. They're trapped within the village and forced to harvest the town's unique fruit, ambrosia, to keep their lives going. But when the harvest season comes, they are not the only ones looking to keep themselves fed. The Devourer and its fiends emerge this time of year to consume villagers and taint the ambrosia with bile.
To deal with the beast, one villager every season is selected as The Warden, given a specialized mask and sent out to do the harvesting and banish The Devourer. Only through repeated harvests and banishments can The 32 start to understand the curse afflicting them and the truth behind Luna Nova's strange situation.
At least that's what I was able to understand from the demo's fairly dense and surprisingly deep bits of lore. Like any good roguelite, most of it stays hidden from you in the early going, unlocking as you accomplish certain tasks in the game world and survive the harvest. It has an incredibly interesting setup, but when you first hop in, it can certainly be disorienting.
With the game centered around the village of Luna Nova and repeated visits to its spooky corn fields, it is interesting to stumble upon the town's landmarks (like the horrifying mass grave in the center of town or the giant blue-tinged windmill) with little to no idea of what any of it means, only to uncover disturbing bits of lore that recontextualize each subsequent visit.
How these horrifying visits and "harvest hunts" actually play is a bit of a chase. Like any good hunt, it all starts with precise preparation. Before you take to the fields, you'll draw cards for a set of buffs, fortifications, and complications that color each night's harvest. These include things like being able to make less noise while hiding from The Devourer, increased healing capability from the rations the villagers left around for The Warden, or an increased number of fiends that litter the field to make your path to glory that much more complicated.
This is where the roguelite truly manifests — and while the demo doesn't allow access to many variables, it promises to capture those beautiful moments where you'll either be thanking or cursing the RNG gods for the specific set of cards it deals for your run. It's an interesting setup for a horror experience because it sets you up with some knowledge of what to expect and makes it more of an even-footing conflict when you're able to, say, set up Devourer-banishing tools at specific parts of the village. Having to run away from the monster, only to stumble upon something crucial you placed down just moments before, always feels good.
Once you're ready to head into the fields, the tension ratchets up. You're dropped in a random part of Luna Nova and immediately put to work. Your task is to find ambrosia and the handcrafted tools and weapons you've prepared to hack off bits of The Devourer for use in a banishing ritual. You'll have things like hatchets to throw, pitchforks to stab with, and even dowsing flags that point you toward the monster at any time. It's stealth-first as you hide in the corn, avoid noisy bridges and bone piles, and keep track of the stalking beast as it crawls through the town.
But once you've got a bundle of ambrosia and your bearings under you, it's time to flip the script and become the hunter. It makes for an experience that is surprisingly less of a pure horror experience and something more like a high-strung game of tag. Most of the game is spent finding the monster and hoping not to trigger one of its fiends — creatures that lurk in the lakes or on the grounds, waiting for you to trip past them to alert The Devourer to your location. Once you do find it, it's easy to smack off a piece of its body, nab it, and run away.
I hope that, as the seasons go on, the creature's capabilities grow and its unpredictability ratchets up. Because once I understood the demo's simple loop, the horror definitely faded fast.
One thing I loved from Harvest Hunt was its incredible style. It blends a comic book-like aesthetic with thick black lines outlining the details of the creepy scenery. It has a constantly oppressive atmosphere, complete with thick clouds of fog and regions of the map tinted by disorienting hues that make your vision that much more unreliable in a setting that's already so easy to get lost in.
The Devourer's design itself is pretty nasty, with a slug-like hooded shell surrounding a disfigured skull stuck mid-scream. If I was being picky... I'd love to see some improvements to its animation, as it currently glides around the environment and simply rotates on the spot as it seeks you out. But between the game's atmosphere and tense gameplay setup, I'm pretty set on the creep factor as it is. If they made that thing heave with harsh breathing and gave it a more satisfying slither, I don't know that I'd survive.
Harvest Hunt is set to release on Steam later this year, and its unique blend of randomized horrors have certainly caught my eye. If this tense game of hunt or be hunted sounds interesting to you, you can hop in right now and play the demo up on Steam and then wishlist it if that ends up working for ya! I can't wait to see where Villainous Games Studio ends up with this one and wish them all the best for the rest of its development!