Featuring a novel gameplay concept and large open-world environments, there’s nothing else quite like Body Harvest in the N64’s software library.
Developed by DMA Design – now known as the development powerhouse Rockstar North – Body Harvest is an ambitious game that suffered as a result of a very troubled development. Clunky movement, awkward physics and object clipping, a sluggish frame rate and a brutal save system mar what is otherwise a fun and enthralling game.
Body Harvest’s dystopian premise of the world having been harvested to the brink of extinction by man-eating aliens is immediately gripping. Playing as Adam Drake, a genetically enhanced super soldier, you travel back in time across multiple periods and locations during the past 100 years to halt the alien invaders at key points.
Each location is an open-world environment, although you can’t move quite as freely as that might suggest. The aliens have divided up these locations into self-contained sections (referred to as stages in game) using impenetrable shield walls. The only way to get from one area to the other is to destroy an alien processor, which appears at the end of the stage. Once you defeat all of these, you then destroy the shield generator to completely free the area of the alien threat.
It’s not just the aliens who impede Adam’s progress; the terrain itself can be a blocker too. You must utilise various land, sea and air vehicles, specific to the time period they appear in, to get to where you need to be.
Vehicles provide other key benefits such as extra protection from enemies and occasionally additional weapon options. Adam isn’t completely helpless on foot, and is able to wield a range of different weapons to battle the alien threat. Nevertheless, it’s foolish not to use vehicles, especially in later stages when the enemies are considerably tougher.
Being in a vehicle typically enables you travel faster, and speed is often of the essence in Body Harvest. In addition to destroying the alien processors and shield generator, your other primary objective is to protect the local human population from being killed or harvested by the aliens.
The game will regularly task you with secondary objectives, such as saving people from impending natural disasters or attacks, as well as events known as harvester waves. These involve aliens warping into towns and villages and specifically targeting the human population for dinner.
Losing too many humans during a single wave will spawn a super-powered mutant alien that will relentlessly hunt you down until one of you is dead.
The death toll is tracked across all stages in a location via a meter on the HUD, so it’s especially important to keep on top of it in the earlier stages. If it completely fills up before you destroy the shield generator, the aliens will automatically win, causing an apocalyptic lightning storm to ravage the land and instantly kill you.
The odds are really stacked against you, especially in the game’s later locations where the aliens are stronger and appear in greater numbers. The game strikes a good balance between adrenaline-inducing action and slower-paced exploration. There are also indoor segments, in which Adam can interact with plot characters, source supplies and solve light puzzles.
While relatively simple in terms of gameplay, these indoor moments often highlight Body Harvest’s underlying charm and character. Despite its apocalyptic premise, the game doesn’t take itself too seriously, instead giving off a B-movie vibe that is punctuated with tongue-in-cheek pop culture references.
These nice touches are a welcome addition, because there isn’t much charm to be found in Body Harvest’s basic visuals. The game looked dated even in 1998, and it hasn’t gotten any better with age, although the simple, blocky models and sparse environments at least result in a relatively clean presentation.
The lack of detail is forgivable considering how large the environments are. However, the relatively low frame rate can make Body Harvest feel sluggish and even unresponsive during more action-packed moments.
This is further exacerbated by the way the game handles. The controls feel responsive, but Adam’s movement is unwieldy and lethargic, giving you even more of a reason to stick to using vehicles.
Then there’s the terrain itself, which at times is confoundingly difficult to traverse. Exploring off the beaten path is often far too treacherous because the way Adam interacts with the terrain is often unpredictable and inconsistent. In some instances you’ll walk up a small hill with ease; other times you won’t be able to.
As a result, it’s all too easy to inadvertently slip off a cliff into a pool of water (Adam’s swimming ability is incredibly limited) and die. If you’re lucky, you’ll only end up a bit out of the way and losing a bit of time, although that’s not ideal when you need to deal with an active harvester wave. Disembarking from a vehicle also carries risks, as Adam is sometimes flung in an unexpected direction – not ideal when on thin paths.
These inconveniences wouldn’t be so major were it not for Body Harvest’s remarkably ungenerous save system. You get the option to save your game upon completing a stage via a save beacon that appears. You can then save again, but only by returning to the beacon – and that’s not always feasible. Some of these beacons are 30-40 minutes apart, and it only takes a moment of bad luck to instantly lose all that progress.
Body Harvest isn’t an especially long game. You can get through it in about 7-9 hours, although even on the easy difficulty it’s challenging, so expect to die or fail at times. It’s worth getting the NTSC version of the game if you can: only the first three levels are playable in the easy mode in the PAL version, whereas this restriction doesn’t apply to the NTSC version.
As much as we admire Body Harvest for its ambitious open-world design and unique gameplay offering, its flaws are very apparent and constantly impact your enjoyment of the game. If you can tolerate the poor frame rate, unforgiving save system and blocky visuals then at least give Body Harvest a go – it’s really quite different from anything else on the N64. The biggest issue is the game’s awkward terrain, which really hinders your movement and can even unfairly result in your untimely demise. It’s an ambitious game that was noticeably flawed in 1998, and it hasn’t gotten better with age.