Reviewed by: Adam Kheroua
What lies at the heart of photography? Is it our attempt to capture the world as it is, or see the world as we want to see it? To catalogue, or create? To define, or deceive? Whatever photography's raison d'étre, Cellular Harvest attempts to take it to the stars with a snap-em'-up mired in enough mediocrity and uninspired gameplay, that no amount of filters can save this placid polaroid package. A uniquely ugly game, Cellular Harvest ironically sports the 'Unity' engine, despite the fact that each and every pixel looks aggressively disharmonious when sat next to one-another. I appreciate this may be a feature and not a fault; the developers may have made their worlds garish and heavily pixelated (to the point of resembling blurred adult footage or a massacre at a Crayola factory) on purpose to distinguish them from typical biomes and familiar colours, tones and textures, thus achieving an 'alien' feel. While I can assume this may be the case, the reality is Cellular Harvest is not the best game to look at. There isn't so much an artistic choice on display here as there is a mechanistic requirement. There doesn't seem to be any artistry on show: rather, Cellular Harvest is making the best of what it has. The 'fish' look like fish, the 'bugs' look like bugs, and nothing really screams 'alien', it just 'suggests' it. This lack of identity spills into the regions of the map themselves, with sandy plains and frozen peaks punctuated by jungles and lagoons. While this may 'seem' exotic and dangerous, the reality is otherwise. Cellular Harvest's maps are as superficial as Destiny's, with environmental hazards being non-existent, resulting in your care-free wandering feeling like a walk in the park as opposed to a real star trek. At least the climbing is truly next-gen, even on the level of titles like Horizon: Forbidden West and The Witcher - just spam the jump button. I don't know about getting further from God's grace, but every day we get further from Breath of the Wild's simple yet elegant innovations, and games that sell themselves on exploration and adventure are the worse for it.
So, besides being a procedure carried out by back street surgeons who take bitcoin as payment, what exactly is Cellular Harvest? Pokemon Snap on a pocket-friendly budget; not so much 'triple A' as 'triple eh?', since you are tasked with taking multiple pictures of alien lifeforms on a distant planet. As such, players can ready a camera by pressing L, and snap away with R. zL and zR zoom out and in respectively, and B lets you jump and double jump in order to navigate with greater precision. Basically - and this is a basic game - You take a camera into an area, walk around and take pictures of the present 'lifeforms'. I use the term lifeforms loosely, however, because half the time the severely pixelated specimens you have to catalogue look virtually identical to the other non-distinct lumps and clumps of pixels they are sat on. While some of the creatures are rather difficult to distinguish from their environs, I was delightfully surprised by a few designs, and in rare occasions the pixel aesthetic gave some critters real charm. Approaching your subjects seems to trigger an audio cue on occasion, and during my playthrough not a single alien became hostile, or did anything to suggest it may actually be a living creature, besides the odd undulation or brisk walk (although at one point a Hydra Rex's model started to float into the air and disappeared shortly thereafter, but I'm sure this was not by design). Furthermore, a slew of pop-in effects, chopping assets and other minor technical issues were often mistaken for alien lifeforms during my time in the game, which became frustrating, since I naturally became sceptical of photographing anything that looked weird or out-of-place in a game whose premise requires you to photograph weird and out-of-place stuff. Not game-breaking, but rather immersion-breaking.
Although attempts have been made to give Cellular Harvest a semblance of compelling engagement, these efforts fall as flat as its saturated game world does. There is a jump function - but jumping from certain areas is prohibited, there is no fall damage and the light platforming sections are few-and-far between. There is a sprint function - but it regularly cuts out and becomes a nuisance rather quickly. There is a zoom function on the camera - but you can walk right up to your subject and snap away without fear of reprisal, and photos usually include mashed-together pixels that fill snaps like T.V static. There is a codex and a photo gallery - but navigating these screens is anger-inducing on account of the 'Battlefield 2042' UI problem. The colours are frustratingly similar and do not complement one another. Add to this that the information therein is useless, and accessing the aforementioned features is slow and cumbersome, and I was left with two features I didn't utilise for the rest of the game on account of their redundancy and poor UI. This all ultimately culminates in a mechanistic experience that harms the otherwise easy-going 'walking simulator' vibe Cellular Harvest has achieved - despite the fact it is set against a bizarre alien world teeming with unknown creatures. The music is pleasant, with dulcet 'space-synth' bopping in the background, giving the gamean almost therapeutic quality to it, and the lack of hostile or meaningful interactions may be well received by some players, looking to take a load off and seek chill rather than thrill. This dichotomy, however, presents a missed opportunity within the context of the game, and as a result the low stakes and low energy were met with low compulsion to keep playing.
All that being said, Cellular Harvest's reason for being may very well exist between its architecture and aspirations. Its setting suggests danger at every turn, but its soul is much more laid back. Where some will see an opportunity squandered, others will see opportunity to savour, with the brisk space-age-safari offering respite and relaxation as a means of escape - even if that means Cellular Harvest escapes to nowhere. For me, the lack of compelling mechanics, flaccid creatures, superficial environments and stunted UI make Cellular Harvest a wholly forgettable experience that refuses to take itself seriously, thus seriously squandering its potential. For a game focused on photography, Cellular Harvest's true value may very well be wholly subjective, and lie in the eye of the beholder.
Reviewed by: Adam Kheroua