A Highland Song Review

These Hills Are Awash With Stories

May 16, 2024
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If you know me by now, you know a few things with certainty. If it’s well written and acted, I’m probably all about it. I’m a total sucker for pixels or a hand-drawn art style. Story and soundtrack often top pure mechanics in my eyes. And if inkle releases a new game, I need it! Nothing’s changed here with the release of their newest title, A Highland Song.

You may have heard me describe inkle’s games in the past as being some of the smallest indie titles with the biggest hearts, a hill I’m probably going to die on. And a strangely appropriate comment given this is a game all about crossing the hills and mountains of the Scottish countryside. You won’t be dying in these hills, though. Rather you’ll be crossing them, one peak at a time, on your way to the coastline in time for something called Beltane. What is Beltane? And why is it so important? You have one week to reach your destination to find out. So grab your backpack and whatever food you can stuff into it, because it’s time to get lost wandering the hills.

And these hills are awash with stories.

highland song header.jpg A Highland Song

Publisher: inkle
Platforms: Steam, Switch
Price: $17.99 USD
Copy provided by publisher
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Meet Moira. She's about to run away from home, and nothing's going to stop her!

A Single Step

Moira, a young teenage girl, has lived her life on the edge of the Scottish Highlands. She has never seen the sea, though she’s exchanged letters for most of her life with her Uncle Hamish who runs a lighthouse there, a man she’s never actually met in person. One day she receives a letter saying to come to the coast as fast as she can. And so Moira runs away with little more than a few handmade drawings of the surrounding hills.

How do you play a game of A Highland Song? In true inkle fashion, there aren’t many controls to speak of. You can run left or right on this side-scrolling adventure. You can climb up or down slopes, or jump as needed. You’ll manage stamina and health as you decide whether you’re sleeping beneath a rocky outcropping, a copse of pines, or perhaps the roof of an old hiker’s cabin. There are some light rhythm game sections where Moira sprints across the countryside. Perhaps most importantly, you’ll scale high peaks to get a view of the surrounding lands, aiming to match landmarks with the maps and drawings in Moira’s pockets, revealing the next hidden pathway and guiding you across the next stretch of your journey. And of course you’re aiming to do all this in the span of a week in-game, so as not to miss Beltane. But none of these things really describes the game itself.

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It's not always clear where your points of interest will be, but that makes it all the more satisfying when you find one!

The game of A Highland Song, the experience of it, lies in the lilt of violins, the sun rising over the next day of your journey. It rests in the rain clearing on the mountaintop as you leave a gift behind, a marking to show that you passed this point. It’s in guessing the name of the peak you’re standing on and being rewarded with Hamish’s voice narrating a letter from your memory, telling you stories of dragons and giants, of times long past that have become a part of these hills. There is a history that comes alive in the journey. Is Moira really hearing a cave talk to her? Did she really find a blue man in the wilderness? What really happened when she passed through a crag renowned as a place of witches and magic? How much of this is literal or in your collective imaginations is left to interpretation as the two of you journey alone through the wilderness.

And in true inkle fashion, just as with their other fantastic title, 80 Days, if you don’t reach your destination by the deadline, the journey continues. There is no sudden snap to a game over screen, no demand that you reload a prior save. You can take your time, perhaps now freed from the burden of haste, to enjoy finding things in the countryside. There is extra story as well, extra insight into Moira’s family life, that you might miss if you have a perfect first run to the coast. There is a goal to this game, but despite the initial look of things, it isn’t actually to reach Hamish and his lighthouse by Beltane.

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No highlighted climbing surfaces here. You'll quickly recognize what can be traversed and what cannot. There's always a path forwards to find! Though there is a "highlight" button you can tap, if you need it.

Crossing The Mountain

A peak looms in the distance, a snowcapped giant. When I left home, it was only a few hills before I caught a glimpse of the coastline over the mountains. It seemed surprisingly close, and I thought for the first few days that perhaps it would be easier than I thought to reach Hamish’s lighthouse by Beltane. As I crested each new summit, though, I realized just how vast the countryside was. Just how far it stretched. More than once I stopped to question if the path I’d chosen was even leading me in the right direction. And where once the coast had seemed so reasonably near, I only now began to understand how, like a mirage, it had teased me. How far I still had to go. With each layer of the rolling hills peeling back before me, the white giant loomed ever closer, a rock wall that my confidence could not see beyond.

I knew that I would have to cross that peak eventually. Even working my way towards it became an uphill battle, never mind when it actually came time to scale it, seeking whatever shelter I could against the growing, bitter cold. Reaching the highest peak on that mountain was a special moment, different from all the other summits I’d climbed. I’d done it, and each step I took afterwards felt like a downhill sprint, the end of my journey once again in clear sight.

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The view wasn't half bad either.

I’m leaving out lots of fantastical details from my journeys, of course. More than half the fun of this game is the discovery, and I would hate to spoil that for you. While it might be comical, the number of small containers with scribbled maps and points of interest Moira will find on her travels, I’m willing to overlook that obvious gameplay necessity in favor of the legends and stories found along with them. These hills are awash with stories, Hamish says, and they will certainly wash over you if you let them.

At the start of my journey, I pass a cairn, a pile of rocks left by ancient warriors heading to battle. Moira says each warrior placed one rock, a token they would take back when returning home or left on the pile as a memorial to their passing. I have the option to add something to the cairn, so I place a flat rock I picked up near my house. It seems appropriate. I honor the memory of those who passed this way long ago, doing the same on my way out into the hills. As my thoughts linger on the legends of the past, I am unwittingly participating in a fantastical story all my own.

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The sprinting sections of the game are enchanting as special songs play and the wildlife seems to lead you onwards!

A Story Worth Experiencing

It doesn’t take long to play a game of A Highland Song. I spent several very cozy, quiet weekends curled up with it as one would a good book and a hot drink. Not a novel sentiment as far as inkle games go. If you’ve tried their prior titles, or you like the look of my reviews of them, you really can’t go wrong with this title. It’s very casual by comparison, with your progress and maps saved from one run to the next. If you don’t make it to Beltane in a week, you’ll find your prior progress makes the next year’s journey even easier!

The game doesn’t have the length and the staying power of some of inkle’s meatier titles such as 80 Days or Heaven’s Vault, but what you get is solid and totally worth your time. And at the time of publishing, the developers are adding even more story content into Moira’s adventures, giving you even more to find on repeated plays. There’s a lot of love in this game and, dare I say it again, a lot of heart. If you need something that’s driven by narrative, that’s easy to play and still delivers punch, or just something that’s very different from most other games out there, you should give A Highland Song a try. inkle remains a consistently amazing studio for the niche they’ve carved for themselves: masters of storytelling. Need a good story? Why not see what’s in those hills after all?

Adam Factor