Review: A Highland Song

10 Dec 2023

Out of all of the (probably too many at this point) games that I play, there are two genres that I always get excited for: rhythm games, and games that draw emotions out of my cold dead heart. One is a fun way to jam out to great music while testing my button pressings skills, the other is a great way to feel emotions for a little bit.

But never the twain shall meet. At least, until I saw the trailer for A Highland Song during Nintendo’s November 2023 Indie World Showcase. A platformer with what appeared to have an emotional storyline, with elements of rhythm gameplay? Sign me right the hell up!

Did this title end up being the perfect marriage of my two favorite genres? That’s the question we’re here to find out.

Developed and published by Inkle, A Highland Song was released on December 5th, 2023, for Switch and PC via Steam. The Switch version was played for this review.

Over the Mountain and Through the Woods

A Highland Song follows the journey of Moira, a young girl living in the Scottish Highlands. She has a seemingly strained relationship with her mother, but a much closer one with her Uncle Hamish, regularly trading letters with him despite him never coming to visit her in person.

The story kicks off when Moira receives a letter from Hamish, one that asks her to come visit him at the lighthouse he lives in. The letter sounds urgent, asking her to make it to the lighthouse by Beltane (the Gaelic May Day festival from a quick glance at Wikipedia). Coupling her wish to meet Hamish in person as well has her desire to see the sea for the first time, Moira runs away from home and into the Highlands, with Beltane only five days away.

The story of A Highland Tale is told subtly. There’s no long introduction, no major moments of exposition to set up the world. Nearly everything has to be gleaned from Moira randomly speaking while exploring, punctuated with occasional voice over from Hamish when Moira remembers the letters he’s written.

On the positive side, this slow drip of info adds to the adventure and discovery core to the gameplay. Moira is out in the Highlands without much to go on what with the way to the lighthouse, and you as the player have even less info. Discovering new mountain peaks, pathways, or objects usually draws out a bit more dialogue, a bit more story. As you learn more about the path through the Highlands, you also learn more about Moira, her family, and her story – a wonderfully done integration between storytelling and gameplay.

Unfortunately, the way the story is told causes A Highland Song to be a miss with what I was hoping coming in: emotional storytelling. The original trailer sold me on a stronger storyline than what is actually presented in the full game. While the story here was certainly intriguing, especially in the way it’s slowly built, it just wasn’t able to grab me emotionally in the way I had hoped.

Home for the Holiday

Moira’s journey takes her through the Scottish Highlands, a mountainous and sparsely populated region. It’s going to take all the survival skills she’s learned over her young life to make it across to the lighthouse by Beltane.

For you, the player, that means watching a health bar and trying not to yeet yourself off of cliffs.

The core gameplay of A Highland Song is a fairly straightforward platformer. Run and jump across cliffs and outcroppings, climb your way up steeper faces, and try to make your way to various peaks to discover the path forward. Moira controls fairly well, though I did occasionally cause her to leap to her death when I only wanted her to make a small jump to a tiny platform.

The only issue I really had with gameplay controls was when trying to get Moira to move to certain “layers” of the scenery. Most of the mountain ranges you explore are made up of platforms layered on top of each other. Trying to get Moira to move on to the layer you want can sometimes be frustrating, especially if it’s happening during climbing.

As an example, I was climbing down a small cliff face, trying to get Moira on to a platform layer that was about halfway down the cliff. She refused to naturally get off the wall on to the platform, instead choosing to continue climbing the cliff on the current layer. The only way I was able to get where I wanted was to leap off the cliff above the layer I wanted to be on and hope she didn’t take damage when she landed. And yes, there’s fall damage! Of course, there has to be – this is a game about climbing mountains after all. Luckily, it didn’t take long to get a feel for how far Moira could fall before being hurt.

Outside of the platforming, the other major parts of the game are in survival and exploration. A Highland Song isn’t particularly deep with survival mechanics, but keeping an eye on Moira’s health and well-being does become essential.

There’s a day/night cycle, and if Moira doesn’t find a restful place to sleep each night, she’ll begin the next day with a smaller health bar. Climbing in unsheltered areas during rain, wind, or extreme cold will cause her to lose a chunk of her health. You can find shelters and cave mouths to rest in and regain health, but the speed with which you regain depends on how well said shelter protects you from the elements – and since you only have five days ’til Beltane, every moment spent resting is a moment lost in making progress.

The survival mechanics are straightforward, and I can’t say they were ever really too stressful. Though on most of my runs though the game, I struggled to find good shelter each night, leaving Moira with a pitiful health bar at the end.

Exploration, though, is probably the most unique part of this game. There are multiple paths through the Highlands, and its up to you to find your own way, with some occasional hints at where said paths are. Paths are usually discovered by picking up maps, drawings, or diagrams found while exploring, and then climbing to a nearby peak to match up said diagrams with the landscape.

This works surprisingly well. Despite the game being nothing but mountains on mountains on mountains, there’s enough subtle variety in landscaping and little unique features to make figuring out “what mountain is on this diagram” not overly difficult.

If you don’t have the luck to find maps relevant to the area you’re in, though…good luck. My first run in the game, I found enough relevant maps to push nearly to the lighthouse on my first try. My second run, going in a different direction, proved much more difficult, with me having to run back and forth scouring for items often to find relevant maps.

You may have noticed me mention multiple runs a few times here. That’s because A Highland Song isn’t really meant to be completed by Beltane on the first try. During each retry, though, you keep the maps and diagrams you’ve found, and you’ll have picked up the names and locations of various mountain peaks through dialogue from Hamish. Slowly but surely, you’ll become more well equipped and knowledgeable to get through the Highlands by Beltane.

Man, all that above, and I haven’t even gotten around to the aspect I was excited for: the rhythm gameplay. Unfortunately, that’s because there’s sadly not much of it. When crossing longer flatter areas of a part of the Highlands, Moira will occasionally come across a deer. Chasing it will activate a “rhythm run,” with a folk song starting up in the background and button targets appearing below Moira’s feet. Press them in time with the rhythm to complete the run.

The rhythm runs are entirely a pass/fail mechanic. My pro controller vibrated subtly when I pressed a button with exact timing, but there was no downside to being slightly off with timing. Completely missing too many targets will end the run altogether, and then you just have to normally hike your way across the rest of the path (though the run may start again if the song you were playing was long enough). At the end of run, there’s no fanfare or rating or indication of completion; the song you were playing just trails off and you’re back to exploring. The only seeming reward you get is that Moira’s climbing stamina appears to get better for every run you do.

Now, I know A Highland Song wasn’t explicitly advertised as a rhythm game, but I expected these runs to be a much bigger part of it. The game highlights its use of multiple Scottish folk bands, and the name of the game implies a strong tie to music. That’s what I get for judging a book for its cover I guess.

Giving a Folk

I think it goes without saying that A Highland Song is a visual delight. With a rugged watercolor style, smooth animations, weather effects, and wonderful camerawork, the game was often just a wonderful thing to simply look at. Especially when you get to the top of a mountain peak and the camera pulls out to show the vastness of the Highlands, and how small Moira is in comparison.

The music and audio work is also a standout feature. When exploring, the game knows when to offer silence, the sounds of nature, or subtle instrumental flourishes to punctuate the moment. Voice work is mostly great as well, though Moira is lacking in variety with some sounds; I have her “oh oh oh oh oh” sound she makes when she gets too close to a cliff edge burned into my brain.

As for the rhythm runs, despite my disappointment in the lack of them…I think the actually music played during them has made me a fan of Scottish folk music. The game features tracks from folk bands Talisk and Fourth Moon, neither of whom I had heard of before playing. Every track from them was a delight, with a few providing the emotion that I had hoped to get from the story of the game. Hell, I have Talisk’s albums on loop right now while writing this.

Guess I’m a folk music fan now.

An Unexpected Journey

I’m in a weird spot with A Highland Song. On one hand, the game didn’t provide me with the kind of experience I was expecting from the trailer. On the other, what actually is here was an interesting and engaging experience.

Exploring and finding the various ways forward constantly kept my interest, even through occasionally frustrating moments. The rhythm runs, while disappointingly uncommon, provided nice breaks from the core gameplay flow and some wonderful tunes to listen to alongside.

While it wasn’t what I expected, it was a journey worth going on. The Scottish Highlands are calling, and it’s a call that you may just want to answer.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided by Inkle for Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Inkle.