There’s something magical about how indie games can capture images and the feelings behind them without the graphical might of their triple-A cousins. As you stand atop cliff sides in A Highland Song and stare out across the lochs and valleys, you feel their height and their might, the chill in the air and the majesty of the mountains.
The scale of A Highland Song’s setting, both in sheer size and its emotional weight for our ragamuffin of a protagonist, is brilliantly realised throughout. Unfortunately, there’s something missing, be it clarity or substance or both or something different entirely, that means these peaks of scale get lost in the valleys of the whole experience.
The peaks and creatures of A Highland Song
In A Highland Song, you play as a young girl who sneaks out of her house in the Scottish mountains to make her way to the edge of the highlands out into the sea, where her Uncle Hamish is waiting. Each night as she sleeps, she recalls letters to and from Hamish, while interacting with the world occasionally prompts anecdotes about him too. An eccentric old chap who knows a lot about the history of nature and myths (or makes it up as he goes along, etching waffle as fact in his niece’s mind), there’s an undercurrent of intrigue. Why did they lose touch? Why must she sneak around? Why has she set the deadline of arriving before the Beltane festival if Hamish never leaves his small patch of land?
Though A Highland Song’s runtime is relatively short, our interest in this kooky relative is too thin to be sustained across the entire experience. With gameplay that deliberately frustrates in the name of accurately depicting the wilds of Scotland, feeling like the view might not be worth the climb isn’t what you want.
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Traversal sees you sink deeper into the map – though the whole thing is 2D, there’s a lot of dimensionality at play. You start on one mountain and then head further ‘inward’ to eventually reach the end. To crossover and explore along this invisible third dimension, you’ll need to find pathways along the journey. Occasionally these are signposted as straightforward crossings, but most of the time they’re hidden away. As you travel the foothills you’ll find newspaper clippings, postcards, letters, and crude sketches which point to potential pathways, and as you climb up the game’s various peaks, you’ll look out and spot them, unlocking the ability to use them.
This is all done via a scrapbook filled with handwritten notes, and you name each peak you pass (relying on memories that may be incorrect), letting you shape the world not as a player figuring out the right answer, but as an adventurer carving their own paths. However, when you don’t have the required map (or just can’t find the spot), this becomes a solid brick wall in your progress. The game is about exploring far and wide, but when you hit a roadblock, you’re left unsure of whether more height or more width is the answer.
Climbing is the central mechanic, since ascending new peaks is a crucial way to discover avenues to progress. This is all operated on a stamina bar which, thanks to the unrelenting conditions of Scottish weather, is constantly drained. This makes most of the game as much fun as climbing the cliffs in Breath of the Wild when it rains, which, well…
Although, perhaps climbing is not the central mechanic at all. The game is called A Highland Song, after all, and at various points you can race through the flatter parts of the hills while tapping buttons in time to the music. Much like reaching those peaks and feeling the grandeur, there is a splendour to racing across the fields as pipes ring out, Touch the Sky ringing through my head no matter what song was playing. But the rhythmic additions to these scenes detracted far more than they added, especially as the irritatingly small buttons on the Switch caused you to flub a line and then stand there in the middle of nowhere as the music faded.
Though not the central mechanic by any stretch, what defines the game more than the climbing or singing is its Scottishness. Scottish phrases and accents are peppered through the game, and while it can sometimes feel a little forced – like Inuits and snow, the Scots have more words for rain than is necessary – it does lend an authentic touch to the game. Given how few games explore Scotland and its natural environs, I can understand why A Highland Song goes so hard on this angle, but it feels as though it undercuts the scrapbooking element. We’re treated to short, strong bursts of writing to keep the Scottishness high, rather than diluting it with extra information.
A Highland Song is a collection of ideas for a video game all put into the same game, getting in each others’ way and muddying the waters. It’s perfectly fine at everything it attempts, but despite having a clear goal for the player, the motivations and journey turn back on themselves and loop into dead ends. Like exploring the Scottish Highlands without a map, even if you know where you’re going, you might end up going nowhere at all.
And yet, as you struggle through the game’s often abstruse systems, there is something rewarding in it all. More clarity both over where to go next and what the game itself is built upon would be welcome, but what is here is worthwhile and, for those with a greater tolerance for getting lost over and over or finding the right way and being unable to progress because the search has tired you out to much, A Highland Song holds some promise. After everything, the view is just about worth the climb.
A Highland Song
- Nintendo Switch, PC
- December 5, 2023
- Inkle Studios
- Brilliantly captures the scale of the journey without photorealism
- Authentic Scottish music gives the game a clear identity
- Offers multiple pathways and alternate playthroughs
- Neither climbing nor rhythm sections feel rewarding
- Progression often hits a wall
- Premise feels too thin for how much the game relies on it