Moira McKinnon’s Uncle Hamish has told her to come to the lighthouse where he lives by Beltane to experience a magical surprise. Determined, 15-year-old Moira sets out – against the wishes of her mother – on a journey through the beautiful but treacherous Scottish Highlands. Along the way, she will scale peaks, puzzle out old maps, find hidden treasure, run alongside deer, and perhaps even wake sleeping giants or pay tribute to the ancient king and queen of the mountains.
A Highland Song is a hybrid narrative adventure, open platformer, and rhythm game developed by Heaven’s Vault developer Inkle. It features a gorgeous watercolor-like art style, toe-tapping music from Talisk and Fourth Moon, and a story that effortlessly blends Moira’s own personal reflections and family history with the faerie tales and legends of the Highlands. You really feel as though you are with Moira every step of the journey – her exhaustion, her joy, her wonder, and her fear, all are perfectly conveyed through this beautiful atmospheric game.
Arguably, the “main character” of A Highland Song are the Scottish Highlands themselves. I have never been there, but, after playing this game, I very, very much want to. The game does an amazing job of portraying this beautiful, remote, sometimes prickly and difficult but always majestic landscape. I really got to feel that the Highlands had a personality. Some days, they were on me-as-Moira’s side, offering fair weather and plenty of trees and rocks to shelter under with fun new items and bits of lore to discover around every corner. Other times, the land was fickle, pelting me with rain halfway up a mountain slope and sapping my health as I desperately huddled under a lone tree. I could see myself planning a trip to the Highlands, and I would entirely credit A Highland Song with giving me the desire to do so.
The gameplay of A Highland Song surprised me. Hidden underneath the beautiful atmosphere and rich narrative is a fiendishly difficult platformer. The landscape is filled with tricky slopes to climb and dangerous paths to navigate, and you will find yourself falling and failing, pausing and doubling back. Odds are, you will not make it to the sea by Beltane the first time you play through the game. But that’s okay – because it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. Yes, the surprise awaiting Moira when you do make it is a wonderful one (I will not tell you what it is – you’ll just have to play for yourself!) but the game isn’t about getting from point A to point B. It’s about exploring, getting lost, and finding all the wonderful things out there.
Plus, A Highland Song is extremely forgiving. You can always try again, and the routes that you have discovered in one journey will stay open in the next. Once I had accepted that my first run, and my second, and maybe my third as well, weren’t going to end with Moira reaching her goal, I was able to relax and feel a lot less stressed out by the game. I was able to take my time, seek out hidden paths, focus on finding new maps (which generally let you open shortcuts between different parts of the Highlands) and just explore rather than trying to rush to the sea as fast as possible. You will eventually find a route that takes you where you need to go in time, but there’s no rush to get there.
There are a few things that did frustrate me, though, even when I was able to relax and enjoy A Highland Song for the journey rather than the destination. It rains constantly and, while I understand that this is an accurate representation of Highlands weather, the penalties for rainy weather are too strict with how frequently it occurs. The constant rain and lack of shelter can lead to Moira’s health draining pretty much nonstop, making some of the steeper peaks pretty much impossible to climb by the time you reach them. I understand that the Highlands are sparsely populated, but, if it’s going to rain that much, I think there need to be a few more places to spend rainy nights that won’t decrease her maximum health.
The map system in A Highland Song is really interesting – Moira can find various maps or remember things her Uncle Hamish told her, and use them to find secret paths and hidden treasures. However, it can get frustrating, as you have to mark potential locations from each peak and Moira will sometimes confirm that you got it right, but other times will be unsure. There was at least one instance where I took a winding, lengthy, out-of-the-way route to what I was convinced would be a secret path, only to find out that I got it wrong.
A Highland Song’s rhythm sections were my favorite part of the entire game, and are a genuine triumph. They are triggered when Moira encounters a deer and dashes across the Highlands to gorgeous folk music provided by Talisk and Fourth Moon. The music is beautiful, and the rhythm gameplay is simple enough that you can enjoy each song to the fullest without losing your place. Moira’s whoops of joy as she sprints alongside the deer (who is, of course, absolutely adorable!) just adds to the whole experience. I found myself seeking out every rhythm section, whether or not they were necessarily the best method of getting where I needed to go, and wishing there were even more of them.
Lastly, I want to commend A Highland Song’s environment-based storytelling. Even though, for most of the game, the only character is Moira, she narrates her thoughts in a way that both reveals more about her family and past and makes you feel like you are there inside her head on every step of the journey. Every night when she beds down, the game reveals another letter she exchanged with Uncle Hamish, which is a great touch – I loved having his wise, calming voice in my ear as Moira drifted off to sleep. The tiny bits of other stories, from the tales of families traveling through the Highlands to the legends of kings, queens,and giants, are hidden throughout your journey like treasures you can encounter as Moira explores.
A Highland Song is a beautiful game. Wistful, nostalgic, sad at times and joyous at others, it truly makes you feel like you are actually traveling through the Scottish Highlands, learning about its myths and history and discovering the secrets of this wild and stunning land. The characters are compelling, the music is gorgeous (and downright catchy) and the Highlands themselves are a majestic landscape that truly encourages you to get out there and explore. Anyone looking for a fantastical new adventure should definitely run away with Moira and give A Highland Song a try!
Kate played A Highland Song on PC using a provided review code.