PC, Nintendo Switch
December 5, 2023
It’s not often I think about the Scottish highlands. Over here on the other side of the world, it can be easy to mistake Scotland for just another part of England, but to the North; without its own culture, history, or mythology. So it’s good for a work like A Highland Song to come around to remind us that Scotland has its own proud identity.
This 2D sidescroller has a beautiful tale to tell about adventure and connection to land, and it’s got some great music and concepts that might have been fleshed out. Unfortunately, I never felt like I could afford to explore the mountains like it seems to want.
You play as Moira McKinnon, a teenager who lives with her mum on the edge of the Scottish highlands. She is invited by her weird uncle Hamish to visit his lighthouse to see something amazing, but to get there she has to traverse the mountainous Highlands to reach the sea. He has invited her there to spend Beltane with him, which is a Scottish celebration marking the beginning of Summer. Apparently, he has something amazing to show her.
The atmosphere and tone are bang on right from the start. You can instantly feel Moira’s eagerness to leave home and tackle those misty mountains in the background, and each mountain you can see is one you can eventually climb. Because Moira has never ventured into the hills before, she only has a vague idea of where she’s going and has to rely on nearby landmarks and a handful of hand-drawn maps to guide her way. You can only move Moira left or right, but the crisscrossing slopes overlap and allow Moira to switch between hills and cliffs to find the way forward.
To locate the landmarks from the maps you find, you have to climb to the nearest peak and manually scan the nearby terrain to spot what you’re looking for. I like how realistic this feels, even if it can get frustrating when you can’t find what you’re looking for.
Every so often, the land itself will break into song and you will get to play a simple rhythm game set to traditional folk music as Moira free-runs along the hills.
The traditional Scottish folk music of TALISK and Fourth Moon is gorgeous and heightens the experience whenever their music plays. The energetic sound of the fiddle and concertina really carries Moira’s spirit of adventure and connection to the lands. Although there were times I felt emotional playing the game, it was these segments that felt most profound.
I wish the game was built around these rhythm game moments, but they feel out of place amongst the climbing and pathfinding.
These moments of free-running can occur unexpectedly, without much rhyme or reason. It appears to be only in set areas, usually ones without much to climb, and can take you far away from where you started the song. When you are busy searching for the hidden path to the next peak, there’s no real incentive to go along with the song, especially since you get nothing for following them through to the end. They can be more trouble than they’re worth, as missing a beat will take a chunk off Moira’s health.
You would think a game with over 30 mountain peaks to conquer and countless little secrets and hidden paths to find would be content to let you take your time, but that’s not the case. Moira has just 6 days to get to Hamish’s lighthouse in time for Beltane, and spending time dawdling in the highlands wastes your time and risks Moira missing the event.
The juxtaposition of these two conflicting elements, the ticking clock and the urge to explore, was stressful, and not in the fun way. To find the fasted pathways, you need to find the various maps strewn about the hills, which you can only find if you take the time to explore. But you are not exactly incentivised to explore when you have this looming deadline, so it can feel like A Highland Song doesn’t know what it wants its players to prioritise.
On top of that, the mountain climbing isn’t very engaging. Moira can grapple almost any rockface and climb up a fair way, even on sheer cliff faces. Managing Moira’s stamina is a bit frustrating, as there’s no meter and so you don’t know when she’s about to run out until she’s just about to.
How long Moira can climb without falling, and how large a ledge needs to be for it to count as a standable ledge, never seems to be consistent, which left me throwing myself at various cliffs, unsure if they were unclimbable or if I was somehow doing it wrong. Again, if I had felt like I had the time to chill out and take my time, I may not have been so frustrated at all the rocks in my way.
As you explore, Moira often talks in voiceover about her home life, her strained relationship with her mother, and stories about weird old Hamish. It’s very grounded and sincere, and was often enough to make up for some otherwise dreary rock climbing.
I was genuinely upset on Moira’s behalf when it became clear to me that I was not going to make it in time, which, to its credit, is a testament to the quality of its writing. But let me save you the same heartache: A Highland Song does not actually expect you to make it in time on your first try. It expects you to take the same trip again in a sort of new game plus, starting with all of your items and maps from last time!
I would, Moira, I really would, but I just can’t take another 5 hours of getting lost in the hills.
- Concept of pathfinding through the Highlands is a good one
- A lot of secrets to find, if you don't mind all the climbing
- A sweet, heartwarming story
- Beautiful folk music by TALISK and Fourth Moon
- Mountaineering gameplay is uninteresting
- Ticking clock doesn't incentivise exploration
It’s great to see a game about a culture that often doesn’t see a lot of focus. A Highland Song has a lot of great concepts, but they just don’t all come together cohesively. Even so, it has a story worth telling and some pretty fantastic music to boot.