|1. A Highland Song combines 4 genres: Platformer, Adventure, Rhythm, & Survival
|2. These genre elements don't always mesh well.
|3. The game is still worth playing to explore its beautiful and rich world.
A Highland Song is a 2D platforming adventure set in the Scottish Highlands. It features beautiful hand-painted scenery and catchy music from Celtic bands. The story follows Moira McKinnon, a teen girl who runs away from home to visit her mysterious uncle Hamish at his lighthouse. According to a letter she received from him, something special will happen there if she arrives by Beltane (a Scottish festival). Since her journey is entirely on foot, her endurance and navigational skills are put to the test through rolling hills, caves, and snow-capped mountains.
The world of A Highland Song is massive and intricate.
Four Genres for the Price of One
A Highland Song combines 2D platforming, adventure game elements, survival mechanics, and rhythm sections into a remarkably complex package for a 4-hour game.
The platforming in A Highland Song is seemingly simple. You can walk, climb, and jump like any other 2D platformer and the game's controls make pulling this off quite straightforward. In general, Moira feels pretty good to control. The part that makes the platforming more complicated is that the game world is comprised of many 2D planes stacked on top of each other. So as you move left and right, you need to keep an eye out for opportunities to transition from one plane to another to progress towards the lighthouse in the distance.
The game's art style, while beautiful, can make parsing the various layers of the environment challenging. There were many times when I tried to jump on a platform that I thought was right in front of me, only to realize that it was actually in the foreground or background, causing my character to fall. Similarly, it's easy to miss trailheads (essentially shortcuts that advance you closer to the lighthouse) in the environment if you don't already know how to spot them. However, some of that is likely intentional, which brings us to the adventure game aspects of A Highland Song…
Is this bridge in-plane with Moira or the rock behind her?
Outside of knowing that she needs to head “towards the sea” to get to the lighthouse, Moira doesn't really know how to reach her goal. To figure that out, she needs to make sense of local legends, vague sketches of landmarks, and advice given from potentially unreliable NPCs. She also finds all manner of random junk, some of it is useful, the rest, not so much.
These adventure game elements give the world a great sense of mystery and depth. If you want, you can spend a lot of time learning about the mythology, history, and geography of the land. Armed with this information, Moira is better able to identify landmarks, get her bearings, and discover secret trailheads. Since there are multiple routes to get to the lighthouse, your journey through the game will vary depending on how much you engage with the adventure game elements. For me personally, I felt conflicted about whether I should focus on finding the optimal path to get Moira to the lighthouse by Beltane, or if I should spend time thoroughly delving into the world's mysteries.
You'll often find notes like this or get hand-drawn maps from NPCs. If you can manage to decipher them, you can find shortcuts.
In certain areas of the game world, you'll be prompted to start sprinting. If you do, a rhythm game session will begin in which Moira will dash across the environment jumping over obstacles to the sounds of upbeat Scottish folk music. If you manage to hit most of the button prompts on time, you can cover a lot of ground very quickly in these sections.
I found the rhythm portion of the game to be a fun break from the rest of the gameplay though somewhat incongruous with everything else going on. Sure I was zooming along quickly, but was I actually going the right way? I also found the button prompts during the rhythm sections to be hard to read. The game has options to make the rhythm gameplay easier, but not a setting to make the prompts larger.
I found these button prompts hard to read due to the small font and motion blur effect when Moira sprints (which isn't apparent in still images).
Throughout the entire adventure, Moira is constrained by the fact that she's only human; she's at the mercy of her stamina, the weather, and the passage of time. At the start of the game, Beltane is 6 in-game days away and time marches forward as you explore. To keep Moira healthy, you need to keep an eye on the time and weather to ensure that she can rest at night and have shelter from the elements. Neglecting these things reduces her max HP.
Moira loses HP from spending too much time in the rain or snow as well as from tripping or falling. Since missing a button prompt during the rhythm section results in a trip or fall, you need to be mindful of your HP even when jamming to Celtic tunes. If her HP reaches zero, Moira thankfully doesn't die, but she'll have to sacrifice an entire day to heal.
Climbing up a cliff in the rain when you're already tired is a bad idea.
Putting it all together: Whimsical Tension
Applying over-arching survival mechanics to the platforming, adventure, and rhythm game elements, is A Highland Song‘s boldest and likely most polarizing artistic decision. On one hand, the game is telling you to enjoy uncovering the mysteries of the highlands. On the other, the game is telling you that you better hurry up but be careful not to hurt yourself.
For me, these conflicting messages added an always-prevalent sense of pressure to what initially started as a carefree adventure. This brings A Highland Song into a very sharp contrast with other exploration-focused games like Breath of the Wild or A Short Hike; Moira's adventure may feature some level of magical and surreal events, but it doesn't want you to forget that it's set in the real world.
The game is always reminding you about the passage of time. Try not to let this make you feel rushed.
Tips for Enjoying the Trek
Even though this is a review, not a strategy guide, here are a couple of things I figured out during my first playthrough that I wish I knew from the start:
- It's not a big deal if you miss Beltane. At the end of each in-game day, the game prompts you with “X Days Until Beltane”. I spent my whole first playthrough worrying this meant that something bad would happen if I missed this deadline. However, I arrived at the lighthouse three days late and still got an ending that was a satisfying conclusion to the adventure. So don't worry too much about the apparent time limit and enjoy exploring.
- Zoom out the camera to make pathways clearer. If you stand still and zoom the camera all the way out, the game will highlight traversable surfaces in white and unpassable ones in red. Doing this periodically makes it much easier to figure out where to go next.
- Hold the Up key when jumping between rocks. If it's unclear whether a platform is on Moira's plane or in the background, hold the Up key in midair. This will cause her to transition to the plane behind her in the event the next platform is in the background plane but still close enough to interact with.
- Plan to play through more than once. There are so many things to discover in this game and so many paths you can take. There's no way you can see it all in one shot. However, at about 4 hours per playthrough, it's not a big commitment to do multiple playthroughs. Consider doing one leisurely run and one quick run if you're especially curious to see what happens if you make it to the lighthouse in time for Beltane.
Zooming out to see the traversable surfaces is so useful!
Verdict: A Worthwhile Journey
A Highland Song was a challenging game to review. It's artistically impressive and highly ambitious but occasionally confusing or frustrating, especially on your first playthrough. Taking that into account, I still recommend giving A Highland Song a shot. The game is clearly a labor of love and provides a fascinating world to explore once you understand how it works. I wish the game's messaging would have made it easier to fully enjoy my first time through, but I'm still finding myself greatly looking forward to taking additional treks through the Highlands.
|A Highland Song
|E for Everyone
|Number of Players:
|Steam, Nintendo Switch
|How Long to Beat:
|Recommended for fans of:
|A Short Hike, Lil Gator Game, Haven Park