There is a moment when you hike through the mountains, hills, and valleys of the world. Spots of the world that look untouched by humans, brimming with natural beauty. You reach a peak, a lake, or a gorgeous outcropping of trees. You’re left in awe. Then, as you stand there, taking in the beauty before you, something comes out of the silence. A song. It’s made up of the birds, the wind, and the water and it grows into a symphony, something magical.
A Highland Song, the latest game from developer Inkle, seeks to capture these moments in the Scottish Highlands. The short adventure tasks you with a simple journey of reaching a lighthouse, the only thing between you and your goal is a series of hills and mountains. Each has a story to tell and a song to sing. If you are willing to find it and listen.
While A Highland Song can deliver on the lush, verdant beauty of its setting and capture some of the unique history and folklore of the region, the game gets lost in its focus on reaching the destination, rather than savoring the delightful journey. Every corner in A Highland Song has the potential to lead to a new interesting experience, but the game’s encouragement that you leave no stone unturned drains the hills of their special charm. Still, A Highland Song is a beautifully original game, even when it trips over itself on the journey.
A Not So Short Hike
As Moira McKinnon, a teenager running away from home, players travel across a series of hills in the Scottish Highlands towards her uncle’s lighthouse. Her goal is to get to her destination within six days, in time for Beltane. A series of hills and mountains separate her from her goal. Just like in Skyrim, if you see a mountain, you can climb it.
On my first journey with Moira, I found myself stressed over my slow progress. Six days feels like no time at all, as the game’s platforming is surprisingly challenging – though that bears some resemblance to real-life hiking. A Highland Song revels in making you struggle up every hill. Moira is not some all-powerful protagonist. She is fallible. Rain – which falls constantly – slows her down, falling hurts, and running or climbing for too long forces her to stop and take a breather. Every day only lasts so long, and you must rest every evening.
I love these imposed restrictions; they make every step toward the lighthouse feel meaningful. In the style of games like Jusant, the movement itself is the core mechanic of the game. However, I quickly realized that due to this friction, I was not making progress as fast as I wanted. Which left me pulled between two thoughts.
The first was that I should push through every mountain range as quickly as possible to meet my deadline. The second was that I wasn’t going to make it no matter what, so I should take my time and explore to my heart's content.
To rush through A Highland Song’s scenery feels like a crime when it looks so good. Every hill, rock, tree, and stream is lovingly placed and rendered in gorgeous animation. Moira’s detailed movements on her journey are especially impressive to look at. But nothing beats those rolling green hills. And within every hill or cave are stories.
There are even songs. These play when running across the occasional open vista and occur in the form of a platforming rhythm game. While the music is delightful, the simple yet somewhat clunky mechanic feels like more trouble than it is worth.
As you lead Moira on her journey, you encounter items left behind by other travelers, maps pointing out interesting locations, and even other people, who may or may not be human. It all is presented to the player as an option, not a bothersome quest that needs completion. Let your interest lead you on a journey and be surprised by the outcome. I think of the girl with the red hair, the mysterious miner, and the notes between lovers that I encountered with fondness.
Eventually, I woke up one morning and Moira had missed her deadline. Instead of stress, I felt freedom. I thought that maybe this was the point A Highland Song was making, perhaps about life: don’t worry about the deadline, the lighthouse will always be there. Enjoy the journey, you only get to do it once.
It may be a familiar theme, but one that was executed beautifully through the game’s adventure. However, upon starting a second playthrough, I discovered that wasn’t the case.
There and Back Again
On subsequent playthroughs, A Highland Song encourages you to try harder this time around, to get to the lighthouse before Beltane. It also uses a new game plus, in which you retain all the items and maps you collected in previous playthroughs.
As a game that wants to encourage replayability, it makes sense, but it feels antithetical to the themes of Moira’s journey. The second time around, it feels like A Highland Song is saying that, yes, in fact, this is a game about reaching the destination as fast as you can. It isn’t about the journey.
Furthermore, the unique beauty of an individual playthrough loses its magic the more repeat treks you take. I had to make peace in my first playthrough with my choices, knowing that I would not see every peak or valley in A Highland Song. but I was happy with the journey I took and the experiences I had. It was mine and mine alone.
But every new playthrough takes meaning away from my past choices, as I can always be comforted in the knowledge that next time, I can take the other fork in the road to see what’s over that hill.
As a representation of the stories that lie within nature, A Highland Song is an exceptional narrative that encourages the player to go outside and touch some grass. There is a level of joy and excitement that comes from learning about the folklore and history of the Scottish Highlands through multiple playthroughs, though this ignores the importance of Moira and the player’s journey.
I can take the journey to the lighthouse with Moira as many times as I want and, given enough time I will uncover every story within A Highland Song. But there is a cost. No magic would be left in those hills nor the memory of my first journey. There will be no more songs to hear. And that leaves me with a very empty feeling.
A Highland Song is available now for Nintendo Switch and PC. Inverse reviewed the game on Nintendo Switch.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling come together. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.