I had a strange experience playing A Highland Song. It provides an authentic Scottish experience while also delivering merciful low-stakes yet intrepid exploration.
However, the same thing it does well got in the way of my enjoyment. Yet, I think I forgive the game for it. Like I said, I’ve had a strange time playing this game. Journey with me through the peaks and dark troughs of A Highland Song.
A Highland Song promises greatness with its beauty and authenticity
My initial exposure to A Highland Song was during Nintendo’s Indie World event. Instantly, it grabbed me with its hand-drawn visuals, authenticity, and the promise of a run through the wilderness with not a care in the world.
And it delivered on all of those fronts.
As soon as I started playing, I fell in love with the deep care that’s gone into showcasing and setting the Scottish highlands. The voice actors are phenomenal, the music is wonderful, and the obvious research into the culture is apparent.
I already knew I was going to have a good time, and that was only confirmed when I learned of the mechanics of the game. With platformer elements to the exploration, you’ll be mostly running around the serene hills and climbing up and down rocky cliffs and slopes in search of a way forward.
If you can’t find the way to the next range (level), then you can find map fragments and find out where they’re pointing to. The map fragments were diverse, from sketched scribbles to tourism guides. Most of these fragments would highlight a way forward for you to progress — you’d just have to get there.
With such a simple mechanic, and a merciful life and exhaustion system, I thought my time with A Highland Song would be carried by the simplicity and majesty of exploring a vibrant, intrepid land. And that was what I got, but it would soon turn out that those same systems that hooked me would be the same systems that would frustrate and irritate me.
A Highland Song is carried by whispers of mysteries
There are two main driving forces in A Highland Song: getting to the Lighthouse, your ultimate destination, and exploring the mysteries of the highlands. The game is meant to be played more than once — as once you’ve made your first trip, you can simply play the game again, keeping all of your items and maps. As Inkle puts it, one trip isn’t nearly enough to discover all of the game’s secrets.
Honestly, I am so intrigued by the mysteries and strange things I still have yet to discover, and I’ve played the game twice already. It’s just unfortunate that the strong desire that A Highland Song cultivates to discover all the peaks and mysteries is overshadowed by the simple and merciful mechanics that had elevated it to begin with.
In the thick of the game, I found myself frustrated with the travel mechanics. After a while, those sprinting sections and what feels like hopeless navigation grow old. The exhaustion and health mechanics become more of a boring obstacle than an immersive challenge to overcome.
A Highland Song is supposed to be played slowly, while enjoying every detail and relishing the trip. So, if you don’t enjoy walking and climbing and retracing your steps again and again, then you’ll struggle to want to discover the game’s secrets.
Even completing the first trip became a chore as I had to keep stopping and starting — struggling to find a map fragment that showed me a path inspired a strong frustration. To get the map, I had to explore, but exploration was rendered difficult due to the environment I found myself in. Every time I found a map, I had to travel to a peak to confirm it before making another trip.
My impatience gave way to mistakes and slips, which only set me back further and further. Getting stuck in those sprinting sections time and time again — no matter how awesome they objectively are — was simply another annoyance I tried to avoid whenever I could.
I understand that a core pleasure of the game is simply walking over the beautiful landscape. As they say, you should enjoy the journey. However, I couldn’t help but enjoy the splintered narratives and mysteries and secrets so much more. So, wanting to find them and being constantly hindered by the mechanics of the game did spur irritation.
If you are to enjoy A Highland Song and make the trip more than once as intended, you’ll have to really enjoy the simple art of walking around and taking your time while wanting to figure out the mysteries.
Without the stories and mysteries, if you were to look at A Highland Song mechanically, you would find that it is rather uninteresting to play. I believe that alongside having an interesting plot, a game should also have interesting mechanics, so if you strip away the story and thematic dressing, it’s still an interesting game to play. Unfortunately, A Highland Song doesn’t have mechanics that make me want to play again and again. It is carried by the promise of secrets.
The magic of the Highlands
Despite my pity party of frustrations, I still find myself wanting to head back in and play. I found some truly interesting things, and I really want to explore and find out more. I want to climb each peak. I want to see all that the game has to offer. I want to find every map fragment.
I don’t understand that, despite the novelties of the mechanics wearing off rather quickly, I still think A Highland Song is a strong success. Perhaps in this case, the spirit of the game and the beauty of sound and design transcends the difficulties I had with it.
When I got to the Lighthouse, I reflected on my aggravations. Suddenly, they were worth it, and I was happy to have made the trip. Perhaps my impatience was a part of the journey. Perhaps sighing when having to go the long way around for the third time was an integral part of the process. Something not to be shunned and criticized, but something to embrace. Nothing worth doing is easy.
I still stand by my criticisms of the game, and everything I’ve said is true. But that doesn’t mean that A Highland Song is a bad game. Not by a long shot. I believe that everyone will enjoy their first trip to the Lighthouse, no matter how long it takes them.
That being said, the game isn’t for everyone. Yet I can’t help but believe that the magic of the Highlands will overcast any grievances that anyone would experience along the way.
And finally, reader, I haven’t even touched upon Moira or her story, as I want you to experience and discover her as I did. I’m sure you’ll love getting to know her.