Even though A Highland Song follows a simple premise and linear narrative, its manipulation of depth and levels within its environment creates an immersive atmosphere. It’s a short, and occasionally frustrating adventure, but a gripping one complete with compelling musical segments and incredible design.
Humorous yet insightful narration
Enchanting environment design
Rhythm sections really enhance the experience
Lack of direction is occasionally frustrating
Sometimes it feels like the rain will never stop
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Platform reviewed: PC
Available on: PC, Nintendo Switch
Release date: December 5, 2023
A Highland Song is an enchanting platform adventure game from developer Inkle that whisks you through the Scottish highlands on a quest to find your uncle by the sea before Beltane - the Gaelic May Day celebration that marks the beginning of Summer. On the surface, it appears as a simple adventure that rewards exploration of its environments, but what lies beneath is a journey of resilience and self-discovery embedded within an immersive atmosphere that sinks its hooks into you from the second your character, Moira, sneaks out of her bedroom window.
Throughout the adventure, you learn to manipulate depths using background illustrations like rocks or small cliff faces to open up the game’s environment, immersing you further into the game. In addition to this, the protagonist Moira narrates elements of the journey, and retells family anecdotes or stories that Hamish (her uncle) would tell her growing up. As these gently interrupt the calming music in the background, you start to feel incredibly involved with Moira’s internal monologue and once again sink further into A Highland Song.
While a time limit somewhat restricts the completion of the adventure, you quickly learn that A Highland Song travels at its own pace. It offers something akin to the phrase “the world is your oyster” and allows you to wander until you feel like you can wander no more. This sensation is accentuated by the game’s day/night cycle and Moira’s limited stamina, but, generally, A Highland Song feels like an incredibly open experience.
Keep to yourself
The moment you take control of Moira running from her family home, you’re left to your own devices and encouraged to explore the treacherous Scottish highland landscape. From the get-go, one thing A Highland Song doesn’t deliver is any sort of guidance or handholding in terms of which direction to go in, and while this is frustrating at first since the twists and turns of crags and caves are overwhelming, you soon learn that this gets to exactly what the game is about - exploration. Then, once you’ve soothed the frustration, you learn to appreciate just how much detail is put into creating different layers for you to scale and depths for you to discover.
Even though you walk alone, the hills are home to several characters you can interact with along the way. You’re given plenty of opportunities to chat or ask questions, and occasionally these characters will help you by providing a map or unveiling a path you may have otherwise missed. Generally, once you’ve got either a map or a path from them, you won’t need to speak to them again. But asking questions does help develop your understanding of the setting since they sometimes offer fun slices of lore to help you feel more connected to Moira and her reasons for making the journey.
Stumbling into my first musical QTE and sprinting alongside a deer to the beat. It felt surprising to be thrust into a rhythm game-esque routine, but it really matched the whimsy of the whole game and I quickly fell in love with these short but enchanting sequences.
There are moments when this exploration becomes incredibly difficult. You simply won’t have enough stamina to climb rocks and mountains at points, especially when the weather turns, and you’re yet to rest and nurse Moira back to full health. With a constant timer hanging over you, it can be aggravating to have to constantly stop and take cover under a tree or in a cave mouth since this feels like a waste of precious seconds. But, it is realistic. Moira is a teenager, and while she’s insistent that she’s hard as nails, even she needs to rest now and then.
A Highland Song’s main objective - getting to Hamish before the celebration of Beltane - feels impossible to achieve in your first playthrough. You’ll get lost in the hills and simply won’t make it to the sea in time. However, you’re free to repeat yourself and retrace your steps in multiple attempts to make it with time to spare. Because of how relaxing the entire experience of trudging through the hills is, I felt inclined to try again rather than give in to frustration and feel the need to throw in the towel, which is part of the charm of A Highland Song. There’s no pressure, but you will feel a burning desire to succeed.
A musical guide
Although A Highland Song doesn’t provide a huge number of signposting, there are a few subtle hints that you learn to keep an eye out for. One of these, and something that’s my favorite part of the entire game, is a deer that accompanies you on part of your journey. Once you’re close enough to it, the deer will bolt, and you will sprint alongside it while music swells at the same time, triggering a rhythm game quick time event.
As you run across the hilltops and the music continues to build, you’re challenged to hit specific keys or buttons in time with the music. These match up perfectly with the melody, making it all the more satisfying to ensure you’re performing well, but if you miss you will also stumble and fall, losing some of your stamina. You’re not punished for missing a beat in terms of having to restart the section, and you have a few opportunities to regain your rhythm before the event ends, but when it does end, the deer will dash ahead, leaving you in the dust and to your own devices once more.
A Highland Song offers subtitles whenever there is narration but you cannot change the size of them. Other accessibility options offer things like altering quick time events to only use one button or key rather than several at a time. In addition, quick-time events can be adjusted to have simpler rhythms, and you can alter Moira’s climbing so she never flails, making your experience slightly easier.
These musical interludes don’t make up a huge amount of the adventure, but you’re in for a treat when you do come across one. Generally, they’re a great way to tell whether or not you’re on the right track since a deer and an open stretch of hill mean you’re heading in the right direction. Although short, they connect you further with the game’s environment, and with the concentration required to hit each corresponding button at the right time, you feel intimately responsible for Moira and ensuring she gets to the next place without losing too much morale.
The more time you spend with A Highland Song, the further into its painterly landscape you’ll sink. It’s an incredibly easy game to lose yourself in for hours at a time, with its gorgeous environments, well-paced narration, and gentle musical accompaniment. Mixing this with the laid-back gameplay, rather than pressuring you to complete the journey in a restrictive timeframe, is what helps A Highland Song really shine. Although elements of its exploration are frustrating, and you will lose your way at first, there’s enough charm in A Highland Song to keep you coming back for more to see what secrets you might uncover next.
We’ve got a list of the best indie games if you’re looking for alternative adventures to lose yourself in. We’ve also got a list of the best cozy Nintendo Switch games which might point you in the direction of another relaxing experience too.
Kara is an Evergreen writer at TechRadar Gaming. With a degree in Journalism and a passion for the weird and wonderful, she's spent the last few years as a freelance video game journalist, with bylines at NintendoLife, Attack of the Fanboy, Prima Games, and sister publication, GamesRadar+. Outside of gaming, you'll find her re-watching Gilmore Girls or trying to cram yet another collectible onto a shelf that desperately needs some organizing.