Review: A Highland Song paints a beautiful portrait of Scotland, but its gameplay can be frustrating

I must confess despite being British, I’ve so far only been to Scotland once. It was to Edinburgh for New Year, and it was bitterly cold. I remember enjoying Edinburgh and the atmosphere, as well as the statue of philosopher David Hume (I was studying philosophy at the time). I have never visited the Highlands; the wild, mountainous northern half of Scotland which is filled with deep lochs, vast moorland and imposing peaks. It’s certainly high on my list of places I’d like to see. Until then, A Highland Song is here to give us just a flavour of what the Highlands are like, via this roaming, mountain-climbing, magical-realist story.

You control Moira McKinnon, a young girl who decides to run away from home and try to visit her uncle Hamish, who lives in a lighthouse by the sea. He asks that she visit by Beltane, or Gaelic May Day (see also, the original version of The Wicker Man for an idea of what that’s like, minus the human sacrifice). The trouble is, Moira has no maps, and between her and the sea lie dozens of mountains and lochs. Thus you need to not only try to traverse the vast distance, but also along the way discover scraps of old maps and drawings to try and orient yourself, climbing peaks in order to find your next waypoint.

A Highland Song: Moira
Moira near the start of her grand adventure.

A Highland Song is essentially an open world game, but an open world which is split into various zones. Perhaps it’s better described as having a Metroidvania-style map, because you are always only moving in a two-dimensional plane, but can jump to background and foreground objects if they appear close enough. Likewise making major progress across the landscape means you must find a map and then climb up the respective mountain related to that map, in order to correctly identify the location of the onward route. Moira can not only climb rock faces but can also sometimes zoom across the environment via a rhythm mini-game, jumping in tune to the Scottish folk music.

Moira has a stamina metre which drains when climbing cliffs, or clinging to any sheer rock faces for too long. If you over-exhaust her, it lowers her maximum health. Indeed, there’s a lot which can befall Moira, most notably the weather. Although you can rest and regain some health when it’s good weather, you’ll be unable to do so in rain, heavy wind or snow. This being Scotland, it often blowing a gale and pouring with rain. This means that any injuries you might incur by falling off hillsides or other mishaps can’t be recovered until you find somewhere out of the wind and rain.

A Highland Song: Caves
You’ll find maps all over the place, including in dark caves.

Likewise, you have only a set number of days to reach Hamish’s lighthouse, as time ticks down gradually while you play. Moira runs out of energy by nightfall, and thus each day needs to find shelter for the night. Sometimes you might be lucky and find a bothy (a small, remote building which has no electricity or running water used by hikers), but a lot of the time the best you can hope for is either a cave, a rock outcropping, or even just beneath some trees. The worse of a place you find for Moira to sleep, the more her health bar diminishes every day.

While you explore, Moira will sometimes chime in with her memories of growing up in the Highlands, reminiscing about her brother, or the strange letters she’d get from uncle Hamish. All the voice acting is great, with Scottish-appropriate dialects. You will also sometimes encounter strangers along your journey, who you can strike up a conversation with to learn more about. Visually and aurally the game is marvellous, with the painterly way the mountains have been drawn and then show off in the distance (each on a different 2D plane) looking wonderful. I also really enjoyed the folk music, from the more ambient tracks that play as you explore to the more jaunty and fast-paced tunes which normally accompany Moira’s sprinting and jumping minigame.

A Highland Song: Castle
The game has some excellent vistas, and a nice photo mode.

Unfortunately despite looking and sounding great, I was sometimes left frustrated while playing A Highland Song, due to the propensity to go round in circles. Because the world is semi-open and non-linear but you don’t have a proper world map, it is extremely easy to become lost. Transitioning between a foreground and background plane can only happen at pre-defined points, and these are only highlighted by a small white circle when you get close (this happens whenever there’s something you can interact with). Likewise, you might climb a peak and not have a relevant map on hand with which to navigate forward, meaning you may have to climb back down and hunt around for more clues.

It took me a long time before I properly knew what was a cliff I could interact with and what was just for visual flair, as Moira can often jump to ledges you’d think would be impossible. You also can get into a losing streak if you’re forced to camp outdoors several days in a row, as it cuts Moira’s health so much that her stamina is also significantly weakened. The game is clearly designed for multiple playthroughs (indeed I think it’s almost impossible to reach the lighthouse by Beltane on your first playthrough), but you’ll need to remember this yourself, rather than being granted any additional maps or waypoints.

A Highland Song is frequently beautiful, elegiac and magical, but one’s tolerance for its somewhat uneven gameplay will impact how much you will get back out of it. It should also be mentioned that on PC there is no mouse support, and while it plays fine with a keyboard, a controller is certainly the preferred method. Nevertheless, I did enjoy my jaunt across the Highlands, whenever I wasn’t falling off them or getting lost in the rain.

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