inkle Ltd is a developer that I have really come to appreciate. The company is focused on creating video games that tell really interesting branching storylines. In particular I really enjoyed 80 Days and Heaven’s Vault. This is one of the main reasons I was intrigued when I saw A Highland Song. I was curious to see how inkle would use their branching narrative premise in a platforming adventure game. A Highland Song is an engaging adventure through the Scottish Highlands that perfectly blends a branching storyline and fun climbing gameplay.
In A Highland Song you play as Moira McKinnon. You receive a letter from your Uncle Hamish who lives in a lighthouse by the sea. He tells you that he has something to show you and you need to come quick. As things aren’t going great at home, you decide to run away. To reach your uncle you need to climb the peaks and valleys of the Scottish Highlands. Can you traverse the highlands quick enough to reach the lighthouse in time for the special event that your Uncle wants you to see?
The gameplay of A Highland Song is kind of hard to fit into a single video game genre. Outside of the branching storyline, the gameplay actually differs quite a bit from the previous inkle Ltd games.
At its core I would say that the game most resembles a 2D platformer. Much of the gameplay is built around climbing mountains in order to find a path towards the sea. This involves a lot of climbing and jumping between rocks. There is a jump button, and you will climb any surface that you move into. The game has a simple stamina system. When climbing you can only hold on for so long before you fall. You also regularly have to jump between different plains to make forward progress.
I wouldn’t say that there is anything about the platforming that is highly unique. I can’t think of a mechanic that I haven’t seen before in another game. That shouldn’t be taken as a negative as the platforming is still quite satisfying. The platforming/climbing is more grounded in reality as you are playing as a teenage girl traversing a realistic environment. The platforming is simple, but I think it works well for the game. It really feels like you are climbing hills, valleys and mountains. The various jumps aren’t particularly difficult. You do need to figure out a plan for how you will climb the peaks, as there are dead ends and paths that will lead to you dropping down long distances.
The only complaint I have with the platforming was that it is sometimes hard to see where you can jump. The game takes place in 2D, but a lot of the platforming involves jumping between planes. Sometimes you will jump into the foreground, and other times you will jump back a plane. Sometimes you will think you can jump to a location, but you can’t. This makes it somewhat hard to navigate some of the peaks. You will go down a path just to find out that it is a dead end, even though it looks like you can move forward.
After you have climbed to the top of a peak, you get an overview of the current area. This brings in the second main mechanic of the game. In order to reach the sea in time you need to find shortcuts and other paths. A lot of these have been lost to time. In your journey you will collect maps. When you reach a peak you will compare these maps to surrounding landscape to find the shortcuts. Once you find the location you can mark it. Then when you reach that area you can take the path forward.
This is actually a pretty big element of the game. The game actually has 100 different paths that you can take through the highlands. If you want to reach the sea you need to find these paths. While the game does occasionally give you hints, you usually need to study the landscape to find the corresponding areas. Some of these locations are quite easy to find, but others require a keen eye. I don’t know how to exactly explain why, but I found it oddly satisfying to find these shortcuts. You also can use these maps to try and name all of the peaks you encounter.
Lets move onto the game’s rhythm mechanic. Every so often you will reach parts of the map that connect the various peaks. As these can be kind of long, the game introduces a rhythm mechanic to keep you interested when you otherwise would just be running along long stretches of flat terrain. Basically the game plays music and the terrain is built around it. You need to press buttons in time with the music that is timed to jumps that you need to make.
The rhythm mechanics are pretty simple for the most part. This mechanic only comes up occasionally as well. I thought these sections were fun though, and are a good way of making long stretches of running more enjoyable. Part of the reason these sections work is because the music in the game is quite good in my opinion. It probably won’t be for everyone, but it really fits the Scottish theme.
Lets move onto the final main mechanic of the game. Like every inkle Ltd game, A Highland Song has a branching narrative. As you make your journey you will encounter left behind items and various monuments and other points of interest in the environment. You will also occasionally run into different characters as well. Without going into much detail to avoid spoilers, I would say that A Highland Song mixes elements of Scottish history with various folklore from the region.
Based on inkle’s previous games, I had pretty high expectations for the story of A Highland Song. The game does not disappoint in this area. I am not going to go into too much detail to avoid spoilers. Obviously your enjoyment of it will somewhat depend on your opinion of the premise. If you have no interest in it, it may not be for you. I wouldn’t say a story about Scottish history and folklore is something that I was specifically looking for. It was still quite enjoyable though.
I think the most intriguing element of the game is at least for your first couple of playthroughs the story is significantly different each time you play it. There are a couple elements that stay the same each time, but the little stories in each run are totally different. A lot of them are pretty interesting as well. This makes it feel like you are crafting your own little story every time you play the game. There is a lot in the game where you will have to play quite a few times to see everything that the game has to offer. If you are a fan of inkle’s previous branching storylines, I see no reason why you wouldn’t enjoy A Highland Song’s as well.
I think the main reason why A Highland Song works is that it is a very laid back relaxing game. While there is a time limit to reach the the lighthouse, you don’t lose the game if you don’t make it in time. You just get a different ending. In fact you can’t lose/die in the game. If you ever run out of health you just lose some time and get reset back to a previous checkpoint. You will want to make it to the lighthouse in time at least once as that is the way to get the true ending to the game. It is fun taking your time exploring the environment, and discovering all of the little storylines that you encounter. When you factor in the great visuals and audio, A Highland Song is a great game to just sit back and enjoy.
I wouldn’t consider A Highland Song to be a particularly difficult game. It is one that you will definitely get better at the more you play it. To illustrate my first playthrough was kind of a disaster. I ended up getting lost a number of times, and arrived around five days late. In my second attempt I had a better idea of what I needed to do, which made the journey quite a bit quicker. This time I arrived one day late. Finally on my third attempt I had a good idea of how I should approach each area so I ended up arriving a day early.
As for how much time you can get out of A Highland Song, it really depends on how much you want to explore the branching storylines. I would say that on average each playthrough will take around 2-3 hours. I honestly can’t tell you how much content there is in the game. The journey itself shares similarities each time. If you explore and try to find different shortcuts each time, your journey will feel quite different.
I don’t know how much of the content I have discovered so far, but I think I have only been able to use around 20-30 or so of the maps and there are supposedly 100 in the game. After you reach the lighthouse in time and get the definitive ending, you probably aren’t going to want to play the game all the time. I see it as the type of game that I will come back to every so often though to explore a different path. If you are the type of player that likes to explore branching storylines, you will easily get your money’s worth out of A Highland Song.
Based on inkle’s previous games, I had pretty high expectations heading into A Highland Song. For the most part the game met them. A Highland Song shares quite a bit in common with some of inkle’s previous games, but it actually feels quite different as well. The platforming is interesting and fun as you climb the peaks in order to get a better viewpoint in order to find shortcuts. I did find it a little hard to tell sometimes where I could and couldn’t jump. I think what makes the game is the branching storyline. While some elements stay the same, most of your journey is completely different each playthrough. The game has a bunch of little stories and locales to explore, where you could play the game quite a few times and still not find everything the game has to offer.
My recommendation basically comes down to your thoughts on inkle games in general and the overall premise. If you haven’t been a fan of their previous games, I don’t think you will think much differently about this game. If you like inkle games though and are at least somewhat interested in the premise, I think you will really enjoy A Highland Song and should seriously consider picking it up.
A Highland Song
Release Date: December 5th, 2023 | Systems: Mac, Nintendo Switch, PC
Developer: inkle Ltd | Publisher: inkle Ltd | ESRB Rating: Everyone for Mild Language, Alcohol Reference
Genres: Adventure, Indie, Platformer, Story Driven
Official Website: https://www.inklestudios.com/a-highland-song/
- Fun combination of platforming and adventure mechanics.
- Compelling branching narrative that makes each adventure feel different.
- It is sometimes hard to tell where you can climb and where you can’t.
- If you aren’t really interested in the story/adventure mechanics, the game may not be for you.
Recommendation: For fans of branching storyline games that are interested in the premise.
We at Geeky Hobbies would like to thank inkle Ltd for the review copy of A Highland Song used for this review. Other than receiving a free copy of the game to review, we at Geeky Hobbies received no other compensation for this review. Receiving the review copy for free had no impact on the content of this review or the final score.