It’s been over a year since indie developer Inkle Studio announced its next title; A Highland Song, a game that combines the dangers and spectacle of the Scottish wilderness with rhythm-based gameplay and Inkle’s trademark knack for storytelling. I’ve never explored the Scottish Highlands, so when I was given the opportunity to play the game on a Steam Deck from the comfort of a warm and mud-free booth at WASD 2023 in London, I couldn’t turn it down.
My preview began with teenager Moira McKinnon running away from her mother and home of 15 years to embark on a journey to meet her Uncle Hamish at the coast, which she’s never seen. From there, I guided Moira on a side-scrolling adventure along the plains of the Scottish Highlands, ordered her to jump over obstacles, and directed her up and down cliffs and hills, all to a peaceful score by composer Laurence Chapman. Despite it being her first time in the wilderness, Moira was nimble and moved through the environment with ease, partly due to the simplistic Steam Deck controls; left and right to explore and up and down to climb or descend cliff sides.
The serene gameplay gave me time to enjoy the music and the gorgeous painted scenery inspired by the likes of a Studio Ghibli film. Layered cliffs and hills made up the back and foreground of the game, and I was encouraged to explore the environments to find souvenirs that Moira could take or leave at certain locations and uncover secret pathways to neighbouring hills and dense forests that unlocked new routes and areas to explore.
While exploring and moving between peaks of the Highlands, Moira would pull out crudely drawn maps by other travellers, which I then needed to match with her immediate surroundings to locate her next destination. What usually followed was one of my favourite aspects of the game as Moira rushed across her surroundings while upbeat folk music by Scottish bands Fourth Moon and Talisk played through the Steam Deck’s speakers.
During this fast-paced mini-game segment, I was tasked with jumping at beacons of light and musical notes to synchronise Moira’s movement with the music of bagpipes and guitars. Failing to hit them led to no repercussions, as Moira simply stumbled and slowed before regaining her speed until the mini-game ended. The mini-game segments usually ended quickly, refusing to overstay their welcome, and I only experienced them a handful of times.
Now, the above is not to say that there aren’t repercussions in A Highland Song. Moira’s only a teenager after all and she isn’t indestructible. She has a health bar, and falling from heights and staying out in the rain without shelter deplete it. The game’s light survival elements come into play here and require you to find shelter in forest groves and wait out the bad weather by passing time.
When rain began to lash down on Moira in my playthrough – she must’ve been cold in her knitted jumper and skirt! – I found shelter in a small forest where I met an NPC and warmed at his campfire. During the pair’s discussion, I was given a chance to learn more about the teenager before the NPC gave me a tip on where to head next as well as a stark warning about the dangers of the Highlands.
I was told by director Joseph Humfrey, whose time in the Highlands as a teenager inspired the game, that A Highland Song has branching paths via the many different routes you can uncover while exploring the peaks and valleys of the Scottish wilderness, but stressed that while the start and end of the game are the same, the journey between changes with each playthrough.
That was obvious enough for me, as I quickly realised that a single playthrough probably won’t be enough to uncover everything the game offers thanks to the numerous hidden routes and pathways hiding secrets. A Highland Song looks to be a game with a lot of replayability thanks to those secrets and its simplistic yet engaging and highly entertaining gameplay loop.
There’s something joyful about seeing Moira run amok through her surroundings to bombastic folk music, it’s fun, it showcases freedom, and it’s uplifting in a time where most games like to focus on the dark and dreary. I can’t wait to visit the Highlands again with Moira and reach the coast.
A Highland Song is expected to launch in 2023 for Nintendo Switch and PC.