I have never seen the sea. I have been living with my mother in the Scottish Highlands for fifteen years, and I wonder if I will ever have a chance to leave these lands. What is beyond those snowy hills and mountains that I see in the distance? I received a letter from my Uncle Hamish asking me to meet him on the coast: there I will find a lighthouse and if I can get there in time, also a wonderful surprise. I don’t know if I feel like leaving, given the dangers that separate me from my goal, but a voice inside me invites me to run. I pack my backpack. “Bye mom, I hope you can understand me“.
So begins A Highland Song, the new 2.5D narrative adventure from development studio inkle and available Dec. 5 on Nintendo Switch and PC. We know little or nothing about young Moira and her past. However, a simple invitation is enough to set us on the road hungry for knowledge and eager to indulge in nature.
Long live the Scottish Highlands
It takes little to fall in love with A Highland Song: from the songs that accompany us on this journey, crafted by Laurence Chapman together with two well-known Scottish Folk bands, Talisk and Fourth Moon, to the entirely hand-drawn landscapes. Inkle’s work exudes love and passion for Scotland: it is impossible not to be captivated by the vistas that paint the Switch’s screen so much so that over and over again I have considered booking a little trip to explore the Highlands this summer.
The artistic and musical compartments, therefore, are empowering each other and, along with the narrative one (the encounters with NPCs, reading and listening to tales of Scottish folklore, wondering what one will discover once one reaches the lighthouse, always kept my attention), they manage to spur the player to climb to the heights, seemingly inaccessible, of the mountains and critical to understanding how and where to move: we don’t have a map at our disposal, only abandoned notes that we will find during our wanderings that may signal shortcuts otherwise invisible to the human eye. Nevertheless, it was not at all easy to guess which was the correct way to go.
On the one hand, in fact, A Highland Song effectively manages to convey to you the idea of being at the mercy of nature and the unpredictability of weather conditions: easy to run when the sun shines high in the sky; more difficult, however, when it’s raining or snowing because you see Moira in distress and want to stop to shelter from the cold – the feeling of frost breaks the screen of my Nintendo device making me suffer along with the girl – but you also know that you have to keep walking if you want to reach the lighthouse. Fatigue is a lot, but as was also the case with the recent Jusant (Jusant review here), I want to know what I will find once I reach my destination.
On the other hand, at the level of pure gameplay, I noticed that I often didn’t have the foggiest idea what was the right path to take both because of scenarios that sometimes tend to resemble each other and because of a 2.5D that does not always make the transition from one road to another clear. Nor did it help me to turn my view away from Moira to try to get an idea of where I was at that moment because you don’t get a full view of the mountain to climb. I arrived at the lighthouse several days late and only half satisfied: despite the success, the fact that I got lost again and again left a bitter taste in my mouth.
Good the second
As with any explorer who decides to tackle the same route several times, itineraries need to be studied and well researched: the first time maybe it will take several hours to cross the ‘finish line’ – it took me about four to see the credits – but once known the landmarks through which to orient themselves in the mountains, it will be easier to find the right direction also because we find the paths already taken in the previous try. And so I set off again with Moira for the coast, backpack on my shoulders, ready to admire the glimpses of A Highland Song again, without the anxiety of having my days numbered but with a great desire to discover Hamish’s secret.
My doubts related to exploration that I pointed out in the previous paragraph remained unchanged, but in the face of the power of the sights, the music and a protagonist hungry to discover the world that stretches thousands and thousands of miles before her eyes, everything takes a back seat. In the end, I managed to see the lighthouse in time, with a thirty-two-toothed smile of pure happiness marking my face. This is what counts, and the difficulties I encountered on the way remained behind, frozen among the snowy peaks of the Highlands.