A Highland Song review – Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

Inkle's new game is another interesting, impressive experiment from the masters of branching storytelling.
A Highland Song review key art

My grandparents grew up and met in Abergavenny, a small market village in Wales, 10km off of the English border. In 1969, less than a year after the birth of their fourth and final child – my mother – they boarded a plane and headed to Adelaide, South Australia, where they both lived out the rest of their lives.

Abergavenny is nowhere near the Scottish highlands, where Inkle’s A Highland Song is set – as near as I can tell, there is no real resemblance between the two regions. So when I say that this game made me think of my grandparents, it’s the rough equivalent of someone seeing a mining town in central Northern Territory and being reminded of Cairns. But it’s true – playing A Highland Song made me think of my grandparents, Lawrence House and Rosemary Hopkins, growing up in the 50s, exploring the countryside, building up stories of local legends they would someday share with me and their other grandchildren. 

In A Highland Song you play as Moira McKinnon, a – forgive me, but I have to say it – bonnie wee lass who sets out from her mother’s home one day on the invitation of her uncle Hamish, leaving her life behind for something more exciting. She’ll have to navigate the highlands and work her way to his lighthouse home within a week if she wants to make it there in time for the Beltane Tide – a phenomenon that is referenced many times throughout the game, but not properly revealed until Moira eventually arrives.

A Highland Song review
Image: Inkle

To get there, you need to climb mountains, look for hidden paths, and occasionally tap your way through a lovely little rhythm game as Moira sprints across an open field. A Highland Song is an experiential game, one that is difficult to break down into its core components and analyse. It’s all about how you make your journey unique, knowing that the destination is always the same.

On my first playthrough, I found myself often feeling lost. I’d take a pathway and realise, half an in-game day later, it had dropped me right back where I started. I’d stand atop a peak and use the view to look for recognisable landmarks from the maps and scraps of articles I’d found along my journey, but come up empty-handed; then, perhaps, I’d inspect an area I thought I had identified, only to learn that I’d been incorrect. I’d learn about a secret path, and realise that I’d passed it long ago. I’d get stuck outside at night and wake up the next morning with reduced health. It rained all the time, and I was not strong enough to climb many of the mountains I encountered. I made it to Hamish’s lighthouse several days after the tide.

But your found items, pathways, and maps carry over between playthroughs. If you want to, you can really “master” the highlands – each playthrough is likely to be unique, but with overlapping landmarks and areas, and an object you find in one playthrough might have an impact on the next.

A Highland Song review
Image: Inkle

On a second attempt, taking a significantly different path, I arrived at Hamish’s home with a full day to spare, but still with many maps I had not placed, many mountain peaks I had not learned the names of. By my third run through the game, I was making use of secret paths I’d found in my previous two encounters, revisiting spots I’d marked but never made it to, building up a stronger mental map of the area. And still, I was finding new pathways – I suspect you’d need to play through many times to find everything.

Structurally, A Highland Song hews closely to 80 Days, Inkle’s adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel. There are many different routes through the highlands, and the choices you make, the pathways you explore, and the level of attention you pay will determine whether you make it on time – but arriving late does not invalidate the experience, either.

This time you’re controlling a human body, one that can jump and climb and run, and your choices are dictated by the decisions you make as an explorer. For the most part, Inkle has translated their famed branching narrative systems to this more traditional platformer/adventure format extremely well, where your choices are mapped to physical actions rather than dialogue options.

A Highland Song review
Image: Inkle

The game’s plot didn’t necessarily grab me, but I honestly don’t think that’s a huge problem. The glimpses we get into the life of Moira, the legends of the Highlands, the increasingly weird insights into Uncle Hamish – it’s all nice flavour, but the real story is in how you take on the challenge of the mountains. Which peaks you climb, which paths you uncover, which people you meet and items you find, which nights you spent out in the cold, the bad falls you had, the moments of triumph – it all adds up into a sense of having had an adventure, one that’s personal to you and your choices. Play again, and the next trip will probably feel familiar to the last, but also very different in many ways.

A Highland Song is also clumsier, in some ways, than Inkle’s more elegant, text-focused games. The distinction between background and foreground in the environments you’re exploring is sometimes unclear, a few systems feel undercooked (it’s not entirely clear to me what the punishment for staying up late and continuing to explore when Moira gets tired is), and I found myself having to restore autosaves a few times because of game-breaking bugs (which will likely be patched).

The game is, in places, frustrating by design – you need to be lost to have the joyful moment of no longer being lost, after all – but there were a few instances where the frustration, for me at least, outweighed the satisfaction. Performance on the Switch version is also just a little patchy in places, but never ruinously so. None of these issues are major roadblocks, and it’s exciting to see Inkle doing something properly new and taking the risks they’ve taken here.

A Highland Song is a game about an idealised moment in one’s youth – when the past, the present, and the future all come together, when the possibilities of the world open to you. When you begin to feel something different in the way the wind blows through your hair, the way grass smells in the rain, the way the natural world fits together. It’s not a moment I necessarily actually had at Moira’s age, but I feel it here just the same.

I remember my grandpa telling stories about his beloved motorbike that he got as a teenager – the freedom he felt to explore the countryside, to map out the land he loved, knowing, perhaps, that one day he’d have to leave it. Decades later, he still remembered how the Abergavenny of his childhood looked, how it sounded, how it fit together. A Highland Song might not be Inkle’s best game, but it’s the studio’s most evocative work – it’s a reminder that wherever we are, we are surrounded by stories. 

Four stars: ★★★★

A Highland Song
Platforms: PC, Nintendo Switch
Developer: Inkle
Publisher: Inkle
Release Date: 5 December 2023

The Nintendo Switch version of A Highland Song was provided and played for the purposes of this review. GamesHub reviews are rated on a 5-point scale. GamesHub has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content. GamesHub may earn a small percentage of commission for products purchased via affiliate links.

James O'Connor has written about games for a long time. He has written for games, as a narrative designer, for less time. Against his better judgement, he's on Twitter: @Jickle