A Highland Song Makes Getting Lost Beautiful

A Highland Song blew my expectations out of the water and captured my heart with its unique mix of exploration and platforming.

There are grand adventures to be had out on the trails. Whether it’s reading about people tackling the pacific northwest trail or hiking through England or even struggling against the Amazon itself, I have always loved these types of adventure stories. The exploration of a place, big or small, helps to make me feel like I know it deep in my heart. It’s how I’m able to feel a kinship with places that I’ve never been and likely will never go. These beautiful books and documentaries allow my heart to soar as we go through the process of a journey.

Not that I’d want to go do these hikes myself. After all these years, I can admit that I’d be too anxious to enjoy my travels. I love the outdoors and I particularly love being in lakes, but I know I both don’t have the skill or the temperament to have these long, multi-day hikes. As much as I love exploration, I know that being out there in the wilderness would probably end up with me dead or worse, surrounded be snakes.

Enter stage right, A Highland Song.

A Highland Song

The Basics of A Highland Song

I was introduced to A Highland Song by a beautiful video review of it from Second Wind’s Bytesized. I won’t be mad if you stop reading right now and go watch it. The description of the game as a moment from Lord of the Rings spoke to me. One of the smaller parts about a journey, is that feeling of leaving home. One more step and you’ll be further than you’ve ever been. I bought the game immediately.

A Highland Song is a 2-D platformer where you’re playing as a young girl named Moira. She’s decided that she’s going to run away from home to visit her Uncle Hamish. Hamish is a reclusive man who lives in a lighthouse by the sea. Although Moira has never been to the lighthouse before or seen the sea she knows that if she climbs enough hills, the sea will be there. Together, we ran through the hills, crawled through caves, climbed cliffs and explored ancient ruins.

But is A Highland Song replayable?

I wasn’t expecting much. Even though Bytesized explained that it was a game that was meant to be replayed. I thought that was just something that some people did. It was never going to be something for me. A lot of people replay Dark Souls and Elden Ring, but I hated doing that. For me, going into new game plus on Elden Ring was a mistake. Realizing I had to do all that exploration and fighting again made me deeply regret moving on. I should have stayed in the end game.

You can imagine my surprise then when I started tucking away clues in the back of my head for my next journey. I was devastated by missing my goals. On top of that, I was genuinely upset when I made a mistake and killed Moira, our main character. The game never descends into Elden Ring territory. Please don’t let me muddy the waters. It is a uplifting game that feels punishing at times, but always with the promise of another way to go. The game never feels as hopeless as Elden Ring or Dark Souls. It does, however, allow for some of that exploration that made Elden Ring so fun.

The Game Will Sweep You Away

I found myself taking notes at first and then looking down at the end of my first run to realize that I had stopped taking notes after the first day. The game was too easy to get caught up in and I hadn’t wanted to stop and jot things down. I tried to keep up with everything just in my head, but the mountains were too vast and uncertain. Even when I had gone through the game three times or so, I would still find myself getting lost. I wasted one morning just going in a big circle. Another pleasant afternoon was spent trying to climb a cliff and accidentally falling.

But that’s not just the game. It’s not just about exploration and trudging around some mountains. A Highland Song perfectly captures the feeling of freedom. Maybe you don’t belong with your family. That’s okay. The world is there waiting for you.

The Heart of the Matter

“I feel like I’m opening out…”

Moira, A Highland Song

The land is alive. It has memories. There might be ghosts in the hills and archaic rules that you can puzzle out. If you’re clever, you can match scraps of maps to places you’ve seen and find shortcuts. You can name the peaks around you and conquer the hills.

Or, at least as much as the hills can be conquered by someone as small as you.

I found myself planning routes in my head even when I wasn’t playing the game. Next time, I could try the same route, but I would find a way to cross the lake. Moira was going to go underground, climb even higher, brave the snow and ice… the list goes on. A Highland Song is an incredibly engaging game at a time of year where I find it pretty hard to lose myself in any kind of media.

The Inevitable Jank

That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have its fair share of jankiness. A lot of my deaths were my own fault, but there were parts toward the later game that felt unfair. In one section, I would fall and die, then respawn right on the edge to fall down and die again. There were spaces where the slightest nudge would send me the wrong way and destroy ten minutes of climbing. Don’t even get me started on the amount of time that I got stuck in a single place. Or the times I fell to my death because I’d thought part of the background was a climbable object. This is an indie game and while it is polished in a lot of ways, there are plenty of little bugs too.

Keep in mind that I’m heartily recommending this game even with all of the frustrations I outlined in the paragraph above. I am desperate for more games like these that capture both the wildness of the adventure with a whimsy that I’ve rarely seen outside of Studio Ghibli movies. Even if you’re like me and struggle with the rhythmic running through the hills, the game gives you ways around it and for the most part allows you to go at your own pace.

Go Get Lost in the Scottish Highlands

On the run I played right before I decided I was going to do this write up, I thought was doomed to failure. I was more than halfway through my week to Beltane and since I’d been taking my time exploring, I wasn’t even halfway. I took a few shortcuts and managed to not get lost in the snow-covered peaks as the days trudged by.

Then, knowing that it was the last night before Beltane and that I was never going to make it, I found myself running through a thunderstorm. The sun had set and nightfall was coming. I didn’t know where I was and couldn’t see any sign of a comfortable shelter that I could stay in. Moira was drowsy and muttering to herself about how she’d have to stop soon and I was pushing on just because I knew it was hopeless, so I may as well go as far as I could.

Only to see a bench and realize that I recognized it.

I was close to the lighthouse.

A Different Kind of Adrenaline Rush

The rush that I got when I was running through the last sprint, managing to reach the lighthouse just before the light faded was akin to beating a dark soul’s boss. This time though, without the hours of grinding and frustration that come along with that achievement. Instead there was the sense that I had come home along with Moira. We were safe now, with Hamish, and listening to him tell stories as night fell.

A Highland Song is a game that you can beat in 3 to 4 hours if you just want to get to the sea once. You can see parts of the game within that first run. But I’m almost 10 hours in now and I still feel like there’s so much to explore, so many ways that I still have to go. Even as I open up new shortcuts and make the actual journey to the sea shorter, I take my time and wander.

It is a game that has gripped me unlike any other game this year. I’ve loved other titles like Mario Wonder, but the level design means that it was easy to pick up and put down. While playing A Highland Song, by contrast, I would tell myself that I would just go over this hill and stop and the next thing I knew an hour had passed.

It is a soul-stirring love letter to the Scottish Highlands and the nature of exploration. So if you find yourself getting ground down by everything (especially during this season), why not indulge yourself and get lost.

You might find yourself opening out as you take in every thing A Highland Song has to offer.

Got any book recommendations?