A Highland Song gives Death Stranding a musical run for its money
The best bits of Inkle's Pendragon and 80 Days combine to create a rhythmic hiking platformer like no other
A belated apology to anyone who was assaulted by a sudden burst of upbeat bagpipes in the GDC press room the other week. I was having an early sneak peak at Inkle's new game A Highland Song in an appointment booth with paper-thin walls and no ceiling. The speakers on my Steam Deck demo unit were really going "full pipe" that day, so I'd like to say a big awkward sorry to any of my neighbours in there who were trying to conduct actual serious business interviews.
But also: A Highland Song is 100% a game that deserves to have its music cranked up to full, whether it's returning Heaven's Vault composer Laurence Chapman's soaring orchestral score, or Scottish bands Talisk and Fourth Moon's aforementioned folk music. The clue's in the name, after all, and after a spirited 30 minutes with it, I'm certain this will have Inkle fans singing from the hilltops.
I've been quietly intrigued about A Highland Song ever since I heard about its prototype concept in an issue of Edge magazine several years ago. Inkle were still figuring out exactly what their hiking game was going to be back then, but the core idea of it stemmed from one of the developers actually getting lost in the Scottish Highlands and wandering through the hills to try and find help. It was still early days for the game part of it at the time though, and as the years passed - and Inkle's tabletop tactics game Pendragon and their looping murder mystery Overboard came out in between - that initial glimpse of their hiking game was gradually shuffled to the back of my mind.
It was only this time last year when Inkle revealed A Highland Song in full, with its intriguing combination of "rhythm and survival elements", that that early memory came roaring back. I still wasn't quite sure what to expect, though. Was it a musical platformer all the way through? How would the survival elements come into play? And most importantly, where would Inkle's brilliant storytelling punch through if we're jumping and skipping across crags and clifftops to a very specific beat?
Indeed, the rhythmic side of A Highland Song is really only one half of what the game actually is. They're the glorious downhill sprints that teenage heroine Moira McKinnon will yip and holler along to as her legs barrel away beneath her, the procedural landscape creating natural-looking gaps and steps for her to leap and bound over. Jump points are highlighted with gentle halos on the ground, making them easy to spot and time with the music. Moira will stumble and trip if you miss them, but you're not penalised for breaking her rhythm or scuffing her knees. Instead, she'll merely pick herself up and carry on, propelled by the energetic music playing inside her head.
These sections are wonderful, brisk expressions of movement and the landscape around her, but when the music fades and Moira's brought back to reality, it's time for another careful climb up the next peak. You see, Moira's trying to get to her uncle's cabin by the sea, and she needs to get there in just three days. You can take longer, of course, just as you could in Inkle's world-spanning travelventure 80 Days, but my demo handler tells me (as Inkle themselves sadly weren't at GDC in person this year) that if you make it within the deadline, you'll get the game's true and proper ending.
You won't make this deadline on your first playthrough, however, and you'll probably need to do a few good runs through the mountains to find the optimal route. To do this, you'll need to root out hand-drawn maps left by other travellers around the hills, as these unlock new paths and shortcuts through its beautifully layered landscape - much like the way you moved through Pendragon's Camelot. Match the landmark on the map to the peaks and troughs in front of you, and voila - you'll be that bit closer to reaching the ocean on the other side.
The climb to survey your surroundings is no pushover, though. Moira has a stamina bar you'll need to manage as she scrambles up sheer stone walls, and her health will gradually deplete if she falls from a great height or is left out in the rain with no shelter to keep her dry. That'll be those survival bits, then. Alas, Moira isn't quite as hardy as fellow hikers the BB Boys from Death Stranding (she's only run away from home in a wee woolly jumper, skirt and tights as opposed to a death-rain-repellent jumpsuit, after all), so she'll need to find rest spots beneath trees and little hollows in the mountainside if she's going to carry on her journey and get her breath back.
Waiting out bad weather will be your greatest hurdle to meeting that three-day deadline at first, as the game's dynamic storms can last the better part of an afternoon if you happen to run into one. It's not all bad news, however, as Moira may find other travellers taking refuge at these campfires, or tiny souvenirs they've left behind which she can then take forward to crown newly discovered peaks with. Inkle's nose for a good yarn really comes to the fore here, as Moira will recount folktales and mythic legends she hears as she gathers her strength back. These stories really help make these hills feel alive when you're trekking up to the top of them, and they offer peaceful moments of calm amid Moira's homesickness and pangs of regret.
When the rain has passed, it's back out to those grassy knolls. As I was playing the game on a Steam Deck, I actually found it easier to control Moira with the d-pad rather than the analogue sticks, suggesting A Highland Song may be one of those rare platformers that plays better with WASD keys than a gamepad. You'll need to hold down before Moira can descend a cliff-face, for example, and leaping 'back' into the different layers of scenery requires a quick press of up as well, which just felt more precise with the crisp taps of the d-pad.
Generally, though, the act of clambering around this slice of countryside is just pure joy from start to finish. With only a handful of markers noting specific shortcuts or bridges to the next peak, it really does feel like you're picking your way through the mountains, finding your own path and engaging with the obstacles around you on their own terms. Moira may not have a baby in a jar strapped to the front of her chest, but for my money this is easily the closest a game has come to recapturing Death Standing's detailed obsession with all things perambulatory in the intervening years. It's there in how you traverse the larger environment, and it's there in the smaller details, too, with Moira's spindly legs gamboling one over the other as she speeds down steep hillocks, and her gradual descent to hands and knees as she hauls herself up mossy banks twice her size.
It's a real treat, and the way it riffs on several of Inkle's previous games is just the icing (or should that be descant?) on top. I can't wait to explore its nooks and crannies even further when it comes to PC, and while there's still no word on a firm release date just yet, you can bet we'll be bellowing it from the rooftops when it eventually gets confirmed.
Disclosure: Natalie Clayton, formerly of this parish, is a level designer at Inkle, and is a big reason why A Highland Song's hills look so gosh-darn pretty.