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Impressions: Highlands

There Can Be More Than One

I fought all the way to my enemy's doorstep, but now here I am, ten minutes later, back where I started and with an insurmountable force at my door. I started playing Highlands [official site] because of the hand-drawn artwork, but its turn-based tactics are harder than they first appear.

Highlands is set on an archipelago of floating sky islands that play home to towns of European architecture, rustic taverns and gently spinning windmills. It's beautiful to spend time with. All of its characters are hand-drawn, and it's rare that a turn-based battler offers you a background of blue sky to play against. One of my favourite little touches happens whenever you take a turn and the advancement of time is illustrated by the background of clouds whizzing past.

Cover image for YouTube video

Its opening tutorial mission sets the scene. Your three starting units are the three royal children and they are alone when strange, mechanical enemies start to attack. Each of the children conform to common archetypes: the daughter Cecaelia, is the strongest and so your tank and fighter; the eldest son Leoric is a mechanic and so good for building defences; the youngest son Micah is multi-talented but useful in early stages as a healer.

I fought my back towards the castle, rescuing and adding the family's mother to the squad along the way before eventually finding our father. Finish this mission and, of course, father dies at the hands of the leader of the invading force. When the next mission starts, you're now joined by the Queen's brother, and must fight on to reclaim your lands.

This first real mission is the one I found myself forced to retreat upon. Highlands doesn't mess around.

The combat is simple. Each character is a unit in your army and confirming a turn while sharing a segment of the map with an enemy initiates the battle screen. All of your units attack at once, their strength clearly communicated, but you select just one of your units to receive the damage the enemy will deal on that turn. Even if your attack kills all your opponents in a single hit, your enemy will have a chance to fight back and whittle a little a of your health away. You'll recruit units as you progress by capturing taverns and spending leadership points, but if even one of the core family die, it's game over. If you have any stickers to hand, put one on your screen alongside this paragraph, because it's important and you might want to refer back to it later.

You advance across the level one segment of floating island at a time. Territory, when the enemies are cleared out, can be developed by your party either by leader units, who can activate its local resource to be automatically gathered each turn, or by mechanics who can fortify the area and give you a defensive advantage should the enemy attack attempt to reclaim the land.

There is an added time pressure however, because every nine turns new enemies will spawn on any piece of territory not yet captured by you. This is how I found myself just three segments of land away from victory, but suddenly faced with an army three-times more powerful than my own. I had taken too long on the journey here, fortifying land in case I needed it later and keeping my attack force together at all times, and it had allowed the most distant enemies to build into an insurmountable force.

I know it was insurmountable because I tried desperately to find a way to overcome the odds. Although I controlled 90% of the map, I was still only gathering a few leadership points per turn and could therefore only recruit a single new combatant every five or six turns or so. My enemies, by comparison, would get three enemies every nine turns, one for each piece of land that remained. To make matters worse, even a single round of fighting with one of my enemy's three remaining squads would cause at least one of my units to be killed. If I chose a family member to receive that damage, game over and a quick reload of the previous turn. If I chose one of my new recruits, they would die and I could withdraw my forces alive, but the damage I'd done to the enemy in that round would be recovered from quicker than I could replace my own fallen soldier.

Eventually I took enough casualties in attempting to win this strange battle of attrition that my enemy was able to advance against me and I had no choice but to retreat. I fell all the way back to my starting position, lost maybe fifteen pieces of territory, and was now sat back in my castle while the enemy became stronger and stronger beyond my gates. I'd lost the tavern - sat in the halfway point between my starting position and the end of the map - and so I had no hope of strengthening my squad. Every time I attacked outward, I died.

So I did the only thing I could: I saved my game and went to bed, thinking I'd start again in the morning.

Morning came and I loaded up my last save and, while I looked for the restart button, I decided to have another quick go at attacking outwards from my castle. This time... I won. By some miracle of the random dice rolls that determine the exact damage dealt by attacks, my family had survived and I'd managed to regain a foothold in the world. That was all I needed to advance another step and then another.

I fought my way back across the map exactly as I had the first time, recapturing territory, re-establishing resource collection, reclaiming the tavern and recruiting new soldiers. It was truly heroic, my squad of beautifully hand-drawn soldiers, each full of character and detail like a Disney or perhaps Banner Saga character, pushing back against an enemy that had almost destroyed them. This was the narrative the tutorial misison had attempted to establish, but I felt it more keenly when it had resulted from the game's systems and my own decisions.

I fought my way across the map until I got back to where I was before, back at the doorstep of my enemy... who was now, oh, about 7 times larger than I was. More turns had of course meant more reinforcements for them, the big turtling bastards.

So I restarted the map, played the mission much more quickly the second time, and won it cleanly. But the victory felt hollow, because I had been forced to wipe the exciting, dramatic, twisty version I'd been enjoying from my story's canon.

This happens a lot in Highlands. That paragraph I made you put a sticker on earlier? Your family members dying might have lent interesting consequence to the campaign if you were allowed to continue thereafter, or it might have brought tension to your decision-making if regicide meant a full-mission do-over, but neither is true. All losing a key unit does is force you to re-load the last auto-save, which will always be the turn before one of your brood stepped through death's door, in which case it's wholly meaningless at best and at worst makes dramatic turnaround impossible and encourages the kind of random number-surfing that eventually saw me briefly escape my coffin. Highlands is hard but without the mechanics to justify it.

I've moved on with the game since and later missions introduce new items that add slight complexity to battles, and new building types and resources that encourage the diversification of your fighting force and your tactics, but the game still feels strangled by the twin pressures of speedy progression and impermissible granular failure.

SteamCharts.com tells me that I was one of only two people playing Highlands [official site] last night. Despite its flaws, that seems a real shame. In the few hours I've spent with it, I've been charmed by its sky high setting, gentle character work and accessible mechanics, and I'll keep playing, even if I look at its clouds and see something different than its designers.

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Graham Smith avatar

Graham Smith

Deputy Editorial Director

Rock Paper Shotgun's former editor-in-chief and current corporate dad. Also, he continues to write evening news posts for some reason.