A Highland Song — Scottish folk music helps you take flight in charming game

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Twice in two days I heard the music of Scottish folk band Talisk. The first time was in a throng of hyperactive fans as the trio’s soaring guitar, violin and concertina melodies sought to whisk us far from a rather anonymous venue in north London. The second, the following day, came as I took flight across a gentle stretch of hillside in A Highland Song: as I gained speed, and the game’s greens and browns blurred underfoot, a familiar and hypnotic refrain began to play.

The first thing you’ll do in A Highland Song — before you meet 15-year-old runaway Moira, before the game zooms out over the hills and valleys that stand between you and your coastal destination — is calibrate your hardware with the rhythm of the game. This simple exercise ensures that, when prompted, you will run blissfully in time with the music.

Consider it an initiation into the pace of the Highlands — as Moira makes her way up the game’s many peaks, wheels herself around its lochs and through its gorse, you will find yourself prompted to leap to the beat of Talisk’s and Fourth Moon’s songs. Fail to do so and you’ll first slow down and then come to a stumbling stop, your fragile health bar evidently offended by your lack of rhythm. Beyond these fixed-length sections, the game is a straightforward platformer; your only enemies are the perilous terrain and time itself as the number of days until Beltane, the Gaelic celebration of May Day and your deadline for reaching the sea, counts down.

Your exact reasons for taking flight will only gradually become clear, but uncle Hamish, in whose direction you are headed, narrates your journey from the lighthouse. Maps of his, sketches you made from your bedroom window and pages you’ll find along the way will help orient you. Different stretches of your route — tantalisingly visible towards the horizon — are linked by paths that are revealed when you successfully match up these scraps with your surroundings.

There are points where the watercolour brushstrokes drawing the terrain are just a fraction too hazy and it becomes hard to tell what is foreground path and what is background art; the sound effects, particularly when you’re perched atop a peak and panting for breath, could desperately use some variety; and the running sections prove sometimes too long and sometimes too short — the former when you have to spend time retracing your steps, the latter when you don’t quite reach the rhythmic crescendos of whatever track the game has chosen.

Computer image of misty tree-covered crags with a notebook over some of the screen asking you to choose where to go
The documents you uncover can reshape the landscape

But it all adds to the sense that this is the furthest Moira has ever been from home by herself and that, deep in the beautiful and very rainy Scottish Highlands, there’s no telling quite what lies beyond the next peak. The music — exuberant, liberating, occasionally foreboding — echoes these feelings perfectly.

When I saw Talisk that first evening, I found myself wishing we had been in a creaking pub rather than a cavernous former billiard hall. Something of the music’s spirit was lost in its setting: it needed to be played somewhere more characterful, more creaking — somewhere whose structural deficiencies are far outweighed by a great deal of beauty and charm. Somewhere a bit like A Highland Song.


‘A Highland Song’ is available on PC and Nintendo Switch from December 5


Business Asia
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