by Bree Jordan
reviewed on PC
Indie games are often either beautiful, challenging, or innovative. It’s not terribly common to find one deliberately shooting for all three. Highlands is an ambitious project in that respect, with a mind to hit the scene as a well-rounded, satisfying foray into the wide world of turn-based strategy, bringing with it some beautiful visuals and vibrant storytelling. Having started life as a successful Kickstarter, Burrito Studio’s debut darling is clearly a labor of love, and if floating cities are your thing, it’s something you really have to try.
The gist of the game follows thusly: amid the clouds rests the idyllic Highlands, and more specifically, the territory of the royal house of Arislaan. It’s a prosperous little place, right up until it’s violently invaded by some unfriendly raiders and their vicious robotic insects. Thrown abruptly into the tumult of unexpected war, the royal family must rally, wresting control of their ancestral lands from the mechanical mandibles of evil. But wait! I hear you cry. Isn’t this getting a little melodramatic for a turn-based strategy game? Well, friend, you’d be right. There’s a lot of genre-bending happening in Highlands. Mechanically, it plays like a game of Risk, but the overall experience is of a detailed RPG that just so happens to take place amid a fairly traditional strategy title. This game has a story to tell, and it’s a pretty good one. When the robo-bugs attack Duke Arislaan’s home and family, his children – through whom most of the story is told – serve as the heart of the resistance and the hope of the people, and some decent characterization makes it hard not to share in their motivations.
So how does it play? Comparing it to Risk might be an oversimplification, to be honest. The idea is very much the same – that is, seizing enemy territory sector by sector, building up your armies and overwhelming your opponent. To keep your territory secure, you have to think strategically, maximizing the scope of your forces and utilizing choke points to ensure no rogue enemies slip through your front. The developers wisely chose to expand upon this formula, however. In addition to seizing territory and fighting to keep it, there is the matter of reorganizing it after enemy occupation, bringing order back to your lands and producing the raw materials to sustain your troops as you do so. Each reclaimed section produces a different resource, such as food to help the healers tend to the wounded or spare parts for mechanics to cobble together upgrades. There are four character classes with distinct abilities, such as leaders, who reassure civilians and build morale, and combatants, who hit things. It’s a fun system. Maybe not the most complex or involving, but it gets the job done.
A Remarkable Journey
It’s complex enough to be a challenge, at any rate. Early maps are a breeze, but the challenge ramps up as you retake your kingdom and get closer to expelling the invaders. It’s a simple enough thing to move slowly, organizing and maintaining your territory, fortifying your forces and moving forward with a united front, but every couple of turns, new enemies spawn and join with the closest group. Your attack power is determined by the individual attack power of each of your heroes combined and dependent on how many of them you have grouped together. The same is true for enemies. If you aren’t continuously moving forward, thinning the herd and keeping their numbers down, a cluster of raiders can gather at the far end of the map and rain unrelenting death down upon your royal heads. The end result is a bit of a balancing act. Don’t overextend yourself, but don’t slow down too much. It doesn’t really support or reward different playstyles, unfortunately – the game knows what it wants from you. At the time of this review, only one of the two difficulty modes was available, but that was fine with me. I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it as much on a higher difficulty level. For the masochists among you, however, hard mode will be unlocked later this week.
That being said, it’s possible the best reason to pick up Highlands is the art. The art is remarkable. Instead of the usual colored or lightly textured hexagons making up the navigable game board, Highlands has opted for dozens, maybe hundreds of unique, hand-painted buildings and structures. Character art is top notch. Highlands sports a Disney flair and a bright, pleasant palette that’s really a treat to stare at for the dozens of hours one might be sinking into this game. It lends well to the impression that the characters in this game are people worth caring about. The art style may be an unusual choice for a game in this genre, but it’s distinct and engaging, fairy tale lovely and gives Highlands an edge over the hundreds of other Risk-inspired titles flooding Steam’s strategy section.
It’s not a perfect game, of course. As of now, there are a few technical issues that could stand to be addressed. The method of moving your troops around the screen – separating your groups by trying to highlight the specific members you want to move with the mouse and dragging them about – is clunky and a little awkward, and it stands out strangely in a game that has clearly taken such pains to be polished and ready for release. Enemy regen is fast, and it can feel a little capricious when your focus is already split between multiple objectives. Character recruitment feels surprisingly impersonal compared to the rest of the game, and the fact that your new recruits are 100% expendable is an uncomfortable source of cognitive dissonance in a game that is so strongly marked by characters trying to work their way through a tragic invasion. Some of the more unusual mechanics could stand to be explained a little more clearly.
But it’s a lot of fun, too. It has vision and scope, originality and wit, and it’s fun. Hitting the rare trifecta of beautiful, challenging and innovative, it’s easy enough to slip into the “just one more turn” refrain when you’re inches away from reclaiming a map. For a game from such a small team, this was clearly lovingly crafted, doted upon, and released to us as a surprising little mashup of genres and influences that, overall, works really well. If you’ve ever wanted to send a wide-eyed Disney princess and her siblings into battle against the forces of darkness, miles above the original home of man, you really should give it a spin. I feel like you’re unlikely to quench that specific desire anywhere else.
Wonderful art, satisfying strategy
Mechanical issues, weak tutorial options