Burrito Studio’s first foray into video games, Highlands, is a story-rich PC exclusive with beautiful hand-drawn art and a element of strategy mixed with resource management and RPG features. Originally Kickstarted just under under seven months ago, Highlands has managed to create a ton of interest with its unique title.
Highlands puts players in the role of the noble family of Arislaan. Their kingdom of floating islands is under attack by raiders and automatons who threaten their throne. The noble family takes it upon themselves to fight back to defend and secure their kingdom. At its core, Highlands is a turn-based strategy game where your decisions–for better or worse–shape the world around you.
Your troops are broken into categories based on four attributes. First, is combat, which determines a characters hitpoints and attack value. Next is Leadership, used for taking over territories and earning their respective food and scrap income. Third, ‘Mechanic’, allows units to “bolster” defenses in a territory to help prevent attacks and defend against enemy forces. Mechanic is also used to craft items at a workshop. Lastly, the Academic attribute determines the amount healers can regenerate for nearby troops as well as various other support-oriented skills.
Keeping your troops in good condition requires several resources. First is food, which is consumed continually each turn based on the number of troops you have. Next is leadership, which allows you to recruit more troops at the local taverns. Lastly, there’s scrap. In this steampunk-themed world, scrap is used for creating weapons and items to be equipped by your characters.
The combat system in Highlands is standard your troops versus the enemy forces. If your enemy has a combat value of 5, then they can roll a number between 1-5 to determine the damage they deal to your units. Conversely, if you have a value of 5-25, you’ll always hit for at least 5, with a potential attack value of up to 25. As far as troops are concerned, you’re able to designate a ‘defender’ who will “tank” the damage. This allows for an extra strategical element in determining who is going to take a potentially lethal hit.
If you’ve ever played a strategy game with troops that are bound for war, you know that inevitably you will lose someone. That being said, keep in mind the story is centered around the noble Arislaan family. Losing any of the key characters from this family results in an instant defeat and you must restart from your previous save or restart the level. What this means, is that the nobles must live, while you decide which of your other troops will be sacrificed as fodder if such a situation presents itself.
As mentioned earlier, Highlands depicts a story where your kingdom is being raided. At times, you’ll find survivors in nearby buildings to join your forces, each with their own little backstory or dialogue that is special and unique to those new characters. Furthermore, some characters have an even more unique art-sheet and backstory that truly connects you with their character, making their death even more tragic and heartbreaking should it occur.
The game is great at putting you to the test when tragic circumstances befall your group. When you find the Arislaan nobles in your roster, all unfortunately at low health, while three other troops not of the noble family sit at full health, the decision is obvious; I have to let one of those other troops die. In most Real-time strategy games, or even other turn-based games, it’s all just warfare. Everyone has the same face and even if they have a name for each individual unit, it just feels so meaningless most the time. There are certain JRPGs that give me this sense of sorrow when a character in your entourage permanently dies. Games like Valkyria Chronicles or Fire Emblem, for example. The system of being forced to choose who in your army lives and dies when you find yourself in harsh situations based on poor decisions or simply losing battles is very immersive and will surely lead to the occasional heartfelt decision making which is rare in games these days. Highlands is certainly a game of decisions. Who lives? Who dies? Who gets extra equipment? What new characters will I recruit on this map and then recruit into the next one?
Among all those decisions and combat engagements, is an immersive ongoing story. A narrative about how an almost defeated kingdom has to rise from the ashes and take back their homeland. A kingdom where all genders and all classes feel equal. It’s worth noting that Highlands does its best–albeit in a subtle way–to dictate that everyone is equal, even though there is a sense of nobility to the game. For example, a mechanic is just as useful as an academic or even a leader. There are a number of women, both in the noble family, as well as unique characters you’ll pick up along the way. In fact, your strongest fighter happens to be a strong-willed lady of nobility, so their are certainly strong characters of all types in this game. Recruiting from a tavern allows you to randomize a character’s gender and looks, but throughout the game you’ll find that you have an almost 50/50 mix. I have to give Highlands credit on a sense of equality in its game.
Graphically, Highlands is simply a beautiful game. From character art, to the kingdoms traverse, to even concept art at various storyline junctions, it all weaves a fine graphical narrative with an art style that fits perfectly for this game.
Typically an “Indie” or “small team” title such as Highlands has a handful of bugs or issues. Fortunately this is not the case with Highlands. It says something for a story-heavy game like this, that the only thing I can nitpick at, is the occasional typo. Some may also comment to the lack of voiceovers throughout the game, but personally I wonder if that’s such a bad thing. Most voiceovers these days are low budget so I truly think it would have done more harm than good anyway.
Highlands is on sale at 15% off for $12.74 on Steam until April 28th when it returns to its still-worth-it price of $14.99. For such a story rich and immersive game, you’d have to not like games at all to pass on what Highlands has to offer at its pricepoint. If you are a fan of strategy games, RPG’s, great storytelling, beautiful handrawn art, or resource management, you owe it to yourself to give Highlands a try. I’d be willing to bet you won’t be disappointed.