GAME REVIEW: Highlands
Highlands is a turn based strategy/RPG game made by Burrito Studio. After playing 13 hours of the game, here’s my review.
Gameplay – 3/10
The gameplay mechanics in Highlands are akin to that of chess. Essentially you have your pieces (some are academics/combatants/mechanics etc.), the AI has theirs, and you have to try and think ahead and out manoeuvre the computer. As you tread along the level, capturing enemy areas as you go, you will have to battle enemy soldiers, retreat, or try to hold them off with your mechanics, usually so that your academics can heal you combatants. This is a simple but effective gameplay mechanic that can create some tense and interesting scenarios. Should I attack now? Should I wait and heal my troops first? Should I keep advancing now that momentum is on my side even though my team is low on health? Should I retreat and try to lure the enemy into a trap of some sort? What if the enemy is luring me into a trap if I continue on this way? It’s all very entertaining.
The actual battles themselves however, are very bland affairs. Essentially, both teams roll a dice and whoever gets the highest roll wins. Strong characters have a higher chance of rolling a high number, and weak ones a lower chance. But that’s it. No skill, or planning of any kind. Just dice rolling. The game attempts to make the battles more interesting by adding items you can use in battle such as grenades for attacking and chainmail for defending. But these items are not powerful enough to effect the gameplay in any way. Why would I waste my time crafting chainmail and grenades, when I can just roll the dice and win?
But I can forgive the battles for being bland, perhaps the game developers wanted to focus more on the strategic planning elements of the game, which is fine in my book. What I cannot forgive however, is poor game design.
Let me explain, as every game developer knows, one of the most important aspects of a game is difficulty. Ideally, you want your game to be challenging but fair. Highlands is challenging, but is not fair. At around level 3 you will notice a big spike in difficulty. As you move through the level, enemies spawn behind you so you have to keep back tracking in order to pick them off on by one so they don’t overwhelm you. It’s extremely difficult, but with the right planning, patience and strategic thinking it can be overcome. This is an example of a segment of the game which is challenging, but fair.
The last two levels of the game are absolutely ridiculous. In each level you face an overwhelming force of bad guys, while you must make do with a tiny battalion of weaklings. To add insult to injury, the game will spawn more enemies in to punish you for waiting or healing, so you just have to put your head down, bull though the level and hope for the best. Remember that the primary mechanic of the battles is the roll of a dice, so it is basically just pot luck if you make it to the other end of the level alive. The last level epitomizes what is wrong with the gameplay in this game. You begin with a tiny force. You are surrounded on all sides by enemy armies that dwarf yours several times over. You have to keep moving forward because if you stop and heal, more enemies will spawn and then you are twice and screwed. Items such as grenades and chainmail are completely obsolete by this point so crafting them is a waste of time. There is absolutely nothing you can do except roll the dice and hop for the best. What kind of fair challenge is that? The whole game just devolves into rolling the dice, dying, loading your save file, rolling the dice, rinse repeat until eventually you get lucky and start to progress through the level, and this is while playing it on the lowest difficulty!
Music and sound design – 5/10
Nothing fancy, but does the job well. There are no epic scores in this game, but a couple of pleasant background melodies with a medieval/fantasy sort of feel to them set the tone well and fit nicely with the aesthetic of the game. The sound effects are pleasant, and non intrusive. They blend well with the background music and keep in line with the game’s over arching medieval/fantasy theme.
Graphics – 3/10
There are not many graphics in this game to speak about. It is very simplistic and minimalist in its presentation. The characters and levels are all drawn very nicely The whole game looks like it was drawn by hand and everything is stylized in a manner reminiscent of ”the banner saga”.
My biggest gripe with the graphics however is the animation. There is none. Apart from the clouds moving when you end your turn, the game has no animation whatsoever. It doesn’t matter if a character is laughing or crying, their in game sprite just has the same neutral expression on their face. Towards the end of the game, there is a very emotional scene (I won’t spoil it) involving the princess, but how am I supposed to feel sympathy for her if she doesn’t emote at all? Also, during the cut scenes, there is never any background present. It doesn’t matter if they are in a castle or a farmyard, the background is always just absent.
At first I thought the lack of animation was an aesthetic choice, but seeing things like this makes me think it was either a lack of effort on the artist’s part. If you want to go for the minimalist, story book art style then that’s fine. But surely you would draw some backgrounds as well? Surely you would have drawn your characters making more than one facial expression? Even free to play flash games have basic features like backgrounds and characters with more than one facial expression! Look, I understand I am probably being a little harsh as this was an independently made game, but if your charging 12 euros for a product I expect that product to meet certain standards. I at least expect that product to be of a higher calibre than games that are free to play.
Highlands is not a terrible game. I’ve given it a 4/10 overall as I feel the story and overall atmosphere in the game are worthy of a slight increase in score. I enjoyed many moments during my time playing it. I feel like it could have been a lot better given a bigger budget and a bit more time.
Something I did really enjoy about the game was recruiting a soldier and trying to keep that soldier until the end. It made me feel more immersed and involved in what was going on in the game. That, along with the strategic aspect to the game is what should have been focused on more in my view.
I just cannot in good faith give a sub standard game like this that is charging 12 euros per copy a good score when there are free to play games out there that are just as good if not better.