Highlands is a hand-drawn turn-based strategy game with elements of the classic board-game Risk and RPG elements thrown in for good measure. A kickstarter-funded project, Highlands allows player to take control of a family of nobles in their attempt to build up an army and retake their land from a mysterious invading force. The game is a unique take on the classic Risk formula; Burrito Studios have made it so that it is very easy to learn the basics but mastering it is where the difficulty lies.
Highlands’ story follows the heirs of the Arislaan family, powerful nobles that have been exiled from their home. Their land has been invaded by a mechanical army and a horde of mercenaries all led by a mysterious enemy from another land. You are now tasked with recruiting the citizens of Highland to build an army capable of pushing back the invasion and taking back the kingdom. The story is a little unoriginal but it is really well written and features some rather enjoyable characters all of which helps push the player through some of the more difficult gameplay scenarios.
The game has a bright visual aesthetic featuring beautifully hand-drawn characters and environments, a nice touch is the way windmills and grass blows in the wind all of which helps distract from the rather dark nature of the game. If this isn’t enough for you between levels you are also treated with impressively painted portraits to aid the progression of the story. The soundtrack is decent but there’s not a lot to it and it’s rather forgettable. On offer are two gameplay difficulties, Normal and Hard, but there are severe balance issues. Playing on normal difficulty is still frustratingly hard particularly if you’re new to this style of gameplay. Attempt hard mode at your own risk!
Gameplay wise Highlands adopts a lot of elements of the board game Risk but instead of countries to invade Highlands’ world is divided into sectors that need to be recaptured. Each sector has a possibility of holding valuable resources, containing a random risk/reward event encounter and of course a number of enemy units. It’s very easy to learn the setup of the game with the first level acting as the main tutorial but truly mastering it is very hard. In the early stages it can be rather frustrating as you try to get to grips with the basics, and the game doesn’t hold back throwing even more at you. Powerful warlord units and timed enemy spawns can leave the player losing their patience, until you realise it’s not actually possible to do everything on offer and that you have to choose how best to manage you time and resources.
Essentially the game’s combat all comes down to numbers. Each character/enemy has a number of combat points that make up their attack/health; engaging units in battle results in a dice roll that is used to determine how much damage is dealt to either side. Odds can be improved by sending in multiple units, increasing their level or equipping them with better weaponry/defences but it’s really just a game of chance. Key battles that can help turn the tide of matches can all come down to luck. That said the overall gameplay is rather addictive as you search for alternative approaches, take higher risks and hope for better outcomes.
Losing members of the Arislaan family is essentially the defeat condition in each scenario, forcing you back to the start of the level. However, recruitable units fall into a permadeath rule; lose one of these and they’re gone for good. This at times can be a bit of a downer particularly if you’ve lead them through multiple levels and taken the time to upgrade them to their full potential. On the other hand, recruiting weaker units with the sole purpose of using them as cannon fodder can really help you escape from a sticky situation.
Now, as for the unit types there are four distinct classes each with unique skills and purposes; Combatants (attackers/defenders), Mechanics (fortifiers), Leaders (material gatherers) and Academics (healers). Getting the most out these classes will require you to collect certain resources, for example Academics need food for their healing skills. The game offers a variety of solutions to each scenario, which method you use is up to you. Going defensive by fortifying your sectors with Mechanics or going for all out attacks utilising Combatants to overwhelm enemies with sheer numbers your options are open. Then again while these options may be available you are limited by the number of resources available per scenario, and the luck based element of the game can put a dent in a strategy that worked in a previous run.
Overall Highlands is a solid title and one to recommend particularly if you’re looking for a good challenge. The gameplay is very easy to pick up, the hand-drawn character portraits and environments are stunningly beautiful and it features a well-written (but a little unoriginal) story with a unique cast of characters. The main disappointment of Highlands is that luck plays a huge part no matter how skilled you may be and the difficulty is frustratingly high no matter which you chose to play on. To really succeed in this game will require a lot of time and patience.
This review is based off a review code of Highlands provided by Burrito Studios
This review was originally published on the site GamersFTW which unfortunately has now been taken down. It’s been published on my personal blog, DanielVaughanReviews, out of respect for the developers/publishers that were kind enough to give me review copy of their game.