As I reflected on my preview of High On Life, I thought it could be one of the better surprises of the year. After all, a game I had zero expectations for, humor I didn’t broadly gel with, and a style that didn’t speak to me had basically Voltron’d into this game I assumed I’d pass on months ago and now really wanted to play. High On Life’s unexpected depth left me with a desire to see it through, though not without reservations. Having played the whole game now, I find my reservations were well founded, but not as entirely as I feared. High On Life is still probably the best surprise I’ve played this year, but it’s not without its flaws.
I’ll just echo my previous sentiments about the game at the top and say that I’m only further impressed with how robust of a first-person shooter High On Life actually is after completing it. Squanch Games, Justin Roiland’s (of Rick and Morty and Solar Opposites) studio, has made games before, like Trover Saves The Universe and Accounting, but High On Life more or less marks a huge jump in the kinds of games they make, with the team nearly tripling in size to realize it. And a shooter is no easy thing to nail, as a likely unending stream of poorly made shovelware examples on Steam proves. But if there’s one thing High On Life does consistently right is nail the distinct look, feel, and yes, even personality, of each of the player’s talking, alien weaponry. None of them fall outside of established archetypes—like shotguns, pistols, submachine guns, and a grenade launcher—and have alternative fires that we’ve seen before, but they feel appropriately potent when deployed, and that’s what mostly matters in a genre of games that can rarely afford to feel off-kilter.
Paired with movement upgrades, like a jetpack, a sentient knife that functions like a whip, as well as a jetpack-assisted slide dash, High On Life successfully channels nu-Doom-lite vibes, sans the heavy metal, hellfire, viscera, and consistent frame rate. It’s a shame then that the game’s broad design doesn’t better take advantage of what’s a killer suite of weapons and movement tech.
High On Life’s wacky sci-fi story, which sees an alien drug cartel called G3 invade Earth in order to use humans as drugs, soon whisks the main character and his sister to the stars, where you visit various planets that sport at least a few alien metropolises, a desert infested with sandworms, and a jungle that appeared to be teeming with fucked up Care Bears. I liked each of these settings visually, but each feels designed more for the exploration side of the game (which hides its Metroid influence for a bit) than its combat. Specifically, the game, which designs encounters almost like an arena shooter, largely eschews layouts and composition that would be conducive to fights like that. The environments you fight in are sometimes tiered to favor verticality, but there are rarely alternate routes that reward the player for exploring. You’ll largely be instinctively dodging and firing back in open spaces that feel like they’ve got just enough to cover to make sure you aren’t killed immediately.
Where the combat, art, and design of High on Life shine are its boss fights against the members of the G3. They are the rare aliens who don’t just kind of look like humans covered in goop and/or are missing eyes. Fights against the G3 are also deft balances of gunskill, platforming, and the aforementioned movement tech. Some of them, like against Douglas, are really tight and feature electrifying platforms and waves of enemies that challenge you on the ground, while Douglas pelts you from above. The fights you have with the Skrendel clan late in the game are kind of burdened by High On Life’s technical limitations, but it just manages to eke out the frenetic fun of battling several sizable and menacing foes at the same time. Some are are not as eventful, like the unfortunately flat final boss, but by and large, taking on these weirdos was the highlight of my time with High On Life and sufficiently proved that given the time and resources, this team could absolutely make a more satisfyingly realized world.
The other part of High On Life’s gameplay equation, this Metroid-like exploration that sort of beckons the player from time to time, is a good bit of fun too, though it’s understated and seemingly downplayed. The sentient guns (I’m getting to them, I swear) can use their alt-fires to slow down fans, unlock previously locked doors, and form paths to grotesque collectible chests that dot each level. Finding them gives money for unlocks back in hubs, as well as trading cards and sometimes outright upgrades. I found multiple chests that put me in a decent place by the endgame, at which point I backtracked and combed through every level in pursuit of that ever-alluring Metroid power creep. It’s largely unnecessary, especially as I didn’t use much of what I got in the game’s final hours, but if you’re wired to enjoy that kind of environmental puzzle solving, you might similarly enjoy that in this game. The biggest detractors to my enjoyment once again tied into the game’s design, more specifically how the worlds really lack places of interest to orient players while they explore or even unobfuscated sightlines that could at least suggest a significant difference between zones. In lieu of this, High On Life could’ve at least included a map.
While you explore and blast enemies across the system, you’ll get to know your character’s talking armory quite intimately. These Gatliens—a portmanteau only slightly better than Gleeks—are a fucking lot. Kenny, voiced by Roiland, is the centerpiece of this band of loud-mouthed, crass, and misshapen misfits, and brings…well, he brings Morty to the role. Kenny is exactly as stammery and infantile as him, which makes him the easiest talking gun to get behind, but also the quickest to get over. A lot of people worried after High On Life’s reveal that the talking guns, especially ones voiced like characters that have been parroted by online chuds for years and are tied to fan bases that are deeply annoying, would prove vexing. On some level they were right to be hesitant, though I’ll maintain that you hear them an entirely appropriate amount on the game’s default setting. (They can be tuned up or down.) Hearing Kenny whine, which he is wont to do, gets annoying, which feels like the goal of the character and the kind of humor High On Life peddles. Luckily, the other guns are voiced by other comedians like J.B Smoove and Betsy Sodaro, bringing more dimensionality to their humor and dialogue while acting as foils to Kenny. It is unfortunate that there isn’t as much interplay between the guns until the game’s late stages, meaning you have to basically pick which gun you want to hear from in cutscenes and ambient dialogue or just settle for what’s appropriate for the scenario. I do want to note that among them, though, Tim Robinson especially brings not only much needed heart to the cast in the plot’s later developments, but a modicum of the baffling idiocy and mania of many of his I Think You Should Leave characters that plays especially well for his character Creature, who literally births baby aliens he loves only to then launch them at enemies that they then devour. Hearing Robinson express fatherly love and affection for those little monstrosities as they rip into aliens is High On Life at its best.
Where High On Life slips up, at least in regards to jokes, is when it steers into its toilet humor too hard. I’m of two minds about High On Life’s humor: on one hand, jokes should not have to be razor sharp to be good. Sometimes, silly low-hanging fruit is just as effective for a good belly laugh, and I like how this game lacks any pretense of seriousness. On the other, there are simply too many mentions and realizations of orifices, as well as jokes about shit, dicks, and—it pains me to report but—alien cum. I will pay Roiland and his team to never make mention of a “trickhole” or “globshot” again. There are also only so many bits High On Life walks out, meaning many of the NPCs largely fall into two crowds. One will aggressively tell you to go fuck yourself or fuck off after some amount of time or a conversation gone wrong. Others just go on, like one particular floating pain in the ass, deliberately manifested to just rant at players nonsensically in the middle of a mission for far too long. Talking too long is just a thing this game loves to do; there are even warp discs players can purchase that have no purpose beyond the delivery of an extended joke. Some of these might be worth seeing for the preposterousness of it all, like the movie theater. A skatepark with a slew of intentionally outdated jokes and stereotypes is not as fun. Some of the game’s ambient bits, like programming on TV that follows a terribly uncomfortable and unsuccessful prankster, embody the best of the game’s humor, but an NPC right down the road might curse you out because of an earlier decision and remind you how loudly this game wants to be up in your face a lot of the time.
I really like High On Life, I just wish more of the aspects that resonated with me were bolstered by the game’s design. Simultaneously, the comedy that features so prominently throughout it feels a bit much, even if I do think its cast broadens the horizon of what it can accomplish. Nonetheless, High On Life is a rock-solid shooter and a great way to idly spend a weekend’s worth of time blasting aliens. More than anything, I see the mold of a game that could really break the surface if Squanch Games and company decided they want to revisit this world and series. Just please, less holes next time, y’all.
High On Life is developed and published by Squanch Games. Our review is based on the Xbox Series X|S version. It is also available on Xbox One and PC.
Moises Taveras is the assistant games editor for Paste Magazine. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.