Review: High on Life [Xbox Game Pass]
High on Life is the kind of video game that any journalist worth their salt dreads reviewing. Not because it’s likely to be warmongeringly divisive. Nor because it’s just so good, so finely crafted, that one would have difficulty tearing chunks out of it (trust me when I tell you, it really isn’t). It’s because of its specific genre. High on Life is a comedy game. And as the internet will be more than happy to point out for you at every available opportunity, comedy is more-or-less entirely subjective. Granted, reviews tend to be subjective anyway – and if they’re not meant to be, I’ve been cocking my job up royally til now – but this is like… subjectivity within subjectivity. A wormhole of ‘Bobby’s buggered’, if you will.
Comedy equals tragedy plus time
High on Life is the second outing for Squanch Games, founded by (and essentially carried by the publicity generated from) Justin Roiland, one half of the creative duo behind the eternal Reddit darling Rick and Morty. The studio’s first self-developed game, Trover Saves the Universe, very much wore its Rickspiration on its sleeve. Its artstyle and comedy stylings lifted directly from the show. Toothy grins and nihilistic rants abounded, papering over the cracks of what was really just an extended tech demo for the Oculus. In short, High on Life is more of the same, but with guns. You’ll probably get a sufficient idea of whether this one’s for you based on just that sentence, but if you ain’t a TL;DR person, do read on.
Games such as High on Life ride or die on how funny you find the core gimmick. They’re largely concerned with telling jokes rather than shattering any boundaries or formulating grand new innovations. When you strip away the outer coating of humour, you’re often left with basic gameplay framework propping it all up. Simply put, comedy games are less, well, actual games, and more a vehicle for cramming in as many punts at getting a laugh as can fit.
Example: Rare’s Conker’s Bad Fur Day. I love Conker’s Bad Fur Day. I think it’s a fantastic, criminally overlooked satire of a very particular moment in gaming history, dressed up in a sublime balance of toilet humour and British dryness. But while the combination of an opera-singing turd, cigar-chomping Brummie cogs and the liberal dispensation of expletives from the mouths of cartoon bees is precisely up my alley, for someone else it may prove to be a total turn-off. Likewise, Davey Wreden’s The Stanley Parable. Brilliant game, to me. Deconstructs the very foundations of the medium, offers some thought-provoking existential questions and is positively dripping with sardonicism. Yet once more, others may disagree, finding the act of strolling about an office while a posh narrator nags at you to be tedious and grating.
My point is: once removed from comedy, in both cases what are you left with? Conker, a rapidly-aging 3D platformer with clunky controls. Stanley, a glorified walking simulator with no real throughline. What does High on Life boil down to, then? Well.. let’s have a look.
Plotting the course
What we’ve got here is a first-person shooter, married to gentle RPG elements and the odd bit of puzzle-platforming. You play an out-of-their-depth student – name not announced, as far as I could tell, and believe me I went looking – thrust into the role of a bounty hunter following an alien invasion. From an awkwardly up-close camera perspective, it’s your job to venture across the intergalactic starways and combat their forces, headed by the diabolical Garmantuous.
But there’s a twist. These aliens aren’t interested in killing you – leastways, not before you start pumping them full of plasma. Nope, their motivation is good old vice. They’ve hit upon the discovery that, to their species, ordinary common folk can be smoked like weed (I can think of a fair few multibillionaires who would be chuffed to perfect that science). Earth, then, is to these aliens like that one scene in Ted 2 where they stumble across a pot farm and the Jurassic Park theme plays. In fact, that’s it. That’s the entire game. High on Life feels like that one sequence from Ted 2 stretched out to 10 hours and with all its ‘we’ve given up’ sensibilities laid bare. Odd analogy, I know. Stay with me.
I won’t venture into spoilers, but rest assured there are run-ins with alien cartels, rival bounty hunters and an assortment of wackily designed NPCs; voiced in rotation by Roiland himself, J.B. Smoove and, for some reason, the dudes from Red Letter Media. Perhaps the casting department were indulging in a similar recreational habit to the game’s antagonists.
Honestly, I couldn’t bring myself to give a tinker’s cuss about any of this. At every turn the game was telling me I shouldn’t (more on this bad attitude a bit further down) and really, who’s here for the story? It’s all just an excuse to crack one-liners and make pop-culture references. And for what little it matters, the concept is original enough I suppose. The gameplay, however, is not.
If we’re talking basic controls, they’re fine. Movement is pleasingly fluid. There are sufficient options to toggle to optimize your feel, and even though I have a bit of a personal vendetta against first-person viewpoints, the camera largely behaves itself and nausea is kept to a minimum. Your planet-to-planet activities involve mooching about a candy-coloured environment, shooting enemies and popping open crates containing a variety of detritus. You might get currency, or you might get materials used to upgrade your weapons.
Ah yes, the weapons. The main selling point of High on Life is its sentient guns, the ‘Gatlians’. Once equipped, they are permanently assigned to the lower right of the screen, eyes boring into your soul. They also mouth off. Like, a lot. Your main companion is Kenny, a generic blaster whose voice sounds a bit like Morty if they gave him a couple of testosterone shots. He has a quip for all scenarios – mostly critical of the game design itself. He mentions how all the enemies look the same. He’ll observe how bits of the terrain are poorly rendered. He’ll point out how the shopkeepers stare off into space, earning him a cynical jibe in return from said merchants. What a little mare.
Kenny isn’t alone in his commentary, either. There’s your requisite melee weapon, Knifey, who seems to derive perverse pleasure from being inserted into people. You’ll also meet Creature, my personal fave, who – according to numerous previews and which I am now happy to confirm – is a dead ringer for Seth Rogen vocally. He blatantly rips off Pikmin with his ability to launch little plant dudes en masse to overwhelm enemies, talking about sex and suicide as he does so. Natch.
Miss a ledge or tumble into a pit of acid? These gabby guns will be sure to let you know how you could have done it better. Incidentally, the game is very forgiving with its platforming sections, respawning you straightaway for another go. This is handy, because at times, the loop of running and gunning stalls horribly. There’s an attempt to ape the Ratchet and Clank formula of using different guns for each challenge, and coming back with an upgraded rocket pack to access previously-barred-off areas, but the Lombax need not quake in his Magneboots. This stuff is as perfunctory as it gets.
So many guns, so little (slowed) time
One gun lets you embed razor blades in the wall to create footholds. The trouble is, not every surface accepts them and you’re often left stranded over lava or other nasties. Another lets you send out ‘time bubbles’ that slow down their surroundings, allowing you to pass a masher or fan unsliced. But again this is situational and the mechanic has been done better before.
The planetoids themselves are compact and numerous, but uninteresting, having very few secrets or ‘aha!’ moments of discovery to savour as the best Ratchet maps do. They also commit the cardinal sin of invisible walls/inexplicably unsurmountable knee-high obstructions to gate your progress. High on Life touts its explorability, but then it’s rigidly insistent on your experience being strictly linear, right down to the eye-glazing enemy arenas where you must kill a specified number of aliens to continue, which I thought we’d done away with in the early 2010s. Boss fights, too, represent insane difficulty spikes that you can’t avoid and which grind things to a halt. In an era of titles (of all genres!) that promote player freedom, it really is a bit of a joke to be told your designated grappling hook doesn’t have quite the designated upgrade to attach to the designated platform.
Sick and haughty
And it’s by far the funniest joke in the entire package. Yes, alas we must now return to the crux of the matter: the game’s comedy. It’s really the only bit of the review that matters, in truth, as that’s what High on Life is here for. All this mediocrity could have been salvaged had I clicked with the humour, my belly laughs providing a reprieve from the thousandth missed shot or enemy clipping into the geometry. I didn’t.
Let me put this in as nice a manner as possible. If you’re a fan of Rick and Morty, this game will have you on the floor rolling. The up-itself pseudoscience and the existential dread are present and correct, and the nasally drone of Roiland’s voice places things squarely in Meeseeks territory. As for me; I’ve got to confess, I’ve given Richard and Mortimer a fair shake on several occasions. I just can’t get behind it. Don’t get me wrong, there are individual ideas and setpieces that I think are genius, like the memory parasites and Roy: The Video Game, but on the whole the nihilistic tone just rubs me the wrong way.
Rick often tells the audience nothing matters, that this is all just a show and life has no meaning because we’re all doomed to die. OK, cool. You’ve successfully made me ambivalent. Then why in God’s name should I care about anything that happens now? Any potential emotional moments or character arcs have been inherently scuppered. I gave up on season 1 around the time Morty gets molested by a jelly bean. Season 2 when an alien invasion is repelled with a song about pooping on the floor. Season 3 when Rick turns himself into a certain green vegetable – and so on.
Satirical, or just busted?
I have the same feelings towards High on Life. I’ve never played a game quite so devoted to informing me that it completely blows, which actually makes me wonder if the subpar elements are done on purpose. I’m all for self-deprecating comedy, of course; I’m a Brit, for Chrissakes. The problem is the parodic stuff usually gets in the way of the actual functionality and playability of the game.
It’s all very well when your gun cracks wise about stealth sections always being terrible, only for me to be forced into an unskippable – and interminable – stealth section. The assorted shopkeepers insulting me didn’t make me any more inclined to buy their wares, nor did I appreciate essentially being told to eff off if I declined to purchase anything. There’s a transparent effort here to satirize many gaming cliches and tropes, but this has no bite, guys, if you then immediately turn around and make use of those very same cliches and tropes.
A lot of the ‘jokes’ also seem purposefully minted to piss you off. The UI will occasionally fill up with screamers and spammed messages, which I suppose someone at Squanch Games thought would be funny, but is in reality tremendously irritating. Tutorials will invite you to try moves that don’t actually exist for the sake of a cheap ‘gotcha’. In several skits, functional objects you need to progress will come to life and yammer away at you for minutes on end, rather than just… functioning. The script at least seems acutely aware of how annoying it is at times, granting you the ability to slaughter one particularly persistent nagging alien after he’s served his purpose. That got me to smirk.
There are occasional dives into more traditional domestic sitcom humour that actually work, too, like the ongoing spat between your character’s family and some alien squatters. It’s also inspired that your personal TV plays actual Hollywood movies for you to kick back and watch, which adds cultural panache (and presumably was intended to ruin the monetization plans of streamers). But on the whole, a pervasive sense of edgy tryhardism is there throughout the experience, and it left me feeling rather burnt out. Tee-hee, ha-ha, Roiland. You sure got me: the game does suck.
Sadly, without that all-important crutch of laughter to help me through, I’m stuck seeing High on Life for what it is at its creamy centre: a milquetoast puzzle-shooter that has a few neat ideas and an undeniable creative spirit buried in it, but which is greatly outshone by its peers. In other words, the cream’s gone off. Everything it does well, another game has done better (decades prior) and there are a few too many fundamental stumbles to warrant a recommendation, from my perspective.
This is not to say there is no value at all in the endeavour, though. Every so often, a planet will offer a jawdropping vista, or one of your guns will raise a smile; and you may indeed be completely tuned into Roiland’s brand of devil-may-care funny, in which case feel free to disregard the previous 1800 words and give it a crack. More power to you.
I, meanwhile, am off to boot up The Stanley Parable. It might not have a sadomasochistic dagger in it, but at least it doesn’t openly despise itself. Better luck next time, Justin.
High on Life is available now for Xbox and assorted PC storefronts. It’s also offered via Game Pass, if you’d like to try it cheaply.
High on Life aims to bust your gut, but in doing so busts many of its mechanics. While Roiland's trademark irreverence is on full display, and the game will doubtless make some gamers' 'funniest titles of the 2020s' lists, if you don't jibe with it then there isn't much on offer here. A generic sci-fi shooter meets ropey platforming and constrained world design, resulting in a disappointing overall package.