To adequately conjure some idea for what to expect with High On Life, you should look no further than any of the projects to which Justin Roiland has contributed. Roiland, founder of Squanch Games who developed this title, is co-creator of TV shows such as Rick and Morty and Solar Opposites, as well as a voice actor for a multitude of characters in these shows among others. If you’re familiar with these shows, then you know what you’re in for with High On Life. If not then buckle up because you’re in for a ride.
Not every game needs an external point of comparison, but the relationship between these previous works had to be spoken for. Your opinion regarding Rick and Morty may not correlate perfectly with High On Life, but both series share many qualities. If you dislike Rick and Morty because it’s too coarse, graphic, profane, or irritating, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to stomach the elements that drive the style of this game. But if you can suspend that disposition, you may find the gameplay decent enough to warrant a quick jaunt through space. Conversely, if you like Rick and Morty’s signature nihilistic outlook, it’s no guarantee that you’ll enjoy the game, as it sidesteps strong philosophical and narrative considerations in favor of the raunchy humor that permeates the show. All that is to say, this game is likely to be polarizing. But as this isn’t a television show, let's evaluate High On Life on its merits as a game.
The gist of the game is fairly simple. As aliens invade Earth, you (a teenage kid) discover a talking alien gun on one of their bodies. He helps you and your sister teleport your house out of the suburbs and into the middle of an alien space center. In exchange for the ownership of your house in the event of your death, a retired bounty hunter offers his “assistance” to take down the G3 cartel and lends you his space suit. One-by-one, you take down key figures in the cartel’s ranks across a handful of locations in an effort to save humanity.
Combat in this game comes down to two main situations, with differing effects. Tight-knit arena fights are frenetic slugfests, with some of the better moments reminiscent of Doom and Halo. These fights mandate that you shoot from the hip and never stay still in one place for too long. Swapping weapons here is rewarded, as you can avoid reloading. Other fights take place out in the open with enemy pods teleporting out of thin air, and the combat here tends to fall flat a bit. Your best bet is to hunker down behind reliable cover and shoot enemies with your starting pistol from a distance, occasionally launching projectile alien children to whittle down enemies while your health recharges (provided you’ve progressed far enough to access any additional weapons).
The talking guns are a mixed bag as well. I enjoyed their unique personalities, and their interspersed commentary was a nice companion to the action. They also provided combat utility by reminding you when their action shots had cooled down. That said, it was occasionally annoying when I specifically did not want to use their special abilities. They also frequently complained about how I never used them, even if only mere seconds had elapsed since I last had them out.
Their combat effectiveness also leaves something to be desired. For most of the game, I ended up primarily using my starting weapon, as it was the most consistently reliable in a pinch. The shotgun wasn’t effective beyond a meager range, had little in the way of ammunition, and the lack of haptic feedback failed to let you know whether a hit connected with the enemy. The pseudo-Needler was reasonably useful, but the myriad methods you could utilize to chain together attacks were just too much to track during combat. And while the creature weapon that shot small spawn was very helpful in battles of attrition, it lacked the oomph to take down swarms at close range.
Lastly, there is your handy talking knife, used to perform melee attacks and grapple ledges, which is helpful in a pinch but doesn't provide any indication of when it will kill an enemy versus simply staggering them with damage. There is one more talking weapon that is ridiculously overpowered, but it’s rightfully saved for the final encounter of the game where no other weapon would have been up to the task, making for a memorable closing sequence.
Boss fights were a personal favorite of mine in this game. They provided the most challenging fights and twisted the formula just enough to breathe life into an often repetitive combat system. In these fights you’ll face stinging betrayal through a classic bait and switch, confront your character’s motivations under the influence of space drugs, and fend off waves of enemies while listening to a pre-recorded message from the boss who died before the fight even began as he tries to guess preemptively who would have killed him.
Aside from combat, exploration in High On Life is a relaxing task between fights in the vein of your typical Metroidvania. The weapons you acquire will help you delve further into the worlds you encounter over time. A significant number of chests are scattered across these locations with a currency that you’ll need to upgrade your gear. You should get enough of these incidentally that skipping the collect-a-thon won’t hamper your ability to keep up with the pace of the game, but if you want to dig deeper into the environments or play on the tougher difficulty, you’ll be rewarded for doing so.
The worlds that you explore are visually enticing if a bit limited. Over the course of the game, you’ll visit three main areas: the introductory metropolis and its slums, a verdant planet being ravaged by mining and populated by indentured teddy bear creatures, and an asteroid segmented into a rusty wild west town on the rock’s surface, a bustling population center underneath, and an art deco hookah lounge where humans are being consumed for their psychedelic properties. Because there are few places to visit, the maps tend to be sprawling and designed with great verticality. While you have an objective marker to help you get around during guided missions, revisiting these locations can be tedious at times as there’s no in-game map available. Additionally, revisiting areas won’t be efficient until you’ve unlocked the jetpack, which arrives just a bit too late into the game for my taste.
While the number of areas is limited, building out each of these worlds is where the game really excels. Colorful NPCs, televised media, and the occasional popular franchise restaurant all litter each corner of space and deliver on the game’s fundamental ethos. As mentioned earlier, you’ll either find this style grating or refreshing according to your tolerance for absurdity and nastiness. Make no mistake, this game is not afraid to get downright weird and is continually punctuated by meta-humor, acknowledging design quirks that we’ve come to expect from many video games while simultaneously capitulating to the time-honored traditions.
All said, there’s a good chance you already know whether or not High on Life is for you. This game wears its heart on its sleeve, even if the schtick occasionally wears thin. However, if you can look past all the surface-level traits and unrelenting dialogue, the boss fights might be worth sprinting through the campaign, as it’s a fairly short game absent any diversions. Overall, High On Life is a joyful space escapade that breathes life into its worlds by delivering a distinct brand of low-brow and observational humor.
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