High on Life (XOne) - ReviewStephen LaGioia , posted on 14 January 2023 / 1,863 Views
High on Life is one of those games that you’ll either “get” or you won’t — thanks largely to its crude, off-the-wall humor. As Squanch Games’ founder is also behind the wild sci-fi comedy Rick and Morty, it will mostly be those fans for whom the zany themes and rhetoric really land. As I count myself among this fanbase, the game did provide some yuks — among the most in gaming this side of the South Park RPGs. While verging on obnoxious at times, High on Life is rife with funny moments and wackiness. The actual gameplay? Well, that’s a different story. Sure, I enjoyed bouts of the campy sci-fi motifs and the Borderlands-meets-Sunset Overdrive (with a dash of Metroid Prime) vibe. But its simplistic, repetitive nature, and technical rough spots, dampened what could have been a truly memorable romp.
At its core, High on Life is a straightforward Metroidvania shooter, with an equally simple — yet amusing — plot aiming to satirize sci-fi and gaming tropes. The premise? An alien drug cartel called G3 has invaded earth in order to use earthlings as living, walking drugs, making the game’s cheeky title more clever than it lets on. Interrupted from playing a rather hilarious Doom spoof in which you’re guided by your divorce lawyer, you (the unnamed “Bounty Hunter”) are called upon to help. The narrative is over-the-top and cheesy, though this is no doubt intentional, and it does actually give way to an amusing twist ending.
You’re assisted by the alien Gene, who takes residence on your couch and watches a few obscure (real) films, along with humorous original cartoon shorts courtesy of Squanch founder Roiland and company. You’re spurred into instant action as you and your sister are transported, house and all, to the center of a colorful, bustling alien town. First, you’re granted the ex-bounty hunter Gene’s old suit, which is initially chock-full of hilarious pop-up ads that obscure your vision. You're soon given your first talking gun, which is essentially the “Morty” character from Rick & Morty, awkward rambling and all. The experience only gets wilder, and often more humorous, from there.
Given the surface-level gameplay and spotty performance, the comedy has to carry much of the weight throughout. As a whole, Squanch Games succeeds on this front. Still, even when it comes to these strengths, it can get overly silly and borderline irritating. This is the case even as a Rick and Morty fan who likes the show’s unique brand of thoughtful, witty humor mixed with crude, juvenile gags and goofiness. High on Life definitely stresses the sillier, more random side of Roiland’s humor, which often works, though not always.
I admit to laughing quite a bit at, say, the lazy (clearly improvised) fake Arby’s commercial on TV. With this and many other zany broadcasts, I was instantly reminded of an R&M favorite of mine, "Interdimensional Cable." I got some chuckles being reprimanded by my Morty gun for shooting a kid bully, and reading satirical forum posts on my bounty hunter suit browser. I got a kick out of pretending to do paperwork at rapid speed while earning high scores, retro arcade style. I found the running gag of my sister dating an alien amusing, along with an exposition scene at a “Space Applebees.”
Most of the truly funny bits are more peripheral, like the aforementioned TV programs, NPC side banter, and other more subtle inclusions. You can even watch an obscure decades-old horror film alongside three aliens who chime in with funny quips, Mystery Science Theater style. Your main pistol, the Morty-sounding gun that’s actually named Kenny, prattles on quite a bit, which loses its luster rather fast. In a welcomed feature, though, you can dial back his banter or turn it off, along with the various other bits of chatter throughout.
This brings us to the gameplay itself. Does it hold up? Partly, but notably less than the comedy element. For one, that actual campaign comprises but a dozen hours, with at least a few hours likely taken up by listening to cheeky dialogue, reading text blurbs, and watching video clips that play at your house and broadcast through Blim City. High on Life grants just a handful of quasi-open regions to explore, albeit colorful and distinct ones. These range from a lush jungle to an alien slum to an industrial mining zone. Each ends with a unique, chaotic boss fight as you square off with alien crime lords. You’re given just a few anthropomorphic guns during this journey, as well as a sadistic talking knife that enjoys stabbing a bit too much...
While lacking in quantity, the game’s few guns provide quite a bit of “character” on multiple levels. Aside from the rambling pistol Kenny, there’s the friendly shotgun Gus, the crude Needler-esque Sweezy, and the bizarre Creature, who fires small DoT blobs. Each of these “Galatians” has its place and mostly yields satisfying gunplay in its own way. Gus is great for beefier, up-close foes, while Kenny can pelt smaller, more distant targets with (relative) efficiency. However, it’s the alternative fire that I usually found more fun.
Each gun comes with a nifty limited-use ability that helps you overpower baddies more easily and perform other feats. Gus, for instance, comes with a satisfying disc shot, which slices through smaller baddies. Kenny’s grenade-esque “Glob Shot” can be fired from his “trick hole” to blast enemies in the air, which can then be juggled by continuing to shoot them in the air. This makes for a fun little game-within-a-game; one I found myself enjoying and using quite a bit to ensure the pesky foes stayed down. Still, it can be tough to pull off effectively given the fairly slow-firing, imprecise shots of Kenny — and frankly of most weapons.
Most abilities are cleverly incorporated into map traversal as well. This gives a dash of puzzle gameplay and Metroidvania-style exploration, as you’ll occasionally hit an area that can’t be reached until gaining said ability. For example, Sweezy can blast forcefield bubbles that slow time in their vicinity for a bit, allowing you to clear obstacles like spinning fans. Gus’ Disc Shots serve as climbable platforms. Kenny’s Glob Shot can knock down retracted platforms which clear the way for you. The knife doubles as a grappling device, allowing you to swing and coast around to hard-to-reach spots. But the mechanics of the grapple proved a bit wonky in my experience, perhaps contributing to a bout of motion sickness that forced me to take a game break.
You can also gain access to “Luglox” chests, which you can slice open to score currency, upgrades, and other goodies. Bounty Hunter upgrades range from a mid-air dash/dodge, to health boosts, to a neat jetpack. You can load up your guns with boosts like bouncing shots, as well as quicker reloads and ability recharge rates. These features help flesh out an otherwise fairly shallow experience with a bit more depth and variance.
It doesn’t help that the gunplay, while bringing bouts of excitement, grows repetitive at times. You're hit with a few waves of mostly the same baddies at various points of the stage, many of which run around maniacally, shouting things at you. You’ll often need to wipe out each creature before the game allows you to progress. And finding out how to press on proved a tad trickier than I’d expect given the more linear, straightforward nature of the maps. The simplistic, occasionally wonky waypoints at your disposal didn’t always help, either. At times, I struggled to find a lone G3 alien or two in the distance who refused to approach me. Still other times, a wave of several foes would make a b-line right at me, forcing me to scramble and regroup. Things like this produced an erratic, inconsistent sense of pacing.
With that said, the combat brought some mindless fun as a whole, especially when blasting or stabbing aliens in their large cycloptic eyes. Boss fights offered the real challenge for the most part, with each hitting you with two or three sets of moves and phases. Unfortunately, this is where one of the more notable bugs came into play for me, as the second boss - the burrowing Krubis - decided to bail on me and never reappeared. I spent roughly five minutes wandering about before realizing this was not a prolonged phase-shift, but rather a glitch, which forced me to restart the fight.
It’s no secret by now that High on Life comes with a smattering of tech issues and bugs that can bog down the experience like alien goop. These include: choppy frame rates, getting stuck or slipping off geometry, oddly behaving AI, and long respawning load times (though in fairness I did play on an Xbox One X). And with gameplay that’s rather average and scant anyway — there's no multiplayer and little to do outside core campaign missions — these issues don’t do the game any favors. It should be noted that a patch has been released which reportedly ironed out some of the more major issues, like a bug that apparently got you stuck at Space Applebees.
While I stress sheer gameplay over presentation, narrative, or themes, it was ironically these peripheral traits that stood out the most for me here. High on Life is wild, sleek, colorful, and at times hilarious. And I did have some moments of fun firing away at the pesky G3 targets, especially in combination with weapon abilities. However, I typically got more amusement watching the funny animated clips or listening to random NPC banter than blasting my way through the countless alien hordes. Even with regard to the comedy, the game does try a little too hard to be funny at times, and the gags don’t always land. Squanch Games is certainly onto something when it comes to the satirical motifs laced with chaotic action, but the formula could use some refining and further fleshing out.
This review is based on a digital copy of High on Life for the XOne
I played on Series S, and I didn't notice any lengthy load times or any struggles maintaining the frame rate. So I think upgrading from One X to Xbox Series would solve both those problems.
Good review! Many reviews missed that you could customize the level of banter, for one.