Update 22/7/2023: High On Life is now also available on PlayStation 5, and while my below review and the recommendation to give this a go on Game Pass to decide if it’s your thing or not still stands, a second playthrough on PS5 has definitely given me mixed feelings.
On the one hand, it’s a touch awkward to hear so much of Justin Roiland’s voice post-everything-that-happened and his unceremonious exit from developer Squanch Games. Obviously it would’ve been an expensive endeavour with little return to go back and retroactively replace him, but I reckon if anyone could have pulled that off with a clever, meta spin it would’ve been the folks at Squanch.
On the other hand, this is still a pretty fun little first-person adventure with splashes of the design chops of the games it riffs on. It can be grating and exhausting, especially on Round 2, but that’s (at least, I hope) a mostly intentional vibe choice that I’ll respect even when it misses more than it hits.
The only downer on the whole PS5 release? Unlike on Xbox and PC, it’s not a part of PlayStation’s subscription service. Instead, it’s a whole $90 – which, whatever your tastes are, feels shockingly steep. Maybe if only by comparison to the value proposition that is Game Pass, but $90 certainly isn’t chump change. If you’re currently rocking Rick and Morty bed sheets and can’t start your mornings without yelling something about being a pickle, you might be fine with forking out for this one. For everyone else, try it out on a different platform or if you can’t do that, wait for a sale.
Comedy must be a tough thing to pull off in video games. When something as crucial to a joke as timing is left almost entirely in the hands of the people consuming it, that’s a challenge. Some of the funniest games I can remember, like The Secret of Monkey Island, Portal 2 and even Katamari Damacy, work by keeping things relatively simple and playing within their respective wheelhouses. High On Life, the latest effort from Squanch Games and led by Justin Roiland of Rick and Morty fame, attempts a kitchen-sink approach to humour and gameplay, throwing high-frequency, high-intensity gags at players with reckless abandon amid a surprisingly solid Metroid-esque action-adventure shooter.
High On Life begins on Earth, casting the player as a regular, human teenager who finds themselves at the centre of an alien plot to kidnap all of humanity and turn them into space drugs at the hands of a group called the “G3 Cartel”. After attempting to call on the help of an alien bounty hunter named Gene, and subsequently discovering that he’s washed up and immobile, it falls on you to become the bounty hunter and take down a growing list of G3 Cartel leaders and save Earth. You won’t be doing it alone either, with the support of Gene and your sister at your home base and an increasing number of sentient, extra-terrestrial guns called “Gatlians” at your side, this is an adventure where you’ll almost always have someone to talk to. Or talking to you, rather. All. The. Time.
In case there was any doubt to be had, this is a game that revels in exactly the kind of humour that Squanch/Roiland are known for. If you’ve ever caught an episode of Rick and Morty and thought, “This isn’t for me”, the same will no doubt apply here. It’s a mixed bag of video game parodies, gross-out sight gags (so many things look like buttholes in this game), profanity, clever subversion of storytelling and gameplay mechanics, more buttholes, and constantly being yelled at.
There are definitely times where the constant grabs for “edginess” manifest in unfunny and mean-spirited gags or toilet humour, but it’s more often than not the delivery that drives the gags home more than the punchlines themselves. Hell, there’s an achievement for buying alien cum from a shady street dealer and finishing the game with it in your inventory (therefore carrying said load to completion). If that crosses your threshold for good taste, good humour or both then you’re probably safe to skip this one.
That said even when High On Life was doing bits that comedic video games coined yonks ago (an intro that parodies early 3D PC shooters, really?) or making me look at yet another weird alien butthole, it’s rare that it didn’t elicit at least a chuckle from me, and there were plenty of genuinely laugh-out-loud situations and one-liners to balance out any duds.
Plenty of players will be reaching for that toggle that lowers the frequency of the chatter of your Gatlian weapons, especially after listening to Roiland’s classic, whiney Morty/Lemongrab voice for hours on end, but a clear stand-out character for me comes in the form of Creature – a Gatlian whose unique ability is to rapidly birth weird, little dudes who can attack enemies or activate switches before quickly dying. Creature doesn’t seem to mind one bit that they’re creating and subsequently ending life with a pace that would make the good Lord blush, mostly praising the joys of never-ending child birth and incredibly short-lived parenthood.
It’s these Gatlians that really make the game unique and interesting from a gameplay perspective, as well. Laid out across a handful of bounties that take players to a variety of biomes from slums to forests and desert towns, High On Life presents players with an eight-plus-hour adventure that offers plenty of opportunity to explore off the beaten path and return to previous areas with new Gatlians and Bounty Hunter Suit upgrades to traverse previously-inaccessibly areas.
It’s familiar territory but it works well in the context and gives Squanch a lot of room to play with genre conventions in their signature, absurdist style, like giving every Gatlian a “Trick Hole” secondary fire mode that matches their personalities. Oh, and a foul-mouthed knife with a thick Aussie accent that loves stabbing. Level designs make good use of the abilities these sentient weapons offer like slowing down time, creating platforms or slingshot-ing to new heights, and it’s genuinely satisfying to puzzle out some of the more well-hidden caches of currency to spend on further upgrades.
Other than exploring, you’ll also spend a lot of your time in High On Life engaged in combat with an admittedly-small selection of generic alien baddies. There are some ant-looking guys, some yellow guys and the odd flying guy, but it really doesn’t amount to much more than the standard shooter enemy fare. Still, there’s some fun to be hand in popping alien heads (complete with a very gratifying sound effect). Playing on the standard difficulty, I was disappointed to realise that strategic use of my entire cohort of Gatlians wasn’t especially necessary, as the pistol-esque mainstay, Kenny, was usually more than enough to take care of all of the standard mobs. Boss fights are a different story, and a definite highlight, with their big personalities and unique and exciting attack patterns making them a ton of fun to take down.
One thing that’s clear when looking at High On Life in comparison to Squanch Games’ older titles like Trover Saves the Universe and Accounting+ is that the production values here are far and above what’s come before. It’s a handsome-looking game, no doubt helped along by the stylised and mismatched design choices that are expected of the studio but still impressive overall for a game of this scope. There’s a nice amount of detail packed into every scene, and it all runs nicely on the Xbox Series X aside from the odd, harmless bug here and there. The game’s voice work naturally features a heap of Roiland, but also ropes in some recognisable voices from across games and TV/movies, including some fantastic cameos.
The only sore spot in the overall package is the game’s background music, which is routinely dull as hell and may as well not feature at all in a lot of places.
Overall, High On Life is a very competent action-adventure shooter that feels good to play and doesn’t ask for too much of your time. The real consideration will be whether or not its specific brand of humour appeals to you. If it does, I would absolutely urge you give the game a go – it’s available through Game Pass on both Xbox and PC, after all. If the answer is a resounding no, on the other hand, then don’t waste your time. This is Squanch firing on all cylinders and that can be… a lot.
High On Life is the most video game-like video game to come from the minds of Squanch and Justin Roiland to date, and it shows the studio is capable of more than just lightly-interactive experiences packed with fart and cum jokes. Though it has plenty of those, too.
Trademark Squanch/Roiland humour will delight those who enjoy it
A very competent take on the action-adventure shooter genre
Fun level design and plenty of secrets and collectibles
Breezy runtime with plenty of opportunities to explore
Distinct visual style and lush environments look and run great on Xbox Series X
Trademark Squanch/Roiland humour will anger those who despise it