High On Life - An Underwhelming Overdose (Review)
High on Life Released: December 13, 2022 Developer: Squanch Games Publisher: Squanch Games Systems: PC, Xbox One, Xbox XS (reviewed)
There’s an interesting challenge inherent to reviewing a game like High on Life, or indeed any creative endeavor so steeped in self-referential “meta” humor. If you encounter a flaw in the production - be it inconsistent writing, an irksome gameplay system, or even a glaring bug - you may not know what’s a genuine mistake or what was intended as a parody. This is the challenge of sincerity versus satire.
When a game regularly breaks its fourth wall and revels in parodying the tropes of a medium, what does one take at face value? Do problematic features become justified if the creators did them on purpose to make a point? Does the intent even matter if it results in the lessening of a player’s enjoyment? This blurring of the lines rhetorically works in such a game’s favor - it becomes pretty damn easy to explain away any complaints by saying “it’s meant to do that.”
Case in point, I mentioned in public a bug I’d found while playing this game, and was predictably inundated with responses assuming it had been a planned part of the experience.
Such critical difficulties, luckily, are dialed to Easy Mode with High on Life thanks to one reliable differentiator between the genuine and the joking - if it’s a gag, the game will tell you. It will tell you loudly. It will tell you incessantly. If something hasn’t had attention drawn forcefully to it, then it isn’t being satirical, it’s just fucking up. Subtlety is not this game’s thing. Despite how much comedy it derives from knowing it’s a videogame, it does so little with the knowledge you can easily tell the difference between sincerity and satire. It’s not clever enough for any sort of misdirection, it’s just a game that shouts.
High on Life never shuts the fuck up.
It’s an auditory assault that doesn’t once let up. Even if you restrict the amount your sentient guns talk (yes, that’s a menu option), it won’t stop enemies barking nonsense or NPCs screaming as you drown in 360 degrees of indefatigable banter. The game doesn’t even stop for itself, interrupting its own gibberish on a regular basis! Current dialogue will be cut off by more relevant dialogue because every character has more voice lines than there is distance between dialogue triggers. Relevant speech overwrites previously relevant speech as events outpace the responses to said events. In one extreme example, I found an interactive NPC having an argument, but he didn’t stop yelling after I addressed him - he instead had two sets of audio playing at once, talking to me while simultaneously yelling at somebody else. For bonus points, the character model couldn’t choose between looking at me and looking at the other guy, so he spasmed back and forth the whole time.
High on Life is a game that talks and talks and talks and talks, yet for as much as it speaks, it doesn’t have a damn thing to say.
The premise is quite straightforward - Earth has been taken over by aliens who are turning humans into drugs, so you befriend a living gun with one of the two voices that Solar Opposites writer Justin Roiland knows how to do. You become a bounty hunter and take out the leaders of the genocidal G3 Cartel to save humanity from becoming its latest product. The campaign is stuffed with goofs but not much else, and soon settles into a predictable routine of selecting bounty targets and taking them out while collecting more guns - known as Gatlians - along the way.
A rudimentary first-person shooter carried solely by its comedic trappings, High on Life would be quite unremarkable if it wasn’t propped up by the writing and trademark stuttering of Solar Opposites writer Justin Roiland. A reliance on meta humor eventually works against High on Life as soon as it becomes apparent just how few original ideas it has besides. Its whole schtick is self-awareness but once it gets you thinking about the tropes and stereotypes associated with modern gaming, you realize High on Life is simply employing them all verbatim... and badly to boot.
The Gatlians on offer suggest the initial promise of inventively exotic alien weaponry, but even the most creative guns are simply less effective versions of stuff seen in other games. Your first Gatlian, Kenny, is a simple pistol whose alternate fire lobs a ball of gloop that launches enemies in the air. After hours with this single unexciting weapon you finally find Sweezy, a glorified Needler gun from Halo who has the ability to create time-slowing bubbles. Gus is a cross between a shotgun and a Boglin who can periodically fire ricocheting saw blades. The best Gatlian, Creature, is the Glove of Doom from Ratchet & Clank, firing tiny monsters to fight for you along with an alternate critter that controls enemy minds.
Each weapon’s alt-fire (which they call a “trick hole”) is additionally used in navigation, with Kenny’s Glop Shot pushing obstacles aside, Gus’ blades embedding in certain walls to create platforms, Sweezy’s time bubbles slowing down otherwise lethal fan blades, and Creature’s children squeezing into pipes to open doors for you. While these are fine enough gimmicks, they’re all taken from other games that implemented them better. As basic combat tools, each Gatlian is really rather shit, perhaps some of the weakest weapons an FPS game has ever offered, to the point where your knife (who's also alive) is the most useful thing you have.
Enemies either take a significant amount of damage or are so small and fast they’re hard to hit with such inaccurate, poorly ranged weapons. Only Kenny has a reliable snap-aim function for faster enemies, and even that doesn’t work reliably. Sweezy might be the best damage dealer but her shots are inaccurate and won’t fully hit where the reticle points. Gus has all the drawbacks of an average shotgun with none of the benefits, his limited rate of fire and meager ammo capacity further hampered by a small spread and mediocre damage. On top of that, his added ability to suck enemies closer doesn’t work properly because the momentum catapults enemies past you rather than drops them in your line of fire, effectively giving them a free shot at your back. Creature is the only reliable gun thanks to the automatic consistency of his attacks, but like every Gatlian, the scratch damage you deal is unsatisfying.
Weapon mods and upgrades exist, but they mostly offer very minor changes to the Gatlians’ abilities and at no point make them feel any stronger. At no point did I ever feel like my weapons were improving rather than slightly altering, and even straightforward upgrades like faster reload times barely made a difference to combat. The best part of equipping mods is that it changes a Gatlian’s color, which might not help them work better as weapons but is at least kinda neat.
Enemies are particularly dumb, just swarming you with gunfire or melee attacks while only occasionally taking cover. Most of the game is spent battling a tiny handful of the same mooks over and over, with only a few more challenging variants offered throughout the course of the entire game. Boss fights are formulaic and simplistic affairs that rarely feel different from one another. There’s a general lack of variety on offer that becomes almost as exhausting as the constant banter, especially as you only get four substandard guns for the entire game until you unlock a fifth in the very final - very disappointing - mission.
This lack of complexity, depth, and variety permeates High on Life before exposing it for the charade it is. The sheer amount of audio thrown at you first creates the illusion of a frenetic, dynamic universe where unexpected things happen and memorable interactions will occur. The self-aware writing leads one to think High on Life will play with the interactivity of videogames to create genre-twisting brilliance… but it’s all smoke and mirrors. High on Life has but one trick - it keeps yelling jokes at you in the hopes you won’t realize you’re not interacting with its universe, you’re just listening to it.
You’re hearing the universe happen around you, and it’s a vapid, tiny universe to boot.
Despite setting up for spacefaring adventures where you explore the galaxy, High on Life only offers two major planets, plus a hub world, with a handful of environments apiece, and you’ll be returning to them over and over again. Each location is populated by NPCs and stuffed with background chatter, but these characters mostly stand fixed in place while a couple wander aimlessly. Few characters even actually speak, with most stoically staring at you in silence, serving only to emphasize how shallow everything is. High on Life’s universe is built from cardboard. It’s flat, it’s empty, it’s high on anything but life!
The penultimate boss makes a joke about how you can’t switch controller ports to fight him because they no longer exist - a callback to Metal Gear Solid’s famous Psycho Mantis fight. It’s not a funny joke, but it’s my favorite joke of the whole campaign because it fails so spectacularly as to force a spotlight on the game’s overall failure. In this moment, High on Life doesn’t actually do anything ingenious with the medium, it references the time another game did. Not only that, even the joke itself is perfectly unoriginal - Metal Gear Solid 4 made the exact same gag about the obsolescence of controller ports during a boss fight that recreated, and then cleverly subverted, the original Psycho Mantis encounter.
That’s High on Life’s problem. Right there. Beautifully encapsulated. It does fucking nothing with its self-awareness but regularly reminds you that other games have, which in turn makes its own inaction all the more obvious and disappointing. It thinks referencing more brilliant videogames is enough, which it might almost have been if not for the fact it’s such a flimsy experience in every other way as well.
Also, for a game that never shuts its fucking mouth, High on Life is a terrible communicator.
The objective marker is absolute garbage. It doesn’t show you your actual destination but guides you with dynamic waypoints that move when you approach them. You have to keep manually activating them, they’re onscreen for mere seconds, they’re hard to see, and they’re easily confused. At one point I was given a single destination with two markers - one was set past where the playable portion of the world ended, and the other one kept sending me back and forth up and down the same empty street. I’d later discover the objective was far from either of these two places, and the game just didn’t know how to tell me.
It helps to have a map… or it would have helped, if High on Life had one. It doesn’t. There is no in-game map. There are no real landmarks. There are no written directions. The ever-talkative Gatlians won’t tell you where to go. You have only an inefficient and unreliable ping system to get around. Don’t dare tell me it’s a satire of waypoints, either, because that would make it worse.
Every level is littered with living chests, called Lugloxes, containing money or collectibles. Getting them all requires a fair bit of exploration and platforming, but what the game doesn’t tell you is how many are inaccessible until you get more tools. Sometimes there’s an obvious clue, like a glowing wall, but sometimes there’s naught but bullshit obfuscation. I’ll give you this crucial piece of information for free - there is a jetpack in the game that’s mentioned in one easily missable line hours before you get it, and you can easily waste your time if you don’t know it’s coming. There’s no apparent visual difference between a Luglox that can be reached via carefully observed platforming, and one that can only be reached via an item you don't know when or if you'll actually get. After being conditioned to believe most Lugloxes could be reached via exploration unless there are obvious visual clues, finding out I’d spent ages trying to explore certain areas I needed a jetpack for was utterly galling.
If only this game had, say, a bunch of living guns that commented on literally every little thing you did. Maybe one of them could remind you what you can and can't reach. If only!
What else? Movement controls are sloppy, the HUD is cluttered, and there are plenty of physics glitches, moments where the game forgot dialogue choices I made, and the quick resume function on Xbox is broken for some reason. However, I generally like the humor of Solar Opposites writer Justin Roiland within reason, and while 15+ hours of deliberate obnoxiousness is too much, there are moments I can say I was pretty amused. Not enough to justify everything, but there are some cute goofs. I also love the visual designs of the Gatlians, with their huge eyes and exaggerated facial features carrying genuine appeal for me along with the saturated and lively colors of the environments. This is offset, however, by the fact almost every NPC looks like some weird mutant version of Homer Simpson and they’re very obvious cartoons when seen next to any single human character model since humans are rendered in an art style completely different to everything else.
Despite this review needing to be one long complaint to fully communicate how self-defeating the game is, I didn’t hate it. My time was not spent miserably, and there are enough cute moments to at least justify giving it a “free” spin via Game Pass. It’s just thoroughly unremarkable outside of its audiovisual style, a style that eventually reflects how mediocre every other aspect is.
The most fun I had with High on Life was watching the entirety of Tammy and the T-Rex on an in-game television, and that’s not a compliment. It’s indicative of a game that doesn’t know how to exploit the interactivity of videogames and settles instead on yelling ideas as unsubtly as possible. With its relentless avalanche of jokes and screeches, it’ll talk your ears off but has exactly zero bite to go with its cacophonous barking. Its best ideas are borrowed from elsewhere. Its worst ideas are borrowed from elsewhere. The aggressively layered comedy is a smokescreen for the fact it's got nothing else going for it. It’s a clamorous joke delivery vehicle in which your role as a player is to passively observe and occasionally shoot stuff. You might as well sit down and watch TV.
Y’know, like you did when you played The Darkness in 2007, because there’s nothing this game does that another one didn’t do better.