High on Life is high on its own supply. It's rare to see a video game as self-assured as this – with the development team at Squanch so confident in its vision that it's willing to blow past conventional wisdom and settle for astral strangeness. The dedication to the bit is palpable throughout. Whether it's from the artists, who have birthed a vibrant universe that could charitably be described as Blade Runner by way of Jim Henson; the design team, who has taken a shot at building a Metroid Prime-style shooter on a far smaller budget than Nintendo would ever assign to such a creative endeavor; or the eclectic comedians staffing the writers' room, who could care little about anything besides filling every conceivable second of silence with sound.
Release date: December 13, 2022
Platform(s): PC, Xbox Series X, Xbox One
Publisher: Squanch Games
Subversive alien worlds teeming with distractions is the result. You can barely move without some oddity vying for your attention, and what's incredible is that it's only infrequently irritating. Billboards run endless, enduringly entertaining advertisements for strange in-universe products and services. A trio of trenchcoat creatures peddle warp insurance, weird goop, and alien ejaculate; a gallon of the stuff permanently, regretfully assigned to my inventory. The HUD is bombarded by spam pop-ups and donation requests for local political campaigns, even as you're neck-deep in combat. TV sets broadcast fully-scripted game shows and forgettable feature films; I suspect that the 82 minutes I decided to spend watching 1994's Tammy and the T-Rex (starring a young Denise Richards and Paul Walker) with Gene the paraplegic bounty hunter is time that I will never get back. Nor the hour I spent making prank calls on an intergalactic telephone. There's an Achievement permanently tied to my account now that claims I spent "15 hours at the very real in-game alien strip club" which, to all my friends and family who may one day read this High on Life review, I promise that this isn't true.
Where High on Life should collapse in on itself is with its talking weapons. The knife that is horny for blood, the launcher firing its children into combat, the pistol vehemently demanding that you shoot gloop from its trickhole, and so I could go on. As you begin collecting bounties on leaders of the G3 Cartel you gradually accrue an arsenal of big personalities, and they are as eager to assist in combat as they are to start chopping it up with every strange alien you encounter across three expansive hub worlds. The Gatlins are archetypal weapons, yes, but also stuttering, stammering stand-ins for a silent protagonist who is attempting to save their civilization from being harvested as HyberBong fuel by the space mafia.
Weird and wonderful
It's a compelling twist on the squad dynamic typically employed by action games. A little louder and more intrusive than the setup you may see in something like a Gears of War or Mass Effect? For sure. But High on Life makes the best of a bold creative decision. Some of the funniest jokes are off-hand contextual comments made as you strafe and shoot your way through frantic firefights, desperately cycling between complaining weapons as you attempt to crowd-control giant ants, eliminate flying drones, and take down yellow-suited Cartel thugs as they warp into open-ended battlefields. High on Life never quite strays into bullet-hell territory, but a strand of the genre's DNA can be found here and it makes for combat that prioritizes reaction over precision.
That's for the best, as combat is one area that would benefit from further refinement. While each of the four primary guns has clear utility, only one – Kenny, the starring starting pistol voiced by Justin Roiland – is truly dependable. Gus, a shotgun voiced by JB Smooth, lacks any real discernible kick; while Creature, the launcher voiced by Tim Robinson, and Sweezy, the armor-piercing pistol played by Betsy Sodaro, have such esoteric feedback loops that it can be difficult to truly track their effectiveness once the screen starts crawling with enemies. This issue is particularly pronounced in the eight boss battles which underpin the adventure – largely flat encounters which have big ideas and routine execution.
Combat is the weakest of the three foundational pillars of High on Life's design, a palate cleanser to the fun planetary exploration and delightful world-building you find within. You'll make return trips to three sectors, each expanding in scope as you gain new equipment. Exploring these spaces is a true delight, with countless small jokes and hundreds of hidden chests strewn across the strange geometries; these chests reward you with money which can be spent on upgrades for both your guns and suit, allowing you to further fine-tune your playstyle. While investing time in exploration does occasionally reward you with utterly wonderful comedy vignettes, I can't help but wish there were more to discover out there in the wild – more collectibles, or even audio logs, to build out the worlds and the creatures that inhabit them.
The desire for more surmounts the further you push into High on Life. While the main narrative thrust is certainly fun, and full of surprises and smart subversions of genre tropes, the story does land flat on its face by the end. While the 'B-story' which tracks your sister and her attempt to date an alien, and the 'C-story' following Gene and government officials, fail to resolve in a satisfactory fashion. Then again, all things considered, it's surprising that High on Life works as well as it does. It's incessantly loud, frequently unhinged, incredibly funny, and an intergalactic trip that is absolutely worth taking.
High on Life was reviewed on PC, with a code provided by the publisher.