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High On Life: The Kotaku Review

The latest from Justin Roiland’s Squanch Games is as chatty and cursey and gross as an episode of Rick and Morty, but a whole lot longer
<i>High On Life</i>: The <i>Kotaku</i> Review
Screenshot: Squanch Games / Kotaku
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I’m about four hours into High On Life and I have a migraine. It’s unfair to say that the game has given me one—I am, after all, notoriously prone to them—but it certainly isn’t helping. The brightly colored, gloopy, blobby alien worlds and incessant chatter from NPCs, enemies, and my weapons aren’t exactly a soothing salve for an aching head, but I’m determined to forge on.

So, I decide to heed the dev’s advice and play the rest of High On Life while out-of-orbit high, and hit up my delivery service to secure the goods. High On Life is exactly what you’d expect in terms of plot, narrative, and humor from Squanch Games’ creator Justin Roiland (who also makes Rick and Morty): aliens have come to Earth to smoke human beings like meth and get high off of them, and you (a suburban teen whose visage you choose from a few faces shown in a mirror covered in coke lines) gotta become an alien bounty hunter to kill off the cartel members hell-bent on turning your species into their next designer drug. There are jokes about cum and buttholes, and jiggly, bouncing tits attached to little aliens in overalls. Everything is gloopy and globby and a little bit icky, from the guns you hold in your hand to the bosses you have to take down.

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High On Life Gameplay

Speaking of: A washed-up former bounty hunter named Gene is your sort-of trainer on this journey to kill off the G3 cartel. Sure, he is glued to your couch for the entirety of the game watching B movies like Tammy and the T-Rex and jacking off, but whenever you return to your childhood home that’s been transported to an alien city, he’s there, ready to say something asinine before pointing you in the direction you’ll need to go next: nab a bounty at the alien portal that’s sitting in your living room, head to a pawn shop to fetch a jetpack, the usual.

High On Life's Stabby stabbing an alien ant
High On Life’s Stabby has an Aussie accent and gets a sexual thrill from killing
Screenshot: Squanch Games / Kotaku

Each one of your chatty weapons (you can adjust how much they talk in the menus, don’t worry, though I doggedly refuse to in self-flagellation), has different abilities and use-cases. In a Metroidvania like High On Life, that means you can use new weapons in old locations to reach areas you couldn’t before. The reward? Some credits which you can use to upgrade your guns or a gross little collectible that goes in your inventory, but mostly completionist satisfaction. That and the platforming itself, which is surprisingly enjoyable and hefty.

Past mid-game when I’ve got a jetpack and magnetic boots, the platforming really sings. I can use my grappling hook to soar across neon acid lakes, shoot a disc from my J.B. Smoove gun and jetpack up to it to reach extreme heights, and run along a magnetic wall while firing my knock-off Natasha Lyonne gun.

The guns are also a pleasant surprise, even if the combat itself can all too often be same-y, with just a few enemy types to rotate through during each encounter. I find that I swap between almost every gun in every firefight, whether it’s the Morty-eque pistol, the SMG that reminds me of a Halo needler, or the gun that shoots little alien kids who can latch on and gnaw enemy faces. Switching between them adds some much-needed variety to the combat, and helps keep it from feeling too stale.

During High On Life’s leaner combat moments that don’t feel like the game is just opening up the same two doors to send out the same three enemy types, there’s an almost Doom: Eternal-like quality at play. But this doesn’t happen enough, and that’s a bummer.

I return to High On Life to try it out in a different state of mind. I’m at the hub planet where the protagonist’s home has been transported, wandering around it for the first time, looking at all the level art that I’ve been blowing by for the last four hours in an attempt to make some headway (Kotaku received a review code rather late on Friday evening, as we were previously warned of by a rep for Squanch Games).

A voice emanates from the monitors scattered about the hub. Rather than tuning it out—which I started doing about an hour into the game—I am transfixed by it. A globby, pink alien (which could describe nearly every character in High On Life, save for the weird growth sticking out of this one’s back) is asking for someone to please fuck it. “My entire species died out twenty years ago, and I haven’t been fucked since,” he says. That growth is, apparently, his genitals. This is, according to him, The Lil Sick Lil Fuck Show. I cackle. Okay, fine, you got me.

High On Life gun
High On Life’s guns sure love to curse
Screenshot: Squanch Games / Kotaku

Unfortunately, I reach a mental stalemate—no matter how high I get, the sheer amount of dialogue piles up in my mind until I can’t find anything funny, I just want every character to leave me be, including a floating, screaming, wailing alien who follows me around the majority of an entire level. When I reach a point where I need to do detective work in an attempt to find my next bounty, or engage in yet another mediator session between my in-game character’s sister and the couch-surfing Gene, the incessantly long dialogue sections make my leg start anxiously jiggling, which is something I haven’t really done since high school math class.

This is quintessential Roiland humor: Drag out something for so long it starts to make the viewer uncomfortable, then drag it out a little longer until they start to uncomfortably laugh, then drive that laughter home with a dash more discomfort—see, now it’s hilarious. But whereas this formula works (mostly) well in a 22-minute-long Rick and Morty episode, by the time I’m several hours into High On Life, every line of dialogue makes it clear that somehow, I am not high enough.

As I’m sitting with my head in my hands while yet another NPC drones on, I remember something art director Mikey Spano said during my hands-on: “I think we’re in the contenders for most dialogue ever.” That, along with the curses, grumbles, and stammerings of Roiland and Roiland-adjacent voice actors, rings in my head like the voice of Sauron for the rest of my High On Life experience. And yet, still, I doggedly refuse to adjust the dialogue settings. This is how the game was originally designed and marketed, and I will accept it as such.

When the game shuts the fuck up, there are some genuinely funny moments. The Morty gun stammering over how to pronounce ‘Marlboro’ is a good bit, and I’m (naturally) a fan of all the Italian references and Italian-coded characters jammed into this game. A random location on the main hub planet called Little Shitaly had me giggling, and anytime Roiland pulls out a stereotypical New York accent, I can’t help but smile. There are some celebrity cameos that will have you doing the Leonardo DiCaprio pointing meme at your screen, as well. If you’re on the fence about this game, remember that it’s on Xbox Game Pass, and at least worth an attempt at a playthrough. The humor may not click with you, but it’s not meant to appease everyone.

But although High On Life pointedly prods at cliche game design choices like quest-giving NPCs, clue-finding missions, and recycled level layouts (we heard that Kotaku shoutout), and shows off some unique gameplay elements that feel genuinely inspired, the bulk of this game is not reinventing the wheel. There are aspects that I wish were pushed a little bit further, chances that could have been taken that would really sell the whole meta game vibe—the warp discs, which let you warp in random worlds like Cutie Town and an alien traffic jam, are a great way to spice up what is often a pretty typical level layout. But they can’t be used in that many places, and there aren’t all that many just yet (though I should note Spano did suggest there will be more to come post-launch).

There are also quite a few bugs, though a day-one patch on PC and a soon-to-come patch on Xbox may fix that. Several times, however, I was forced to reload a previous checkpoint because a bug had launched my character high above the level, or an enemy had glitched through the floor and I couldn’t progress without killing them.

High On Life, like Rick and Morty, walks up the precipice of revelation, opens its fly, and pisses into the chasm. It’s fucking funny to almost do something different in form and function just to pull away at the last second, isn’t it? You thought we really gave a fuck, didn’t you? Fucking idiot. Here’s a fart.