It must be risky pitching a comical experience to a publisher. Humour is vastly subjective – it can take all sorts to make an individual laugh, be it something clever, droll, sarcastic, or crude. Then there’s the matter of humour not travelling well, or being impossible to translate into different languages. Indeed, the fact that High on Life has received a Japanese release comes as a surprise – hats off to whoever translated the game’s multitude of sex and drug references. Perhaps someone tracked down the crack team behind the Japan-only Beavis & Butthead in Virtual Stupidity on PlayStation.
With this in mind, you can see why some publishers may wince when a developer pitches a humorous experience. It does, of course, help if your title is closely associated with a billion-dollar franchise. This sci-fi first-person shooter comes with Squanch Games, founded by Rick & Morty creator Justin Roiland. While not tied to Rick & Morty directly, it’s clearly intended to appeal to the same audience. With such a large following, its success was almost guaranteed.
But this does, of course, mean that those who don’t find Rick & Morty amusing will also likely find that High on Life’s brand of humour won’t align with their own. It won’t take long to discover if this is the case – the game’s main weapon, Kenny, is a talking alien lifeform that may as well be a pocket-sized Morty, voiced by Justin Roiland likewise. Moments of solitude in High on Life are rare; Kenny is essentially your wingman, explaining the finer points of the plot, cracking jokes, making observations, providing guidance, and occasionally going off on tangents.
Kenny is soon joined by other talking aliens that double-up as weapons, and yes, they do bicker between themselves. Even when they aren’t equipped, they may still pipe up. This concept isn’t as unique as it may seem – Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath also had alien lifeforms as weaponry. The near-constant chatter isn’t too detrimental to the experience. The Gatlians, as they’re known, have their own personalities, with Creature and Gus both being surprisingly sincere. Knifey – who has an insatiable bloodlust – is pretty obnoxious, being the most annoying of all, but he only takes the limelight during the game’s opening. After that, they mercifully settle down.
Casual drug use is the focal point of the storyline, which may be a divisive subject too. A cartel has discovered that inhaling humans via a “hyperbong” is the ultimate way to get high, resulting in an invasion of earth. After stumbling across Kenny, our unlikely hero – an avid video gamer – finds themselves tasked with taking down a hierarchy of gang leaders, with just a hand-me-down space suit to save their skin.
They aren’t alone in their quest, with their sister Lizzie and a washed-up, legless, alien bounty hunter known as Gene turning a freshly teleported suburban home into a makeshift HQ. Gene provides new alien tech and info in return for lodging, while Lizzie adds a touch of humanity to the proceedings.
Upon stepping foot outside you’re ushered into a vibrant alien cityscape, with shops, kooky-looking aliens, eye-catching billboards, and more intricate background detailing than you can possibly take in during a single playthrough.
After a dramatic opening hour, it soon settles into a formula of heading to different alien planets and killing a gang leader, garnering new tech and alien weapons along the way. New tech allows you to revisit past areas and explore further, meaning you’ll be visiting the same three settings over the game’s 10-12 hour duration, only with new means of traversal in tow. The gang members are appropriately outlandish, bordering on eccentric, and each boss battle is different from the last thanks to having some sort of twist or gimmick.
As you’d expect, there are lots of long set-ups for jokes and countless visual gags to take in along the way. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh a few times. Not every joke hits home though, with a lot of the seemingly improvised lines failing to raise even a grin. The scripted stuff – especially the lengthier set-ups – tends to have a higher success rate. Rick & Morty’s notoriously/purposely terrible intergalactic TV also resurfaces here. Gene is fond of channel surfing, and if you’re so inclined, you can join him on the sofa to watch a handful of shorts and full-length movies – including 1994’s Tammy and the T-Rex, in all its 5.3 IMDb glory.
Indeed, there’s plenty to distract between missions. Locations are packed full of artwork including graffiti, adverts, and faux movie posters. NPCs are everywhere and usually have something to say, and the city hub-world has optional areas and a missable bonus quest. Occasionally busy work takes place between missions, with one gang member calling for a spot of detective work to find.
Although some boss battles are a tad predictable, the vibrant game world, novel premise, oddball cast, and twisted humour manage to amalgamate into something vivid and memorable. But as a shooter, High on Life falls a little flat. The Gatlians act as different weapons (pistol, shotgun, grenade launcher, and a take on Halo’s Needler) and each also has a secondary fire mode that’s sometimes used for traversal or to progress, but even so, there isn’t much encouragement to swap between weapons mid-battle. You’ll likely find yourself flicking between just two.
The AI is par for the course – comparable to similar games, but nothing we haven’t seen before. Enemies warp in, sometimes teleporting an entire base onto the battlefield, and then make a dash to your location. Snipers are easily dealt with using the default weapon, and shielded enemies simply require a jab from Knifey.
Some enemies are coated in a yellow goo which disintegrates when shot. Presumably, this was to make combat more visceral, but instead, it simply looks…odd. The ragdoll physics are a little ropey too. I think the team may have needed more time to tinker and experiment here, seemingly having spent the majority of the time on the traversal mechanics instead – all of which are mostly smooth and easy to use. Outside of combat, traversal is where the biggest challenge lies, with our hero able to swing and ride overhead rails, in addition to creating makeshift platforms. Collectable chests can be found within the environments, some calling for daring feats to reach.
High on Life is easily Squanch Game’s most ambitious title to date – something obvious within seconds of leaving your bounty hunter HQ for the first time. There are signs though that the team bit off more than they could chew, with a slight lack of polish evident. The final half an hour, in particular, has a whiff of ‘rush job’ about it – especially when compared to the opening sequence. Shortcomings aside, this is still something the developers can be proud of, often making you forget it was created by a relatively small team.
As a game headhunted by Microsoft to be a Game Pass headliner, it isn’t quite as valuable to the service as Forza Horizon 5 or Halo Infinite. The association with Rick & Morty, together with its divisive subjects, earmarks it to become a cult classic, much like The Ascent, The Gunk, and (perhaps, in time) Scorn before it. Problem is, it’s launching at a time when Microsoft should be bringing out the big guns. A catalogue with a few cult classics is perfectly acceptable – even admirable – but it needs to be balanced with titles that aren’t as divisive as this too.
Squanch Games’ High on Life is out now on PC and Xbox Series.