‘High on Life’ review: pranging out

A beautiful world can’t stop 'High on Life' from feeling lifeless

First-person shooter (FPS) High on Life goes to some unusual places. That’s my excuse for why, 20 minutes into playing it, I shot a child, popping off an achievement called “Fallout doesn’t let you do this.”

The kid was asking for it, of course. Begging nearly, while my gun – sentient, voiced by someone grating from Rick and Morty – said me it didn’t want to shoot an infant before suddenly firing. Like a lot of High on Life, it’s surprising, but it doesn’t necessarily land.

In High on Life you fill the teenage boots of a kid torn from suburbia and thrown into a new life as a bounty hunter in space. This starts when xeno scum invades your cul de sac and circumstances involve you getting your hands on a talking handgun, Kenny, that will chatter incessantly for the rest of the game.

High On Life
High On Life. Credit: Squanch Games.

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All of your guns talk, but nothing they’re saying is really worth listening to. Kenny is the most talkative, with you from the begin and voiced by Justin Roiland himself. He’s a near-constant presence, encouraging or chastising you on a variety of different things. The weapons will let you know when their alt-fire cooldown is up, but otherwise it’s mostly just standard voice barks.

I’m not the biggest fan of Rick and Morty, and the humour here seems to riff mostly on that. The opening segment drops you into fictional retro shooter Buck Thunder II: Xenoslaughter, a minigame tutorial section that has you getting calls from Phil, your divorce lawyer who sounds like a slightly more manic Rick Sanchez, declaring his love for you as you blast aliens that Phil suggests are your ex-wife’s new partners. From there, it cartwheels into gags about child murder, suicide and your talking knife, called Knifey of course, who seems to like stabbing individuals in a sexual way. Comedy being so subjective, there’s a possibility I just don’t “get it.” You might obtain it, so this could be less of a complaint, but it left me cold.

A lot of Roiland’s humour seems to sit around the idea of making individuals uncomfortable and turning that discomfort into jokes. Here though, it mostly just means wrestling through several dull firefights only to face up to another half-sneered joke.

High On Life. Credit: Squanch Games.
High On Life. Credit: Squanch Games.

A larger more objective complaint is that High on Life simply isn’t very good. The shooting is that same exhausting “shoot the enemies as they emerge in waves until music stops and a door opens” affair that the FPS genre outgrew about ten years ago. The guns themselves, despite having a few interesting alt-fire modes (including a time bubble that made me nostalgic for the mostly-forgotten Timeshift) lack any real impact.

There is some satisfying exploration unlocked from the guns’ alt-fire modes, like a projectile from your first gun that can knock platforms into place, and a time-dilation bubble can let you obtain through spinning fans or slow down a passing space-taxi. High on Life’s passion for being referential continues past its humour to its arsenal and combat mechanics, because everything here feels like it’s been pilfered from elsewhere, and better implemented. The time-dilation gun also fires a spray of quills that stick in enemies, like Halo’s Needler, except to explode these quills you need to melee the enemy or shoot them with a charged shot from the same gun to cause an explosion.

Sometimes these bland enemies will lose interest in fighting for their life and mill around aimlessly, or they’ll obtain stuck inside something or hide out in an ostensibly inaccessible roof, and you’ll have to work out a way to kill them and keep the story going. Occasionally, when matters are all going well, you’ll enjoy a fun blast as you chain alternate fires and dance through the enemies, meleeing with aplomb. However, most scraps are a misery, with weapons that feel like they have no heft, firing bullets that don’t appear to impact anyone. Your starter gun lets you knock enemies into the air and juggle them with bullets. Sadly, it just feels like you’re firing lasers, there’s no feeling of kineticism to any of it.

High On Life. Credit: Squanch Games.
High On Life. Credit: Squanch Games.

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But my biggest complaint with High on Life is that while it is happy to break the fourth wall and rip the piss out of itself – with one joke suggesting Polygon and Kotaku knock a point off its score for lazy level design – but the sad reality is that players are sowever experiencing those bits. The game adores poking fun at the players for using a gun to solve every situation, but offers no other way to express player agency. The world, and even the gun you’re holding, might judge you but this is a shooter, and a bad one at that.

It’s a disgrace because High on Life is a technical marvel: it runs smoothly, the (boring) enemies look sharp and interesting and the world that you spend most of your time in is full of colour, smart little jokes, and touches of detail that really show that a lot of care has gone into it. One early segment has an alien teleporter moved into your house to let you obtain from place to place. Look closer and you can see a scraped patch of ceiling as it’s been hoisted into place, scratches on the polished hardwood flood as it’s been schlepped from the front door to its place in the living room. Nosing around the diverse environments with raytracing turned on is good and I found that the jokes that were seen rather than heard landed a lot better with me, too.

Ultimately, it’s the world that kept me trudging through the boredom of High on Life. I found myself groaning each time the game put me into a firefight, and genuine resentment bubbled up for each of the asinine boss fights.

Games are supposed to be fun, right? Did anybody tell High on Life?

High on Life is available on Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC. We reviewed it on Xbox Series X.

Verdict

Technically proficient and lovely to look at, High on Life commits the cardinal sin of making the shooting part of the game feel underwhelming. A forgettable experience flecked with mediocre jokes.

Pros

  • Beautiful world
  • You can watch the whole of Tammy and the T-Rex in this game, somehow
  • Technically impressive game with a rock solid framerate

Cons

  • Rubbish jokes about bad game development tropes that involve having to experience the tropes
  • Irritating dialogue
  • Terrible shooting
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