I am very sober during my hands-on preview with High On Life, a fast and loud first-person shooter from Squanch Games, and for once, that’s a bad thing. If I showed up to any other game preview absolutely blitted out of my mind, it might be an issue–but here, it’s preferred. When I suggest, half-jokingly, that this game is best played high, art director Mikey Spano nods and says, “Exactly. It’s in the name.”
High On Life is a first-person shooter from developer Squanch Games, the brainchild of Justin Roiland (Rick and Morty) that has a few games under its belt (including 2019’s Trover Saves The Universe). Naturally, as a Roiland by-product, your guns incessantly talk at you in this game–so much so that the reaction to its Gamescom trailer was a mix of excitement from Rick and Morty fans and cringe fatigue. But these talking guns also have a variety of different abilities and uses. You’ll need to swap between them in order to successfully kill bounties–and you’ll need to kill those bounties to help save humanity from aliens who are literally getting high off of the human race.
High On Life’s sections are organized by the bounties you’re tasked with taking out: the protagonist’s house, now invaded by aliens, is a central hub from which you can travel to far-off planets. I’m dropped into the game during the pursuit of one of those bounties, but before I step through a glowing purple portal that’s sitting catty-cornered in the living room of a bog-standard middle class American home, I decide to explore a bit.
A blobby, slimy alien sits on the couch watching Tammy and the T-Rex on TV. Yes, Squanch Games has procured the rights to play the entirety of a schlocky 1994 flick starring the late Paul Walker as a high school kid who dies and whose brain is put inside of a fucking T-Rex. “You get an achievement if you watch the whole movie,” community lead Jordyn Halpern tells me. There are several other B movies available to watch in High On Life, just in case you get too high and decide actually playing the game is a bit overwhelming.
But remember, I’m sober, so I walk through the portal and am transported to a planet run by an alien cartel; its surface all reddish-brown dust and industrial structures in various states of despair, its underground all neon-soaked buildings and freaky-looking aliens spouting off stammering diatribes, as if BladeRunner had sex with, well, Rick and Morty. “Alex Robbins, our narrative director, did such a good job writing this grounded story that makes all the other stuff funnier, because if everything is silly nothing is silly. That’s the same with the art style, if everything is crazy colorful you don’t notice it anymore, so we were very careful to spend our resources where it matters,” Spano explains.
On the surface level of this surprisingly grounded planet, a collection of alien construction workers shout curses at me in New York Italian-American accents while I platform around. A dude named Ole Wet Grundy (who tells me this moniker was bestowed upon him because he constantly pisses himself) instructs me on how to get to the underground area. Before the gatekeeper will let me down there, however, I have to clean up the surface by ridding it of some alien cartel guys, all of whom have bizarrely juicy butts. “I always make sure the characters have cute little butts,” Spano assures me. “If they don’t have butts, I make sure they have buttholes.”
The gunlay and movement mechanics feel surprisingly good and lovingly retro, like an Xbox 360 shooter you picked up at GameStop in 2007 because it had obnoxiously colorful cover art and surprisingly end up blowing through it in an entire, hazy weekend. Each gun has a different use-case, and as I fight my way to the boss I discover that swapping between them makes for some fun variety–and also gives you a reprieve if you find their chatter particularly grating (the one that sounds like Morty gets old fast).
There’s a Metroidvania aspect to High On Life that most reminds me of Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order. Every gun has a unique secondary fire that can help you platform your way to hard-to-reach loot chests, but you’ll have to return to certain areas after you’ve obtained all of the guns in order to do so. It’s a nice added bit of replay value that, when coupled with Warp Discs, give High On Life some extra depth.
Warp Discs are little game add-ons you can buy from the in-universe black market and use at random locations during your travels. They’ll warp in a sort of mini game into the map, like Cutie Town, which I encounter during my playthrough. Cutie Town is exactly as it sounds: a miniature town with a cute little dude attached to several balloons floating above it–but once you step into that town, chaos ensues. I won’t spoil it for you, because it actually did get a genuine laugh out of me.
High On Life’s Roiland brand of humor transports me back to college in the late aughts, where I did nothing but get astronomically high and play Call of Duty: Black Ops or watch early iterations of viral YouTube videos. As I play, I can’t help but long for the feeling of fuzziness that comes from taking a few puffs of a spliff, or digesting a delicious THC gummy. Even though several shocked barks of laughter escape me during my playthrough, I’m sure I’d be just as hyped as some of the “rabid fans” Spano tells me about if I was a little bit blitted. This game has all the rambling diatribes and random, explicit asides you’d expect from a Roiland production, which naturally slaps harder when you’re either 21 or very, very stoned.
Sobriety aside, High On Life’s trailers may have actually done it a disservice–you might be wont to dismiss it as yet another piece of media falling under the somewhat grating Roiland umbrella, but it offers a uniquely nostalgic take on the FPS genre that is surprisingly inspired. The gun-based platforming that encourages you to return to its freaky little worlds coupled with its rock-solid combat means High On Life isn’t just a game full of chatty, cursing guns and occasionally cringe humor. With Squanch Games existing untethered to any larger game developer, the team has a surprising amount of leeway to make the game they want–the only “big man” they’re reporting to is Roiland, who finds all this shit hilarious.
“I just wish there was other silly, indie stuff out there, and the only way that happens (with the exception of Devolver, who does lots of cool stuff) is if it’s self-funded,” Spano explains. “Otherwise there’s no way you’re gonna get money to make a weird game…but we’re not on the hook for anybody, we can make the games that we want to make. I think that’s what gonna make this stand out, it can go up against something like Call of Duty in terms of graphical fidelity–it’s obviously not as polished as Call of Duty, but it’s up there with some of the AAA games.”
High on Life drops December 13 for PC and Xbox. Brilliantly, it’s tied to Xbox Game Pass, which will give any members interested in its take on the FPS genre a chance to try it out for free. Weed not included.